The Duck of Minerva

How to Win the War on Terror

13 January 2010

It’s not that earth-shattering – people have been saying this for years – but I haven’t seen it put this well, for mass consumption, in a long time. Phil Bobbitt writing in Newsweek:

It is often asked, “How can we win a war against terror? Who would surrender? How can we make war against an emotion (terror) or a guerrilla technique (terrorism), neither of which are enemy states?” These questions assume that victory in war is simply a matter of defeating the enemy. In fact, that may be the criterion for winning in football or chess, but not warfare. Victory in war is a matter of achieving the war aim. The war aim in a war against terror is not territory, or access to resources, or conversion to our political way of life. It is the protection of civilians within the rule of law.

But Newsweek’s editors seem to have taken a different message from his argument – that it’s impossible to define victory. Instead of taking seriously the idea of how to measure victory on Bobbitt’s terms, their latest issue features a long, admittedly interesting but ultimately distracting conversation about how ambiguous the concept of “victory” is today. That whole discussion misses Bobbitt’s point, I think. Victory on conventional terms is no longer possible in asymmetric wars. Instead of belaboring that, let’s redefine our terms and create some valid metrics to go with them.

More ruminations on that score at Current Intelligence.