Hundreds ((typo corrected)), perhaps thousands, of non-combatants have now lost their lives in the name of the “War on Terror”: an ideological construct which now exists solely to grant the American government sweeping war powers on a permanent basis, so that it might fight a diffuse and ever-variable enemy.
The focus here and in the title of the post suggests a peculiar Bush Era inflection, as the Obama Administration conspicuously dropped the phrase “War on Terror” little more than two months after taking office. Since then, the Administration has striven to portray itself as operating strictly under the statutory instruction of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF): “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Resnikoff seems to have adopted the “War on Terror” as his own preferred ideological construct while attributing it to others, the Obama Administration in particular or perhaps the entire military-political superstructure. In short, it is not entirely clear what he means, even and especially after his offer of a definition, and the unclarity on this central question is typical and indicative: Like many other observers more or less on his side of this not very well defined ongoing political argument, Resnikoff seems to want to have his critique in three or so different ways at once.
Read one way, Resnikoff’s conclusion makes a very strong if not the strongest conceivable political accusation. It implies that, in addition to being operative despite what the Obama Administration says, the ideological construct exists “solely to grant… sweeping war powers,” in other words that it is being exploited as some kind of subterfuge in self-aggrandizement of the powerful, at a minimum in an act of bad faith, at the highest levels, with life and death stakes: a form of treason, in a democratic republic. Yet the immediately succeeding phrases seem to confirm a legitimate or at least external purpose of the sort indicated in the AUMF. Resnikoff seems to acknowledge that a real “fight” against a real “enemy” is ongoing. His further qualifying statements return, however, at least part of the way to the former, treasonous implication, since this enemy is “diffuse and ever-variable,” in other words is a somehow false or inadequate enemy. If we assume that a uniquely diffuse and ever-variable enemy could still pose an authentic threat despite its diffusion and ever-variability, then Resnikoff’s description, read non-prejudicially, would justify a unique response, but Resnikoff seems to mean just the opposite. An entity that is diffuse and ever-variable is indistinguishable from a phantom, is not defined at all. To the extent it is neither coherent nor definable, then it is unreal or, the same thing, un-combatable, and so we are back to the non-existence of a real enemy or real fight and a mere ideological construct, or lie, serving the aims of the powerful – unless Resnikoff is making a diagnosis of psychosis, or perhaps of some combination of insanity and evil.
Such a view would be defined in common political parlance as “radical.” It would imply that the “real enemy” is not “the terrorists,” who for all intents and purposes no longer exist as an enemy, if they ever did at all, but the Obama Administration itself or the state that it represents. It may be that Resnikoff holds such genuinely radical views, but is unable to state them clearly on an MSNBC web site. It may be that he was just rushing up a space-limited blog post. Or it may be that his un-clarity is typical of a not yet fully formed or coherent position, a common if not definitional situation for politics: That a position has not been fully thought through does not prevent people from putting it forward, arguing for it strenuously, and even denouncing those who disagree.
Rather than review other, similarly undeveloped statements on or reactions to current counterterror policy, or repeat past efforts at this blog to think about the limitations of a mass liberal-democratic system in relation to war, I will just observe that the Obama Administration, in contrast with many others discussing these issues on the eve of the Brennan confirmation hearings, seems to know quite well where it stands on the most relevant questions: It believes that there was and is a real enemy, adequately identified by the AUMF; that that enemy was and remains the right enemy; and that operations of the sort that Resnikoff and allies oppose have been critically helpful in protecting the American homeland, the first aim, even if the entire effort including those operations has not been completely effective in the sense of fully eradicating the justification for those same operations, and even if a more regularized and reviewable policy process needs to be put in place with the cooperation of Congress.
Furthermore, for the Administration and for many others who claim either classified or expert knowledge, this enemy’s present relatively high “diffusion,” that fact that adds to Resnikoff’s fears of unending war, is an intended result of military operations, including especially the more controversial ones. The Obama Administration’s underlying presumption seems to be that an indefinite low level, more or less remote-operated military campaign is greatly preferable to alternatives, especially any that require intermittent proofs, in the form of new successful major attacks, that the enemy still deserves to be treated as an enemy. The Administration may be on politically very firm ground on this last point, even if it causes some observers to feel like Winston Smith in need of re-education. Dystopian resonances notwithstanding, the claims as a whole make for the moderate pro-militarization position: that a military response to unconventional or terroristic warfare or the mere threat of it is both inevitable and desirable, and that specifically the reinforcement of the president’s Article 2 powers by the 2001 authorization ought to remain in place, if perhaps under elaborated safeguards against misuse.
Those dissatisfied for whatever reasons with this approach do not seem to have consolidated their own principled unity position. When, for instance, Chris Hayes of MSNBC (also Resnikoff’s employer, as it happens) tweets that he has “become increasingly convinced that it should be a top progressive priority to repeal the AUMF,” he is not clearly taking a position on whether or not the AUMF was ever justified, or whether anyone ever deserved designation as a military enemy requiring a response with “all necessary and appropriate force” under presidential discretion. When Hayes says that he is becoming “increasingly convinced,” he seems to mean that he may not yet in fact be fully convinced, either about the political wisdom of repeal as a top priority, or perhaps about the desirability of a full repeal apart from progressive political interests. It is not in fact clear whether he and allies like Resnikoff actually believe that the emergency is definitively over. Perhaps they do believe that the emergency is over, but are not ready to sound the “all clear.”
Hayes (who, after all, was just a tweeting a tweet) also leaves unstated whether the “top progressive priority” is simply to be a full repeal of the AUMF and a return to the status quo ante in law, or a repeal and replacement of the AUMF by a modified, but still “exceptional” or warmaking regime. If progressives and allies believe, or know that they believe, that exceptional measures were justifiable, but went wrong, then an entirely different replacement regime and set of reforms might make sense for them than if they mean to uphold common idealistic rhetoric about “rule of law” mattering more than all other concerns, whatever the costs or risks. If, however, they believe the (former) War on Terror was in fact a self-obviating success, then they might wish to replace the AUMF with a new legal and administrative regime that acknowledges and draws from authentic successes – successful warmaking against a real and legitimate, not simply ideologically constructed enemy – as well as errors.
It seems possible, however, that progressives and would-be allies on these matters do not really know what they think, at least not yet. Such uncertainty may explain why such progressives and allies seem to amount, at present, to a diffuse and variable, at most marginally influential, in fact not very real political force.