The means vs the ends of the War on Terrorism

ajb-war-for-the-middle-east

The implication of Rumsfeld’s diktat was clear: Any state or group or entity actively supporting, inclined to support, or sympathizing with anti-American terrorism was going to have to mend its ways. Rumsfeld’s very first impulse on 9/11 itself was to frame the problem in a broadest possible terms. “Need to move swiftly…go massive—sweep it all up, things related and not.” Without bothering to count heads, going massive implied an encounter with many millions of people in at least a couple of dozen countries, most if not all of them in the Islamic world.

Over the previous two decades, U.S. military involvement in those precincts had amounted to little more than dabbling. According to the Carter Doctrine, to sustain the American way of life it was incumbent upon the United States to ensure the security of the Persian Gulf and its environs. Each of the younger Bush’s predecessors going back to Carter himself had accepted this proposition, as did Bush himself. Yet to this point, each of these predecessors had shied away from engaging in large-scale, ongoing military action. America’s War for the Greater Middle East had lacked seriousness. But that phase had now ended. “If the war does not significantly change the world’s political map,” Rumsfeld wrote President Bush that same month, “the U.S. will not achieve its aim.”

As a military objective, changing the way “they” live possessed a sort of Napoleonic grandeur, either noble or preposterous depending on one’s point of view. Making good on such an ambitious aim, thereby redrawing the world’s political map, implied a willingness to undertake comparably large exertions.

Oddly, however, the Bush administration balked at providing the wherewithal required. In terms of the stakes involved, the global war on terrorism might bear comparison with World War II or the Cold War. But it was not going to resemble those earlier conflicts in terms of national commitment. Undertaking a global war did not prompt President Bush to mobilize the nation. The state would not exact new taxes or expect shared sacrifice. It would not impose conscription. Everyday existence was to continue as usual, the president charging Americans to “enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” The difficulty of imagining Abraham Lincoln during the siege of Fort Sumter or Franklin Roosevelt following the attack on Pearl Harbor expressing comparable sentiments speaks volumes about the Bush administration’s failure to grasp the challenges waiting just ahead. From the outset, in other words, between declared ends and the means available to achieve those ends there yawned a large gap.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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