- banner1
+ | -

CITIES IN THE 21st CENTURY: A Primer

Book Review

John Matthew Barlow reviews John Lorinc's new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide. Last year marked the first time that the majority of the world's population lived in cities; Lorinc's introduction to the subject offers a timely, and lively, critique of the issues confronting cities and humanity as a whole as we confront this radical restructuring of our way of living in the urban century.

Read more...

  • Cities: A Guide

    Book Review

    John Matthew Barlow reviews John Lorinc's new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide. Last year marked the first time that the majority of the world's population lived in cities; Lorinc's introduction to the subject offers a timely, and lively, critique of the issues confronting cities and humanity as a whole as we confront this radical restructuring of our way of living in the urban century.

    Read more...

  • The Hurt Locker

    Review

    Eric Randolph reviews Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and notes a shift in film-making sensibilities from the war-as-heroics paradigm of earlier Hollywood, towards the everyman's war-as-hell model that has now lodged itself in Western cultural consciousness.

    Read...

  • Architecture & Biopolitics

    Interview

    Berlin-based writer Daniel Miller's October 2008 interview with Swedish philosopher and SITE Magazine Editor-In-Chief Sven-Olov Wallenstein, on his new book Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).

    Read...

  • Wired For War

    Symposium

    The second symposium in CTlab's 2009 series, focused on Peter Singer's new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press: 2009), ran from 30 March to 2 April. Singer and half a dozen scholars from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Austria debated the use and ethics of robots in war.

    Read...

  • DEFCON 17

    Current Intelligence

    Tim Stevens reports back from the DEFCON 17 conference in Las Vegas: are hackers thinking meat isn't just meat anymore?

    Read...

CONTRIBUTORS

Editor: Michael A. Innes // posts // web
Contributor: Matthew Barlow // posts // web
Contributor: Christopher Albon // posts // web
Contributor: Charli Carpenter // posts // web
Contributor: Bradley Evans // posts // web
Contributor: Eric Randolph // posts // web
Contributor: Tim Stevens // posts // web
Contributor: Marisa Urgo // posts // web
Alumni: Kenneth Anderson // Marc Tyrrell

From the Bookstore
Comments
Wednesday
13Jan2010

How to Win the War on Terror

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.

I like this formulation - a lot. I like it because it responds squarely to terrorism itself, rather than terrorists as would-be players on the global stage. I like it because it does not limit its reference to US citizens but to civilians everywhere. But I should add it doesn't quite answer the question posed: what are benchmarks for 'winning'?

The rule of law part is easy. Don't torture; don't arbitrarily detain; don't let invasiveness of security procedures outweigh security gains. But to make that calculation you need metrics of acceptable security gains. You need some basis for declaring that civilians - ours and theirs - are sufficiently protected. I'm not talking color codes and threat levels. I'm talking about a way of judging how effectively the government has protected against additional terrorist attacks without violating the law.

Now I know that the US government has made so many mistakes legally that it's almost a hypothetical question. But counter-factually, suppose the Obama administration upheld every constitutional principle, starting now. How could we judge its success at forestalling new attacks? How could we set a threshold for declaring "victory" that would neither be invalidated by the next successful or quasi-successful attack, however small? Counter-factually, what level of civilian protection in Afghanistan or Swat would constitute a "victory" over terror there, given that it could never be 100% as long as some criminals are bent on murdering innocents? If terrorism were kept within a certain risk threshold and citizens had no worse to fear from their own government, wouldn't that be a victory? And if so what is that threshhold exactly?

Paul Campos had some thoughts in the WSJ last week. If you compare  Americans' risk of death by terrorism to death by traffic accident or gunshot wound, he'd argue we're already well within the "acceptable risk" margin and likely to stay there no matter whether a few terrorists succeed or fail here and there at doing something more than setting their undies on fire. (This begs the question of whether the risk margin for traffic accidents is actually too high from a human security perspective, but either way, terrorism is hardly the biggest threat to life in our country.)

But Newsweek's editors seem to have taken a different message from Bobbitt's 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.

Reader Comments (5)

Hi Dr. Charli

" 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."

Hmmmm. Well, no. I think a more accurate statement would be that as a liberal, democratic society we have decided not to live with the human and economic costs involved in acheiving a military "victory" over Islamist extemism, which would be fairly extreme and demoralizing.

Harry Truman would have gone a lot further than we have. Anyone else pre - 1900 would simply have said "Perdicaris alive or Rasuli dead" and acted accordingly. We should get some sort of moral credit for our restraint.

I am not advocating following a Scheuer prescription to elininating terrorism but pointing out that we have made a normative choice in our response that other societies - say Algeria's junta - would not make. Can you imagine the Soviets tolerating al Qaida attacks on Leningrad? Or the ancient Athenians? They'd have created deserts in response.

Jan 14, 2010 at 5:57 | Unregistered Commenterzenpundit

Zen, you raise an interesting point, but I wonder if it doesn't suggest we should be lauded for not being worse than we are, rather than - as Philip Bobbit and Charli argue - that we are not (and should be) as virtuous as we both aspire and claim to be. It's true that earlier modes of warfare were much more, errr, holistic, but we've been in this law-bound frame of warfighitng reference for a while now - far too long to put issues of restraint, proportionality, etc, down to problems of historical adjustment. The other argument, that the old (new) rules are invalidated by an alleged newness and irregular character of our enemy, isn't entirely apropos, either; the other side's lack of commitment to the rules doesn't change our own responsibilities to live up to them.

Jan 14, 2010 at 10:01 | Registered CommenterMike Innes

... the other side's lack of commitment to the rules doesn't change our own responsibilities to live up to them.

And that's surely the point, isn't it? I agree with Bobbitt and Charli here. We raise the flag of morality - like it or not, that card was played at the start of this debacle - and then proceed to subvert our own moral framework by our actions. No wonder we can be called 'dishonourable' and the like by those on the other 'side', or accused of moral relativity. This is not to say that the 'bad guys' have a stronger sense of propriety or morality, but we've all heard statements by ISAF officers to that effect. No point touting democracy around the world if you can't prove it through your actions - one's words then sound mighty hollow.

Jan 14, 2010 at 13:44 | Registered CommenterTim Stevens

Zen,

Isn't saying that we could win conventionally but choose not to really to be talking about such a radically different situation to Bobbit as to be almost irrelevant?

Tim and Mike make good points, but respond to your aside rather than Bobbit's argument. By his definition (of both "war against terror" and "win"), going Roman is not an option--so it's not even possible to say "look at what we could have done if we weren't such nice chaps".

Regards

Jan 14, 2010 at 14:20 | Unregistered Commentervimothy

Another point, perhaps: the place of "America" in this formulation. Is it the US's responsibility to protect the rest of the world (or the rest of the West) from terrorist attacks? Is the war on terror not more than just the US v. the terrorists? Where does the rest of the world fit into this? The UK or Spain, two countries that have experience al-Qaeda terrorism since 9/11? Or the likes of Canada, facing the onslaught of the Taleban in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan? It seems to me that this is a discussion for the wider world, and this is a critique not of Charli's point but the leadership in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italay, the Nethelerlands, Canada, and so on.

Jan 15, 2010 at 6:09 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Matthew Barlow

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
|
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>