Remember John Kerry? He’s the guy who ran against George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential election. Like most campaigns, this one had its controversies – like Swift Boat – perhaps none greater than when Kerry said that the US had to get to a point where terrorism was not the primary focus of society but rather a “nuisance”, hinting that the government approach should be more along the lines of a law enforcement/intelligence problem and not a primarily military one.
The Bush team jumped all over him for that, claiming that the did not understand the threat and hence was not qualified to become president/commander-in-chief. And Bush won. And the war on terror went on.
End of story, right? Not quite.
In a recent interview with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, the former deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morrell, made the following point in response to a question on how the “great war of our time” ends:
” I think my kids’ generation and my grandkids’ generation will still be fighting this fight, but I think it ends when it becomes a law enforcement problem solely, when it no longer is a paramilitary/military problem. I think that’s what we should be shooting for. You’re never going to eliminate it completely, but if you can make it just a law enforcement problem, I think that would be a victory.”
That’s kinda what Kerry said. And this guy fought the “war on terror” for three decades! (for the complete interview with Mike Morrell see here).
As I have stated before, there is a role for the military, especially against groups like the Islamic State, which has territory and an “army” of sorts. But even there, the military solution is not a panacea. The military hammer tends to be a blunt instrument, even when you bring in “precision” drones. We will not win this “war” militarily.
The fight against terrorism used to be a law enforcement/intelligence responsibility. Then 9/11 came along and President Bush launched the war on terror (after calling it a “crusade” – remember how well that went over?). Why? Did the US army get called out after Oklahoma City (where Timothy McVeigh used a fertiliser bomb to kill 168 people, including many children)?
The response to terrorism never should have been framed in military terms – although I will grant an exception with the use of special forces (the operation that got Bin Laden was a brilliant use of a precision tool). And yet we still see it through that lens.
In the end, Kerry was right and Morrell is right. We have to get to the point where terrorism is not dominating the headlines. It won’t go away but we will be better off if we trust the responsible (and effective) agencies to deal with it (CSIS, RCMP, and others). Having it front and centre just leads to hyperbole and fear.
And let’s stop using war terminology.