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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Philip Gordon

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Philip Gordon

Last Build Date: Thu, 25 Oct 2007 00:48:25 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2008

Can the War on Terror Be Won?

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 00:48:25 -0600

It is essential to start thinking seriously about these questions, because it is impossible to win a war without knowing what its goal is. Considering possible outcomes of the war on terror makes clear that it can indeed be won, but only with the recognition that this is a new and different kind of war. Victory will come not when foreign leaders accept certain terms but when political changes erode and ultimately undermine support for the ideology and strategy of those determined to destroy the United States. It will come not when Washington and its allies kill or capture all terrorists or potential terrorists but when the ideology the terrorists espouse is discredited, when their tactics are seen to have failed, and when they come to find more promising paths to the dignity, respect, and opportunities they crave. It will mean not the complete elimination of any possible terrorist threat -- pursuing that goal will almost certainly lead to more terrorism, not less -- but rather the reduction of the risk of terrorism to such a level that it does not significantly affect average citizens' daily lives, preoccupy their thoughts, or provoke overreaction. At that point, even the terrorists will realize their violence is futile. Keeping this vision of victory in mind will not only avert considerable pain, expense, and trouble; it will also guide leaders toward the policies that will bring such a victory about. THE LAST WAR One of the few predictions that can be made about the war on terror with some confidence is that it will end -- all wars eventually do. Such an observation might appear flip, but there is a serious point behind it: the factors that drive international politics are so numerous and so fluid that no political system or conflict can last forever. Thus, some wars end quickly (the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 famously lasted for 45 minutes), and others endure (the Hundred Years War lasted for 116 years). Some wars end relatively well (World War II laid the foundation for lasting peace and prosperity), and others lead to further catastrophe (World War I). But they all end, one way or another, and it behooves those living through them to imagine how their conclusions might be hastened and improved. Where the war on terror is concerned, some of the most instructive lessons can be drawn from the experience of the Cold War, thus named because, like the war on terror, it was not really a war at all. Although the current challenge is not identical to the Cold War, their similarities -- as long-term, multidimensional struggles against insidious and violent ideologies -- suggest that there is much to learn from this recent, and successful, experience. Just as the Cold War ended only when one side essentially gave up on a bankrupt ideology, the battle against Islamist terrorism will be won when the ideology that underpins it loses its appeal. The Cold War ended not with U.S. forces occupying the Kremlin but when the occupant of the Kremlin abandoned the fight; the people he governed had stopped believing in the ideology they were supposed to be fighting for. The Cold War is also an excellent example of a war that ended at a time and in a way that most people living through it failed to foresee -- and had even stopped trying to foresee. Whereas for the first decade or so the prospect of victory, defeat, or even nuclear war focused minds on how the Cold War might end, by the mid-1960s almost everyone, leaders and the public alike, had started to lose sight of an end as a possibility. Instead, they grudgingly began to focus on what became known as peaceful coexistence. The policy of détente, initiated in the 1960s and pursued throughout the 1970s, is sometimes retrospectively portrayed as a different strategy for bringing the Cold War to an end. But détente was in reality more a sign of resignation to the Cold War's expected endurance than an alternative way of concluding it. The primary objective was to make the Cold War less dangerous, not to bring it to an end. Ultimately, détente served to soften the image of the West i[...]