The Global War on Terror: A Narrative in Need of a Rewrite

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Much of the legal and ideological infrastructure that would later constitute the war on terror was introduced onto the U.S. political scene in the 1990s. Osama bin Laden was on President Clinton’s intelligence and law enforcement radar screens; antiterrorism legislation that would significantly expand presidential and police powers was debated in Congress; and conservative advocacy groups such as the Project for a New American Century urged a more assertive projection of American power, including forcible regime change in Iraq.

But it was the George W. Bush administration that provided these diverse events with a holistic superstructure in the form of the “global war on terror.” Almost overnight, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this narrative became the prevailing organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, taking the attacks as its starting point and scripting the final act as an American victory in some undetermined future. The global war on terror acted as what, in the language of semiotics, is called a “floating signifier,” able to be attached at will to a wide range of actions and policies. Thus, the al-Qaeda perpetrators of September 11 and Saddam Hussein were organized into seamless and coherent chapters in the same account. The war on terror narrative led directly to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the establishment of an archipelago of detention camps, and to a vast expansion of surveillance systems inside the United States.

The costs of the war have been staggering. Politically, the United States has forfeited its reputation as an icon for democracy and justice, even among its closest allies. Ethically, as a recent report from the International Commission of Jurists sets out, it has undermined its moral authority by having flouted the internationally accepted rules of war. Economically, total external costs for the global war on terror as of the end of 2008 approached $900 billion (not including spending on homeland security).

In the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama signaled his intention to review policies introduced in the name of the war on terror. Within a week of taking power his administration took concrete steps to roll back certain practices of the Bush administration, ordering the phase-out of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp and announcing the country’s re-adherence to the third Geneva Convention. However, it remains an open question how far the new administration will be able to achieve real and substantial change. A principal reason for the durability of the global war on terror is that it represents an extraordinarily powerful narrative, which Obama will need to rewrite if he is to change the policy dynamics in this area. At the time of this writing, liberal commentators are expressing concern—and conservatives expressing satisfaction—that despite his initial moves Obama is basically adhering to Bush-era policies.3

In this essay we focus on how the global war on terror was constructed and how it has set down deep institutional roots both in government and popular culture. We take aim at those who would weave this narrative into the nation’s identity by assigning it an iconographic status on par with national myths of manifest destiny and the frontier nation. And we conclude that, if we are to develop a new conceptual framework that is both operationally effective and consistent with democratic values and ideals, we must first revisit the assumptions of the war on terror narrative.
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Category: Essay, Issue 23.2, The Ethics of War and Peace

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