You didn’t hear it here first, nor will I be the last to champion a change unlikely to occur — at least in 2008. Nevertheless, here goes: America should scrap its favorite rhetorical construct, “the war on terror,” and engage with others in a concerted, long-term drive not only to thwart plots and capture terrorists but also to reduce their number and curb their effectiveness in gaining adherents. Elevating them to warrior status in a battle of civilizations has given al-Qaida an ongoing success it surely never imagined — in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s words, it has had “a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America’s psyche and on U.S. standing in the world.”
As Brzezinski pointed out in the Washington Post last spring, the phrase “war on terror” is meaningless: “Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique.” Users of that technique are mass murderers. What if the United States had relentlessly sought al-Qaida leaders while politically marginalizing them as monstrous outliers in any society? What if the world had seen open trials of weakened, isolated fanatics, heard the evidence against them, seen them convicted of crimes against humanity? America would today be regarded as innocent victim turned rightful prosecutor.
Instead the world saw the Iraq war, cleverly but wrongly linked to 9/11; it saw the United States torture prisoners held without trial. It saw Americans so fearful that they acquiesced to surreptitious domestic surveillance, heightened executive powers and reduced civil liberties.
In Britain, a new prime minister uses new words. Gordon Brown says “all methods of diplomacy, all means of intelligence, all tools of law and policing” should be employed against terrorists. He speaks of using the “arsenal of democracy” to “defeat their ideas,” of backing moderate voices “that emphasize shared values.” In 2008, Americans can begin to hope for the same.