PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Why Bush Said We Can’t Win War On Terror
If you read that President Bush said we can’t win the war on terrorism, you may have missed the point. You had to hear the way he said the words. When the interviewer asked "Can we win it?", Bush replied: "I don’t think you can win it." The emphasis was on "it," as if to say "You can’t win this war. But you can win other wars" -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, and anyplace else the U.S. wants to conquer.
The Bush administration seems content to have a permanent war on terrorism. That gives us a permanent excuse to overthrow governments, wherever and whenever the U.S. chooses.
The Bushies started preparing us for an endless war just days after the 9/11 attack. In his most important policy speech, on September 20, 2001, the president called the war on terrorism "a task that does not end." A few days earlier, Dick Cheney said: "There's not going to be an end date when we're going to say, ‘There, it's all over with.’'' Donald Rumsfeld agreed that we "surely will not" eliminate terrorism "completely from the face of the Earth."
So what would constitute victory, a reporter asked Rumsfeld. His answer gave away the game. This will always be a dangerous world, he replied, full of "powerful weapons and with people who are willing to use those powerful weapons." Victory means simply being able to "continue our way of life. … to a point that you are satisfied that the American people are going to be able to live their lives in relative freedom and have the kinds of linkages with the rest of the world that we feel are so central to our well being." The U.S. will have won when "the American people and our interests and friends and allies and deployed forces can go about our business not in fear."
"Business" and "linkages" are the operative words, as Bush made clear a few weeks later: "We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't conduct business or people don't shop. … Terrorists want to turn the openness of the global economy against itself. We must not let them. … Out of the sorrow of September 11th, I see opportunity…to expand our ties of trade." For the Bushies, victory does not mean ending terrorism. It means keeping terrorism contained enough to preserve the linkages of the international corporate economy, so Americans can keep on shopping.
It’s not about absolute victory or unconditional surrender, World War II style. It’s about containment, cold war style. As Rumsfeld said, the war on terror "undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war.'' Cold war containment gave the U.S. a splendid pretext to entrench its corporate and military power around the world. By the 1990s, multinational corporate capitalism could operate with no effective challenge in most of the world. Only one large region remained problematic: the broad belt of predominantly Muslim lands from Afghanistan to Algeria.
That’s why Bush has consistently linked endless terrorism with unfriendly governments, most of them in that region. In his "axis of evil" speech, he warned that life would never return to normal. But he promised that the U.S. "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Regimes, not terrorists, became the target.
A few months later, in a major speech at West Point, he denied that the cold war strategy of containment was valid any longer. Now the U.S. would make war preemptively and win total victories. But as the Iraq war showed, that strategy is not aimed against terrorists. It’s aimed against governments. Bush said as much at West Point: "All nations that decide for aggression and terror will pay a price." There is only one valid model of human progress, he insisted—the U.S. model: "America cannot impose this vision -- yet we can support and reward governments that make the right choices for their own people." And we can destroy governments that try to hold on to any other model.
That’s what Bush meant a few days ago on the Today Show, when he said of the war on terror, "I don't think you can win it." He went on to say: "But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world." Then he talked about spreading liberty and democracy. These are his usual code words for overthrowing governments that resist the free reign of multinational corporate capitalism.
In the same interview, he suggested that it’s a matter of probabilities. He could only hope to make it "less likely that your kids are going to live under the threat of al-Qaida for a long period of time. I can't tell you. I don't have any … definite end. … If we believe, for example, that you can't win, and the alternative is to retreat … I think that would be a disaster for your children." For Bush, the alternative to winning is not retreating. It is containing terrorism while installing U.S. - friendly regimes around the world.
White House officials didn’t think their man was saying anything surprising in the Today Show interview. For hours after it aired, they told reporters that Bush meant just what he said (according to the Washington Post). They changed their story only after the Kerry campaign started crowing that their man intends to win the war on terrorism.
When Bush went on Rush Limbaugh’s show to do damage control, the truth slipped out once again. Limbaugh suggested that terrorism is "always going to happen because it always has." Bush simply replied: "Right." Then he turned the conversation to his real goal: making predominantly Muslim nations more friendly to U.S. interests and more willing to follow the U.S. model.
That goal won’t be up for debate in this campaign season. The Democrats are just as committed to it as the GOP. Just two days after 9/11, Democratic pundit Thomas Friedman explained what the war on terrorism is all about. There is a battle raging throughout the Muslim world, he said, between the modernizers, who accept the dominance of U.S. - style globalization, and the traditionalists who oppose it. The goal of this new war is to break the power of the traditionalists forever.
That’s the same Tom Friedman who once wrote: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Macdonald’s cannot flourish without MacDonnell Douglas." American taxpayers won’t cough up nearly a half-trillion dollars a year to promote the multinational corporate free market. They need to believe that are protecting themselves against some imminent threat. So the war against terrorism must be "a task that does not end."
When John Kerry says he will win the war on terror, he may be just scoring political points. Or he may really mean it. If so, he knows as well as Bush that terrorism will always be with us. Kerry is simply doing what every cold war president did—pursuing containment and calling it victory. Let’s give Bush a little credit for letting the truth slip out.
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