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How America's "war on terror" was (unwittingly) designed to last forever

"We've created in the war on terror a perpetual motion machine." —Mark Danner, author of Spiral

9/11 ground zero with a crowd

“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” —President Barack Obama, May 2013

On September 14, 2001, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. The bill gave President George W. Bush sweeping authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those “responsible” for the attacks on 9/11.

The responsible parties in this case were al-Qaeda and the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Over time, though, the authority granted by this bill has been extended to include terrorists — or suspected terrorists — in other parts of the world. In Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere, the American president has been free to wage a shadow war against terrorism without a proper declaration from Congress.

According to this 2014 report by the Nation, US Special Operations forces are currently deployed in more than 100 countries, roughly 60 percent of the nations on the planet. The clandestine war has spread well beyond the Middle East; it’s now fully globalized.

We’re fighting what Mark Danner, author of Spiral, calls a “forever war.” Fifteen years into the “war on terror,” we appear no closer to ending it than when we started. Worse, it’s not even clear what “ending it” would look like. We’re battling a constellation of ideas, not a conventional army, and there are no final victories in metaphysical conflicts.

“We have created in the war on terror a perpetual motion machine,” Danner writes. Which is to say the machine constantly refashions the very threat it was designed to eliminate. Perhaps “whack-a-mole” is the better analogy: Neutralize one threat, and 10 more spring up in its place.

This is the “spiral” Danner describes in his book: a ceaseless cycle of violence and retaliation, provocation and response, with very little to show for it. Our response to terror is not the cause of terror, but, Danner argues, we have to be honest about the results.

Even more fundamentally, we have to ask if we’ve compromised our values along the way. We’ve tortured prisoners, assassinated American citizens, circumscribed basic rights and freedoms — all in the name security. Has it worked? Were there more prudent alternatives? Is there an end in sight? These are but a few of the many difficult questions posed by Danner.

Last week, I spoke with him about his book and about what America got wrong in its war on terrorism. I asked him what a wise anti-terror strategy looks like, if he thinks we’ve become too obsessed with our own security, and what the long-term costs of the war on terror will ultimately be.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

What’s the “forever war,” and how did we get trapped in it?

Mark Danner

The forever war is a conflict without geographical or temporal boundaries that was declared shortly after 9/11 with the Authorization of the Use of Military Force and also the secret documents that George W. Bush signed on September 17, 2001. As we speak, the war rages on in several countries. It has changed its look a number of times. It began both as an intelligence conflict under the radar and as a war of several large engagements, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It began under the George W. Bush administration. It transmuted itself under Barack Obama, who reduced the large engagements, but at the same time he ramped up the so-called "light footprint," using Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitary forces, and of course the drone program.

I call it the forever war because there's really no sign that this conflict is on the verge of ending. In fact, it appears to be a forever war by design. We're engaged in periodic, never-ending conflict in a half-dozen countries without any signs of ending. Indeed, it's only taking on a more vital character as we speak in Iraq and in Syria.

Sean Illing

Most people believe that Obama wanted to remove America from a permanent war footing when he took office. Obviously, he was unable to do it.

Does that suggest to you that this is truly an intractable problem?

Mark Danner

That's a very good question. I think it's incontestable that if you had asked Obama in January of 2009 whether he expected the forever war to be well-established after his eight years in office, he would have said absolutely not. On the other hand, there is the reality that our inability to produce strategic answers to the terror problem has left us with a series of counterproductive tactical responses.

Sean Illing

Can you be specific on that point? What sort of tactical responses are you referring to?

Mark Danner

The use of drone warfare, for example, is a tactic intended to decapitate jihadist organizations and to hit their operational centers with the goal of disrupting current plans. In exchange for the short-term benefits of these tactical strikes, we get very little in the way of long-term solutions. Indeed, we've given up on the strategic task, which is to shrink down the size of these organizations and reduce their lethality.

In effect, we've decided to protect ourselves by keeping terrorists off balance, but the effects of the tactics we've used to do this has been to revitalize the jihadist movement in general.

In other words, the way we've responded to these problems has, in a sense, helped make the problem intractable.

Sean Illing

Is there any response to terrorism — specifically a military response — that would not in turn produce more terrorism? We tend to get trapped in this circular logic according to which our response to terrorism is the cause of terrorism.

Mark Danner

You've put your finger on the critical question here. I think there are ways to do it that are at least worth trying. You can't replay history, obviously, but it's obvious that the Iraq War was a wrongheaded response to terrorism that has had the effect of widening and deepening the war on terror. It also gave enormous propaganda value to the jihadist cause and created enormous instability within the Middle East.

These jihadist groups are inherently opportunistic. They depend on what the military now somewhat poetically calls "ungoverned spaces." And we created a number of ungoverned spaces, particularly along the fault line in the Middle East between the Shia and Sunni worlds.

Sean Illing

I think that’s clearly true, but where does that leave us in terms of a response to terrorism that doesn’t breed more terror? Did the Bush administration believe — however naively — that they had a long-term solution?

Mark Danner

I think if you could get people in the Bush administration to talk honestly, they might well argue that if things had turned out the way they thought it would, it would have been a political, not a military, response to terrorism. Condoleezza Rice actually said that what they hoped to do was create a model that would deter young men from driving airplanes into buildings. She was thinking of a new Iraq as a kind of political model that would be a response to jihadist terrorism.

Now, obviously this wasn't realistic, but it's worth noting that this is what they believed.

Sean Illing

Not to get bogged down on this point, but you’ve laid out quite clearly what we did wrong. I’d still like to know if you believe there’s a military response to terrorism that doesn’t create more terrorism. And if so, what does it look like?

Mark Danner

Yes, I do. If the United States, for example, had responded not by declaring war, which lent a kind of legitimacy to al-Qaeda's worldview, but instead responded by declaring a state of emergency and relying on covert military actions dedicated to specific threats, that would have been a wiser course.

By declaring a broad war, however, we aggregated our foes under a single banner and thereby created an open-ended conflict without a specific enemy or a discernible goal. In effect, we declared an unwinnable war and then proceeded to wage it. The military is a useful instrument, but it has to be employed surgically and in defense of clear objectives.

Sean Illing

Does our preoccupation with the terror problem scale with the threat level in your view?

Mark Danner

No, although that's a very interesting question, mostly because you have to unpack what exactly we mean by "threat level." If we're talking about the number of people killed by terrorists, the answer is clearly no. But if we're talking about political effects, it's a different conversation.

Once a terror event is magnified by media and reverberates through our political system, as it has recently in Europe and in America, the perception of the threat is quite intense. In that sense, the political energy devoted to terrorism scales with the perceived threat, but not with the actual threat.

Sean Illing

You raise an interesting point about the politics of this. Has terrorism become so central to our discourse and our national psychology that it’s now impossible to have a rational discussion about how to combat it?

Mark Danner

Well, John Kerry's experience in the 2004 election suggests the answer to that question is yes. Recall that he argued terrorism would never be eliminated and simply had to be reduced to the level of a nuisance. He was right, of course, but he was lambasted for saying that, and it cost him dearly. Indeed, one could argue that it was a leaked recording of [Osama] bin Laden that circulated a week or so before the election that ultimately cost him the presidency. In any case, it certainly hurt.

Beyond that, you just don't see much discussion about the rational alternatives. There are various discussions about what the war on terror should be, but for the most part the implicit assumptions are rarely questioned.

ISIS soldiers in Iraq.

Sean Illing

You open the book with a quote from Obama that reads: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” That raises the question: Have we defined it, or has it defined us?

Mark Danner

I think it's defined us. I think we've created a new permanent war to parallel the Cold War. We've got similar institutions, except most of them are secret. We've doubled the intelligence budget, nearly doubled the military budget, and all of this seems completely out of line with what the threat actually is.

Most importantly, we've increased the threat. I think it's incontestable that the number of jihadists and the number of attacks have only increased. As I said at the beginning, you could argue that we've protected the country, but that's a very shortsighted view.

If, in the end, we've created more jihadists, have we really enhanced our security situation moving forward?

Sean Illing

It’s worth point out that America’s ability to stunt jihadism across the globe is quite limited, and therefore defending the homeland has to be a primary aim.

Mark Danner

Absolutely. The United States is not completely in control of this problem. The jihadist world is not wholly a reaction to American foreign policy. There are a lot of other factors, namely the erosion of the political order that prevailed in the Middle East since the end of World War I.

Sean Illing

Is there any evidence that we’re winning the war on terror, or at the very least that our efforts have been worth the costs?

Mark Danner

I think there's very little evidence that we're winning. As I said, the only evidence that you can give is defensive in nature: The number of successful attacks on the homeland has been small since 9/11, and the ones that did succeed were relatively minor. But that's not a very compelling case when you consider how few attacks we endured before 9/11.

Now, have our efforts been worth the cost? That's hard to quantify. How do you quantify the costs of Guantanamo? How do you quantify the reputational costs of Abu Ghraib? The US has lost an enormous amount of prestige when it comes to arguments about human rights and the liberal world order.

These are real costs, but they're hard to measure.

The prison at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Seymour Hersh helped bring systemic American abuses at the facility to light. (Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty)
The prison at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Seymour Hersh helped bring systemic American abuses at the facility to light.
Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty

Sean Illing

What’s the single biggest mistake we’ve made — tactically or strategically — in this war?

Mark Danner

If you had to point to a single mistake, the answer has to be the Iraq War. We fought a war that we didn't need to fight, a war that involved dumping 150,000 American troops into the heart of the Middle East. We created a massive, grinding insurgency that provided a never-ending stream of telegenic images of American soldiers abusing Muslim men and women.

And when you reflect on what [the Bush administration] thought they were doing, it was so obviously a fantasy. This idea that they would be in and out in a few months was absurd. And not only was it fantastical, it was also extraordinarily counterproductive. In the end, the Iraq War gave us ISIS and a number of other geostrategic crises.

So there’s absolutely no doubt that this was the single biggest mistake.

Sean Illing

When the history of America is written, will the 9/11 attacks mark a critical turning point for the country? And if so, what will the concluding thoughts of that chapter be?

Mark Danner

The era of perpetual conflict that began after the 9/11 attacks has led to a kind of exhaustion with American power. This exhaustion led to the election of Obama, whose campaign represented a rejection of American militarism. And it led, eventually, to the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign tapped into this weariness and promoted an America-first isolationism. Trump says explicitly that the United States should not be in the business of underwriting the global system of free trade and free movement of goods, which is what we've done since World War II, since the Bretton Woods system was established.

Trump, then, represents a shift in our self-conception. A lot of Americans now believe the US should act like a traditional power, which is to say more self-interested and less concerned with the fate of other regions and nations.

This is a monumental change, and I think 9/11 was the beginning of that change.