How Terrible Is It?

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002)

National Security Council
35 pp., available at

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (March 2006)

National Security Council
54 pp., available at

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander must make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.

—Carl von Clausewitz, On War

The actual reason for the failure of the US policy in its political field and international relations is their lack of information regarding the world’s realities and also the enclosure of the decision making people of that country in their own fabricated and false political propaganda.

—From the Web log of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, following a visit to New York in September 2006

Five years after George Bush launched America on a global crusade to “rid the world of evil,” it is safe to say that the tide has turned. No, America is not winning, although some argue that it might be politic, at this juncture, to declare victory.1 Nor is America necessarily losing, as others have asserted. What has happened instead is that the mental construct that framed the Bush administration’s reaction to September 11 as a “war” is beginning to fall apart.

This is not surprising. What is surprising is that it has taken so long for Americans to notice. Much of the rest of the world at a fairly early stage lost faith, if they ever had any, in the narrative promoted by President Bush, in which America was cast as the leader of freedom, battling a foe variously described as terror or terrorism, and sometimes as evil or evildoers. To doubters it seemed obvious from the beginning that one does not wage “war” against terrorism, a word that, despite those last three letters, does not describe an ideology or a targetable enemy, but rather an ugly technique of attack that has long been used by the weak against the strong.

Even disregarding the President’s hyperbole, such ostensibly sober statements of purpose as the administration’s 2002 and 2006 National Security Strategy papers, which were intended to lay out a comprehensive program, reveal, on careful reading, a disturbing lack of focus. One proclaimed goal in the 2006 report, for instance, is “Ending Tyranny,” an objective that may be commendable, but which has not proved attainable, on anything like a global scale, at any point in recorded history. One declared method for achieving American war aims is the launching of preemptive strikes, on the grounds, as the 2002 National Security Strategy put it, that “we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize.” This was understandable, certainly, in the light of the horrors of the September 11 attacks and the fear raised by them, yet it seemed rash to sanction aggression based on the presumption of others’ intent, particularly since the same documents outlined a rather bewildering array of perceived threats and dangers facing America.
These strategy papers correctly identify al-Qaeda as the principal enemy…

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