Mark Danner, New York City, November 2007

Dominique Nabokov

Mark Danner, New York City, November 2007

The battle against terrorism has become America’s forever war. The original congressional authorization for the war—the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) of September 2001—has now been bent and enlarged to embrace enemies that it did not mention or envisage when it was written.

The commander in chief has made no secret of his fear that the war he is obliged to wage against terrorism has been corroding the American soul. In a speech at the National Defense University in 2013, he said:

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.

He wants to bring the war to an end, but as his term ebbs away, he is like Laocoön struggling to escape the serpents’ coils.

With San Bernardino and Orlando, Paris, Brussels, and now Nice, the threat that once seemed to come from without now also comes from within. It has felt like a betrayal to discover that some of the attackers were not foreigners, but citizens.

Thinking about the citizen terrorist is not easy. The beginning of wisdom may be to refuse the ready-made explanations that have flooded the void left behind by tragedy. We don’t understand how or why particular individuals “self-radicalize” while others do not. We do not know why they choose the targets they do. We have no good reason to believe that multicultural integration in general, or the integration of Muslim minorities in particular, has failed simply because it so obviously fails in these singular and tragic instances. The closer you look at these cases, the less obvious it becomes how to stop the carnage, though it would help to make it considerably more difficult for individuals who end up on FBI watch lists to purchase assault weapons.

Donald Trump has no patience with the perplexing questions posed by Orlando and San Bernardino. He has his own answers. He believes the “home-grown terrorist” calls into question mass immigration from foreign countries in general and Muslim countries in particular. He wants to call an end to any welcome America may give to refugees, starting with the desperate people escaping Syria. Right-wing politicians across Europe want to do the same. Closing borders, building walls, sending them all back “home”—these proposals appeal to voters frightened, for other reasons as well, by open borders and global job competition.

What’s new about the politics of terrorism today is the malign confluence of two distinct and separate challenges: mass migration and refugee flight, and the self-radicalizing terrorist. Right-wing politicians—such as Nigel Farage in the UK, Geert Wilders in Holland, Donald Trump in the United States, and Marine Le Pen in France—are all exploiting the terrorist threat to stigmatize the refugee and the migrant as part of their larger insurrection against the political elites who have presided over a multicultural society built on informed politics, mass migration, and generous asylum rights. This is the confluence—of terrorist crimes empowering the authoritarian right—that is fragmenting the political center and putting pressure on the politicians in Western political systems still committed to a rule-bound and law-abiding battle against terrorism.

In the hardening climate of opinion, some conservative Americans believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were right all along, even if their policies included torture, rendition, secret detention, mass telephone surveillance, arrest without warrant, and deportations, as well as the invasion of Iraq. By endorsing waterboarding, Trump has embraced the Bush administration’s ruthless consequentialism with gusto, because it differentiates him, as the commentators say, from politicians with constitutional scruples. It also makes him the first contender for the presidency to explicitly endorse torture.

Thus far, Hillary Clinton has stood her ground, defending her fellow citizens of Islamic origin, repeating her pledges to Syrian immigrants, and committing herself to a rights-respecting and rule-bound battle against terrorism. If terrorism remains an election issue in November, the choice seems clear enough, but there is a problem. The Democratic nominee was secretary of state in an administration that carried out certain aspects of the Bush strategy—targeted killing and drone strikes—with relentless determination.

As voters go to the polls in November, some will ask whether Clinton is either willing or able to reverse the policies deep inside America’s security agencies that have driven the war on terror since September 11. This is the question raised in Mark Danner’s new book, Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War. A frequent contributor to these pages and a professor at Bard College and the University of California at Berkeley, Danner has been the most intellectually distinguished critic of America’s war on terror. Spiral is a masterly writer’s case for the prosecution, a patriot’s indictment of his own country’s folly.


For Danner, US counterterrorism policy began before September 11, in the Reagan era, when the administration lent support to anti-Communist regimes and death squads in Latin America. It was back in the early 1980s that an Argentinian journalist first told him, for example, about the regime’s use of an interrogation technique called el submarino. Today we call it waterboarding.

In Danner’s analysis, the Bush administration’s antiterrorism policies reprised both the Reagan counterinsurgency strategy in Latin America and the “all is permitted” mindset licensed by the cold war. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on “illegal combatants” after September 11 were all drawn from “a Cold War–era pilot training program that intentionally reproduced techniques the Soviets and Chinese had used.”

Danner writes in a tone of sorrow as much as in anger, refusing, even in the face of his own evidence, to give up the belief that America could afford to behave so much better. As he ruefully remarks, however, the call for America to recover its moral ideals seems to be falling on deaf ears. In the 1990s, he thought that all he had to do was bring the facts of torture or massacre to public attention and outraged citizens and free institutions would do the rest. Today, he says, the audience reacts with numbed dissociation: “What if you tear off the veil and no one gasps, no one cringes, no one even blinks?”

Danner may be exaggerating Americans’ numbness of heart. Plenty of Americans were outraged by the photographs from Abu Ghraib, to the depths of their being. More than any other single aspect of the war on terror, the images woke Americans to the reality that their counterterror policies might also be a strategic disaster:

Consider the image of Leashed Man: an Arab male stretched out nude and helpless on the dirty floor of Abu Ghraib, his face convulsed in pain and humiliation as a young American woman in military fatigues stands smiling triumphantly over him, the leash tethering his neck grasped in her hand. Had bin Laden gone to Madison Avenue and offered to pay millions for a propaganda poster that would embody his message, could he have found anything more effective?

Instead of keeping the homeland safe, Danner argues, the Bush administration’s moral indifference increased the danger to America and its allies:

The self-proclaimed exceptional nation now finds itself trapped in a permanent state of exception, a spiral of self-defeating policies that carries us ever further from what had been our initial purpose: to reduce the number of terrorists seeking to do us harm.

This is true, but Danner neglects the other side of the ledger. America is less trapped in the folly of Bush-era policies than he maintains. Guantánamo is not closed, but it is a shadow of its former size, with the number of detainees slowly declining to its current figure of about seventy-five. The Supreme Court did accord the remaining detainees some habeas corpus rights. The Obama administration did make extensive use of drone killings in the first term, but has sharply reduced its use of them in the second.1 As far as we can tell, the CIA’s secret interrogation sites have been shut down. Rendition to torturing countries is illegal. Torture at home is outlawed by presidential order. The extent of government electronic eavesdropping has been in large part disclosed and, at least according to Eric Schmidt of Google, is less substantial or invasive than originally feared when Edward Snowden revealed the program. There have, Schmidt says, been 40,000–50,000 orders to Google for disclosure of its Gmail accounts, out of a user base that numbers in the billions. If Americans know about the abuses committed in their name, it is thanks to dozens of journalists, writers, whistle-blowers, and public interest lawyers who forced the Obama administration to disclose secret programs and terminate the worst abuses.

Danner does accept that the Obama administration has dismantled some of the Bush legacy. He also notes that Obama’s rhetoric, at least, has warned of the dangers that the war on terror poses to American values, as in this passage of his National Defense University speech:

Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.

Of this speech, Danner writes:

It would be hard to imagine a more eloquent warning of the danger of endless war, and it would be impossible to cite a more telling example of the contradictory policy impulses that haunt the president’s approach to the forever war, in which he prosecutes it and criticizes his own prosecution of it at almost the same time.

Danner’s indictment consists of the claim that the president promised a complete break with the policies of the Bush administration, which he was never able to deliver. While outlawing torture by executive order, Obama blocked attempts to prosecute the Bush administration lawyers and operatives who justified torture or carried it out. Having campaigned against “dumb” wars in 2008, Obama allowed himself to be persuaded to “lead from behind,” supporting military intervention by a coalition against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 2011, with the result that Libya has collapsed and ISIS now has a base in Sirte on the Mediterranean coast. Having pledged to bring Americans home from combat, Obama has, according to various reports, deployed US Special Operations forces in some seventy countries around the world; they engage in black-ops raids and kill-and-capture missions in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, among other countries.


Danner’s indictment of these policies is unsparing, but it is sometimes less than clear what he would propose in their stead. For example, he condemns the president for ordering the bombing campaign against ISIS in 2015 on the grounds that the bombings “dramatically helped its recruiting, hastening a vast flow of foreign fighters into its ranks.” But foreign fighters were already there when Obama initiated the campaign, and since Danner would have opposed a US ground operation, what military alternative remained but bombing?

Danner is also highly critical of Obama’s drone campaign, believing that drones have created more terrorists than they have destroyed. The Stimson Center report on drones that he cites reaches a more ambivalent conclusion:

While tactical strikes may have helped keep the homeland free of major terrorist attacks, existing evidence indicates that both Sunni and Shia Islamic extremist groups have grown in scope, lethality and influence in the broader area of operations in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

If—and the report is conditional about this—the strikes “have helped keep the homeland free of major terrorist attacks,” they are working, at least as far as the homeland is concerned, whether they are morally acceptable or not. As for the related question of whether US drone strikes have made life more dangerous for US allies—such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Belgium, or France, which have all been targeted—the evidence is simply unclear. Drone strikes do provide local extremists with tinder for their ideological fires, but some people in the Pakistani tribal areas are not unhappy to see the terrorists in their midst coming under pressure, and it is also worth pointing out that drone strikes cause less harm than the available alternative, clearance operations by local military forces backed up by US Special Forces. As for the evident growth of Islamic extremist groups, is it obvious that US drone strikes are the chief factors to blame? Isn’t it naive to expect that stopping the strikes will diminish the capacity of such groups to enlist recruits?

Obama himself is aware that drone strikes kill innocent civilians and rally others to the jihadi cause. Accordingly, he told an audience at West Point in 2014, he will authorize strikes

only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties, for our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.

For Danner this is casuistry, but for many Americans, discriminating and targeted strikes against identified terrorists make strategic sense.

Danner does not ignore the sheer malignity of the terrorists who liberal societies face. Nor is he naive enough to believe that American foreign policy would make fewer enemies if it did more social work around the world. In any case, the old conceit that democracy promotion and economic aid could prevent terrorism from taking root has faded away.

So we are left with the question: What can America allow itself to do that would keep the country safe? Danner is clear about what he would not do: no torture, no enhanced interrogation, no rendition, no drone strikes, and a formal end to the unlimited state of exception proclaimed by the AUMF in 2001, which still defines the legal parameters of the war on terror. Having withdrawn the AUMF, Danner would bring the fight against terrorists back under constitutional control by basing the president’s power to defend the homeland exclusively on his Article Two powers as commander in chief.

Danner believes that by ending the AUMF, “the expanding war on terror embodied in unceasing drone and special operations campaigns in a half dozen countries would come to an end.” Ending the AUMF and issuing a new one that would limit presidential discretion is long overdue, but such a change would only lead to a fundamental shift in counterterrorism strategy if the president were also to stop engaging in preemptive and preventive military action and abandon drone strikes, in favor of waiting until threats to the homeland were imminent and actionable. Whether this would work is anyone’s guess, and it’s less than clear that a president—assuming it is Hillary Clinton—would be willing to take the risks involved.

Danner also urges the president to change the attitudes of the American people on the subject of terrorism by reminding them that more people are struck by lightning than are killed in terrorist incidents. President Obama has tried to ease Americans’ concerns about the terrorist threat, but following Orlando and San Bernardino, there are limits to what any president can do to shape public opinion.

Danner believes that America will be safer if it abandons liberal internationalist activism in favor of “offshore balancing.” This is a phrase associated with foreign policy realists like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.2 Danner’s adoption of realist language is a sign that disillusion with liberal internationalism has now spread across the foreign policy spectrum from Trump on the right to Sanders on the left. What “offshore balancing” means, in practice, may be less than clear. In relation to the fight against ISIS, for example, it might mean pulling US ground troops out of the war zones and supporting Kurdish and Sunni proxies from offshore carriers and bases. Since US ground troops might make the difference between success or failure against ISIS, it’s an open question whether “offshore balancing” will work. Meanwhile, in July, an ISIS truck bomb in Baghdad killed three hundred people, one of the most destructive bombings since the US invasion. Can the US do nothing in response to such attacks on a country it did so much to create, or on other countries with which it has close relations?

In other words, Danner is clearer about what America shouldn’t do than what it should. He shows, with eloquent conviction and considerable evidence, that torture, rendition, domestic surveillance, foreign wars, and democracy promotion at gunpoint have made America more enemies than friends, and in the process have diminished America’s moral standing and security. He says little about the American citizen terrorist in the book—and since this is one of the most vexing components of the problem, it is a serious omission; but he must surely be right that American policies overseas, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, have aggravated its problem with self-radicalizing terrorists at home.

The unanswered question, as the Obama administration draws to a close and a new one will soon take over, is whether a different counterterrorism policy will do a better job of reconciling fundamental moral imperatives with the unending struggle to keep the US and its allies safe from both enemies without and its own citizens drawn to terrorism. Is it too much to ask of a democracy, as it votes in November, that it debates this question honestly instead of allowing fear and hatred to dictate its choices?