On May 23, President Obama offered this assessment of the changed strategic environment.
From Benghazi to Boston…. we recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. … Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. …[W]e have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. …[I]f dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.
This conclusion is open to the charge of wishful thinking, and in the days following the president’s speech that charge was often made. It is notable that after the London bombings of 2005, after the Fort Hood killings, after the Woolwich murder and the Boston atrocities, there were always persons who wished to believe that the terrorists responsible were really no more than deranged or alienated individuals with no operational connection to al Qaeda. More than one newspaper has been embarrassed by jumping to this conclusion and the president is giving a hostage to fortune by doing the same thing.
But wishful thinking is not the problem; sometimes our hopes are fulfilled and our fears unwarranted. The real flaw in the president’s speech lies in its strategic assessment. The strategic reason we must align our efforts with law is not that now we can afford to do so, but rather that establishing the rule of law is our war aim. And the reason this is so has to do with the underlying and evolving nature of our vulnerability, which is changing the nature of war.
This is a point that is so continually missed that it may make sense to review it, once again.
Commenting on the president’s speech in The New Yorker, John Cassidy recalled something British comedian Terry Jones had written more than a decade earlier:
With most wars, you can say you’ve won when the other side is either all dead or surrenders. But how is terrorism going to surrender? It’s hard for abstract nouns to surrender.
Like most people, I imagine, Cassidy thinks that victory is the defeat of the enemy. If terror is a state of mind — an “abstract noun” — it cannot be defeated. But victory in warfare, unlike in football or chess, is not the defeat of the enemy. It is the achievement of the war aim. Certainly we should have learned by now, after Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, that you can kill a lot of the enemy and still not achieve the war aim.