Op-Ed: Debating Ends, not Just Means, in the War on Terror
Compiled by Stephen Biddle SSI
The national security debate tends to focus on means. How
much money should we spend? Where should we use force? How
should our troops be equipped?
Ends, however, ought to shape decisions about means. Yet the
ends of American national security usually get less attention
than the means. As the nation debates national security in
this time of war, what critical questions about the ends of
American strategy should we be considering?
The most basic question of wartime strategy is against whom
it is to be directed. Who is the enemy? A 'war on terror' pits
us against a tactic, not an enemy; by contrast, wartime strategies
typically seek to defeat specific opponents whose aims conflict
with one's own. A wide range of groups use terrorist tactics;
many of these groups pose no particular threat to America.
Clearly al-Qaeda is in the cross hairs, and surely should be.
But should there be others? Hamas? Hezbollah? The Colombian
FARC? At some point do we go from destroying threats to America
to creating them by driving together groups we might otherwise
be able to split apart? Historically, terrorists have had great
difficulty collaborating: their secretive natures, differing
interests and inevitably local priorities discouraged common
action. Will such a broad definition of the enemy create the
common cause needed to drive them together against us? Or does
it instead provide the breadth of aims needed to root out a
diverse conspiracy with unknown interconnectedness? Al-Qaeda
has been likened to a holding corporation for terrorists, in
which a core cadre funds subcontractors to carry out the actual
dirty work; if so, how can we be sure that we do not exclude
important 'subcontractors' if we fail to cast the net broadly
enough? More generally, who should we really be waging war
against, and who not?
what end state are we trying to create? How much security
is enough? If we demand something like absolute security,
then can we ever achieve victory? Or if absolute security is
unrealistic, then what level of tolerance for terrorism is
appropriate? When, if ever, can we stand down - if not to
a state of indifference toward terror, then at least to a
where we no longer find 'war' and wartime defense expenditure
an appropriate response?
A war such as this one poses unusually difficult civil liberties
issues. The ultimate end in this conflict is the preservation
of our way of life, an important element of which is liberty.
Yet civil liberties are often restricted in wartime. Historically,
the courts have permitted this, in part on the assumption that
the war would soon be over and normal rights returned. But
if we define the enemy and the end state in ways that create
an open-ended conflict against an ill-defined foe, 'wartime'
could become a chronic condition, not an acute emergency. If
so, then how can we preserve the civil liberties for which
we are ultimately fighting in a war that could be potentially
indefinite? Does it make sense to incarcerate potential combatants
without counsel for the duration when the duration could be
forever? But if not, then how is the public to be defended
from real threats that no longer come in uniforms or with clear
of strategic direction - the ends for which one fights -
are central to success or failure in any war. They deserve
at least the attention normally devoted to the means of war
in the public debate on national security. Without the right
questions, sound answers are unlikely; we owe it to ourselves
to pose the best questions we can on the ends, and not just
the means, of the War on Terror.