We must define the nature and scope of this struggle,
or else it will define us.
—President Barack Obama, May 23, 2013
America must move off a permanent war footing.
—President Barack Obama, January 28, 2014
I came upon the half-destroyed truck atop a highway overpass outside Fallujah, the cab shot to hell, the trailer bloodstained and propped up at a crazy angle on its blown tires. On the highway below a great black burn scarred the concrete and over it a rust-red slash, the soot and blood marking the spot where, earlier that day in October 2003, the insurgents had used a cheap remote control to ignite barrels of concealed explosives just as the U.S. armored patrol rumbled by, killing one paratrooper, wounding several. Insurgents, hidden in houses nearby, followed with bursts from their AK-47s.
The Americans promptly dismounted and with their M16s and M4s began pouring lead into everything they could see, starting with the truck that happened to be passing on the highway above, eviscerating the unfortunate driver, and then fired into the houses. How many Iraqis had the troops killed and wounded? The more the better, as far as insurgent leaders were concerned. “The point is to get the Americans to fire back,” the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne told me the next day, “and hopefully the bad guys’ll get some Iraqi casualties out of that and they can publicize that.” By week’s end scores of family and close friends of those killed and
wounded would join the insurgents, for honor demanded they kill Americans to wipe away family shame.
American firepower plus Iraqi deaths equals more insurgents: an axiom in the strategy of provocation. Provoke your enemy to kill civilians and thereby call to battle the sleeping population. You have no army? Use the aggression of the occupiers to help raise one of your own. In Iraq, insurgents have used that strategy to grow and prosper, recognizing the characteristic American quickness to react with overwhelming firepower as their best friend. Across continents, al Qaeda used it as well, blowing up towers in New York to create an indelible recruiting poster for the worldwide cause while provoking self-defeating responses. Lure the Americans into Afghanistan, where they’ll sink into the quagmire that had trapped their superpower rival two decades before.
Such was Osama bin Laden’s strategy. Could he have dared dream that the Americans would prove so cooperative as to invade Iraq as well? Like a celestial slot machine daily pouring forth its golden bounty, the September 11 attacks had led the administration of President George W. Bush not only to an assault on Afghanistan but, scarcely a year later, to a wonderfully telegenic invasion of a major Muslim country. To an attack by a small insurgent group that called for Muslims to rise up and throw off American oppression, the United States had responded by dispatching 150,000 Americans to oppress Muslims. Now the tiny Islamic fringe movement could point to television screens as American tanks rumbled down the streets of an Arab capital, as American soldiers rousted Muslims from their beds, threw them to the ground, placed unclean boots on their backs: as they stripped them and tortured them at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, as they had hooded them and forced them to their knees at Guantánamo.
Abu Ghraib did for the Iraqi insurgents what Guantánamo had done for al Qaeda, embodying in powerful images their arguments about who Americans were, what they did to Muslims, why
they must be defeated. A dozen years later the Islamic State, malign stepchild of that insurgency, carries the argument forward with its signature image: a young American in orange kneeling in the dust in a desolate landscape, a knife held to his throat by a masked figure in black who declaims into the camera until the moment when the music rises and he brings his knife into play . . . To Western audiences the scene says barbarism, savagery, terror. To many young Muslims it says oppression, torture, hypocrisy, the orange jumpsuit calling to mind other prisoners, shackled, blindfolded, ear-muffed, kneeling under the merciless tropical sun. Contrary to the American president who insists that Guantánamo is “not who we are,” to these viewers Guantánamo is precisely who we are because it is what we have done: Imprison Muslims and hold them indefinitely without trial. Invade and occupy Muslim countries. Torture prisoners. Assassinate with drones.
. . . . .
As you read these words, the United States will have been at war for at least fourteen years, making the “war on terror” by far the longest in the country’s history. The war began the week after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the Authorization for Use of Military Force. There is no telling when it might end. Though President Barack Obama has withdrawn most American troops from the shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in his second term has repeatedly warned against the perils of “perpetual war,” he has shown himself no more able than his predecessor to take the country off what he criticizes as its “permanent war footing.” For all his power, in his repeated calls to end the war the president increasingly appears to be a man fighting a stronger force. He warns, he warns again. Little changes. Laocoön struggles in the coils of the serpent.
What is that stronger force? Is it terrorism or the malign political
currents still churning in its wake? Since the September 11 attacks only a handful of Americans have died at the hands of Islamic terrorists—
twenty-four in 2014, fewer than were killed that year by lightning—and yet the war on terror has embedded itself deeply in our psyches and in our politics. The war on terror has taken on a life of its own, nourished by the politics of fear and nourishing in its turn powerful institutions of national security.
United States’ military spending, already greater than that of the next ten countries combined, nearly doubled.
Its intelligence budget—so far as we know—more than doubled.
On the ground it has been a strange war, a mix of real and virtual, carried on partly in the glaring light by American warplanes and soldiers and partly in the darkness by special operators and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Even as U.S. troops began to leave behind the hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, U.S. drones were killing thousands, some of them al Qaeda leaders but many more low-level militants in organizations that did not yet exist on September 11. This
so-called third war—after Afghanistan and Iraq—has now given way to a fourth, the war on the Islamic State, which President Obama vowed in September 2014 “to
degrade and ultimately destroy.” In the cause of “taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines”—a strategy, the president insisted, that “we have
successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years”—the United States sent thousands of troops back to Iraq and launched thousands of air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Months later, he had to hastily withdraw American security forces from Yemen as this particular “partner on the front lines” collapsed amid sectarian warfare.
After the attacks of September 11 the United States faced a global terrorist organization with thousands of trained fighters, a network of regional affiliate groups, and an innovative program of Internet-based propaganda and recruitment. After fourteen years of war the United States finds itself facing not one such organization
but two, and the second the United States itself did much to create. The Islamic State, which governs a territory the size of the United Kingdom and a population greater than that of New Zealand, is a direct descendant of al Qaeda in Iraq, which itself was born of the Iraq War, a war of choice launched by President Bush that helped unleash a historic wave of destruction, instability, and sectarian fighting that has upended the traditional American-sustained order in the Middle East. President Obama’s decision a decade later to bomb the Islamic State in order to “degrade and ultimately destroy” it has dramatically helped its recruiting,
hastening a vast flow of foreign fighters into its ranks.
Also driving recruiting, as we are reminded each time we see an Islamic State prisoner kneeling in his orange jumpsuit, is the persistence of immensely damaging policies on detention and interrogation that hark back to the early days of the Bush administration. Despite President Obama’s vow to close it, Guantánamo remains open with nearly a hundred detainees, and each new terrorist attempt within the United States brings with it loud calls for the suspect to be “
given a one-way ticket to Guantanamo” and subjected there to what we have learned to call, politely, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Each new attack—and there have been several during the Obama years, from the young Nigerian who tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit to the Pakistani American who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square to the couple who attacked a holiday party in San Bernardino—brings with it a revivifying of the politics of fear and a warning that the war on terror is nowhere near an ending. Even as President Obama calls for a replacement for his predecessor’s original Authorization for Use of Military Force, he has seen to it that many of what he considers his most vital national security policies, from killing by remotely piloted drone aircraft to indefinite detention of prisoners, are legally grounded in it.
Many of these policies are tactics in search of a strategy, flailing at imminent threats today at the cost of creating more terrorists
tomorrow. Even as “core” al Qaeda, the original organization that attacked the United States nearly a decade and a half ago, has been “decimated”—the word is President Obama’s—it has sown successor organizations like dragon’s teeth throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Many of these organizations have been greatly helped in their growth by American military interventions launched in the stated cause of making our country safer. The birth and growth of the Islamic State exemplifies a central theme of the war on terror: that across these fourteen and more years of war the United States through its own actions has done much to aid its enemies and has sometimes helped create them. Just as the invasion and occupation of Iraq sowed the seeds of the Islamic State, the ongoing drone wars in Yemen helped lead to the dramatic expansion of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and contributed to the collapse of the Yemeni state.
Though a vanishingly small number of Americans have died in terrorist attacks since September 11,
the number of deaths from terrorism around the world has soared. According to U.S. government figures, nearly 33,000 people worldwide died from terrorism in 2014, an increase of 35 percent over the year before—and of 4,000 percent since 2002. The number of jihadist groups and jihadists went on rising, in the case of fighters fielded by the Islamic State alone to perhaps 31,000. (
Unofficial estimates are much higher.) In precisely those places where the United States has concentrated its violent attention—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya—the number of attacks, deaths, and terrorists rose most dramatically. In Iraq, American troops dramatically widened a Sunni-Shia rift that the Islamic State has exploited to destabilize the entire Middle East. In Yemen, the conflict has led to a bloody Saudi invasion that the United States is supporting. We have created in the war on terror a perpetual motion machine.
. . . . .
In the pages that follow I examine the persistence of the war that began so long ago and that has inscribed itself so prominently in our national life. My intent is to show how it is that terrorist attacks on a single day could have led a great power into the trap of endless war and how that war has degraded the country’s values together with its security. Some of the underlying realities are unique to the United States, notably the country’s history of adopting permanent “emergency state” procedures during the four-decade-long Cold War, which concentrated vast war-fighting powers in the president’s hands and
established under his sole command enduring secret bureaucracies such as NORAD, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. Still, the dynamic of terror and counterterror, of terrorist bombings and kidnappings provoking torture, indefinite detention, and other harsh responses from the state, is all too familiar. Watching this dynamic take shape, I found myself discerning traces, faint but distinct, of a distant time and place.
More than three decades ago, when I was nearing the end of my last year in college, I met a fascinating man, a newspaper editor who had worked in Argentina during the “dirty war” that was then running its bloody course. He had gained a kind of quiet celebrity for daring to publish in his English-language paper the names of the disappeared—until the generals lost patience and his children were threatened, sending him and his family into exile. Under his tutelage I came to study the dirty wars of the Southern Cone and the dynamic of terror and counterterror that drove them forward: the bombings and kidnappings carried out by guerrilla groups, the disappearances and torture employed by the state. This last category included as a major component the practice of el submarino. In the paper I wrote at the time I translated that phrase as “the submarine”—in those days, I didn’t know the expression “waterboarding,” nor would I have guessed that the United States would one day employ this torture in interrogating prisoners and would do so under color of law.
The United States of the war on terror is not the Argentina of the dirty war. The United States did not disappear and torture and murder thousands of its own citizens. Yet during the war on terror the United States has disappeared people and it has tortured them, with the explicit and official approval of its leaders. Those leaders were not military officers who had seized power in a coup d’état but civilian politicians who had been elected by American voters. Whatever the striking differences between the American war on terror and the dirty wars of four decades ago, the bitter cycle of terror and counterterror kept in creaking inertial motion by the politics of fear seems hauntingly familiar. High-ranking members of the U.S. government have ordered terrorist suspects to be kidnapped, detained indefinitely, and tortured. Far from drawing official condemnation and punishment, these practices, together with widespread warrantless surveillance and assassination using remotely controlled drone aircraft, have come to define a new kind of quiet counterterror whose end is nowhere in sight. Torture itself, though no longer officially practiced, exists in a strange legal netherworld in which the current president and attorney general denounce it as “plainly illegal” but do nothing to punish or even repudiate their predecessors who now speak proudly of having ordered it.
In the fall of 2012 we heard from advisers to the Republican candidate for president that, if elected, he would reinstate “enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective.” The
leading Republican candidates for president in 2016 seem mostly to have embraced the same position, some of them vehemently. Even as indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping, and assassination by drone have become normalized and legalized, torture, once an anathema, has become a policy choice.
During the Cold War the United States’ de facto support for the repression unleashed by friendly regimes was kept officially sub rosa, an unmentionable necessity of the emergency state that had taken shape during the late 1940s to wage what was seen as a long
twilight struggle against communist subversion. Torture was something they did and that we, if necessary, quietly supported but officially ignored; it was never brought out into the clear light of day to be defended as a regrettable but necessary tool of policy. Such public embrace came only with the war on terror. Only then were bright young officials in the Department of Justice set to work drafting legal memoranda to show that waterboarding, when examined with a sharp lawyer’s eye, did not really violate the strictures of the
United Nations’ Convention Against Torture or the federal statutes that had until quite recently been used to prosecute it as a crime. Torture’s official approval, and its acceptance by much of the American public, has thrust us into a new era, a legal twilight world from which we do not know how to escape. All evidence suggests that Americans remain deeply conflicted about torture, with substantial numbers—perhaps a majority, depending on how the question is posed—convinced it is sometimes necessary to protect the country.
Recognizing this political reality, understanding the fear behind it and how that fear is manipulated, is vital to gaining any understanding of the politics of torture and the other attributes of what has become our permanent emergency. It is one of the regrettable consequences of the war on terror that so many Americans are now convinced that the country cannot be adequately protected without breaking the law.
Amid this struggle, President Obama’s declarations that “America must move off a permanent war footing” have come to sound less like the orders of a commander in chief than the pleas of one lonely conflicted man trying to persuade. Indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping, assassination by drone: all seem to have become, despite the expressed ambivalence of a president who has made ready use of them, permanent parts of what the country does and thus what it is. Hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan have died in the wars of September 11. Thousands more have been killed in U.S. drone attacks. Millions have had their email
and telephone metadata collected without a warrant. Hundreds were disappeared into secret prisons. Scores remain in indefinite detention. No end is in sight. On the contrary, all elements seem in place to perpetuate a shadow war that few are willing to take the political risk of bringing to an end.
Meantime the permanent politics of fear makes the country uniquely vulnerable to the very terrorism it means to combat. A vast counterterror apparatus has arisen that serves to magnify the importance of each terrorist attempt, and politicians and the press do their part to multiply the fear. Only in the post–September 11 era would it have been conceivable for two young men using nothing more than two homemade pressure-cooker bombs to shut down the city of Boston or for an anonymous troublemaker with a “
crudely written email threat” to close the entire Los Angeles school system. In our fear and anxiety we have become a highly tuned instrument, taut and tense, ever ready for terrorists to play upon. We have fallen into a self-defeating spiral of reaction and counterterror. Our policies, meant to extirpate our enemies, have strengthened and perpetuated them. To see this one need look no further than Iraq, where a repressive secular regime has been replaced in a third of the country by the self-proclaimed Islamic State; or Libya, where the U.S.-led overthrow of the Gaddafi regime has led to a lawless vacuum in which the Islamic State thrives; or Yemen, where under the constant “secret” bombardment of American drones al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown from a few hundred militants to more than a thousand. Neither al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula nor the Islamic State existed on September 11, 2001. In the years since, even as we have sacrificed our values at the altar of our own fear, it is as if we have put our politics into their hands, and our policies at the service of their goals.
The public agonizing of our president, a man seemingly imprisoned in policies whose wisdom he has lately been given publicly to doubt, stands as a warning of how difficult it will be to escape this
fear and its institutionalized consequences. Perhaps political upheavals set in train by the war on terror will leave the country little choice: how to remain a status quo power where the status quo is collapsing? Or it may be that far-reaching changes in policy will come only after a true reckoning with the decisions that have thrust us
into what has become a forever war. Perhaps somewhere over the horizon such a reckoning awaits. The Argentines, through three decades of truth commissions, public inquiries, and criminal trials, are still struggling doggedly to work through and expiate what they did to themselves during those violent years of the late 1970s. That was a long time ago and the conflict was very different, but that their struggle still goes on might inspire in us a bit of faith that, however long it takes, this self-destructive cycle might be broken and its genesis examined and understood.
The pages that follow are intended as a modest contribution toward that effort, or at least toward understanding, a bit more fully, how we came to plunge into this spiral—this path that circles and circles while seeming to take us ever further from our destination. I seek to understand the dynamic of fear and reaction that took shape during the administration of George W. Bush and that has been modified and normalized under that of Barack Obama. At its center, at the heart of the forever war, I find the problem of torture and the general forfeiture of moral and political legitimacy represented by the embrace of methods that are “not who we are.” President Obama’s repeated use of that phrase to describe policies embraced by the United States seems to reveal a kind of painful national schizophrenia. Guantánamo, insists the president, is not who we are. Yet Americans go on imprisoning without trial nearly a hundred detainees there. Torture, says the president, is not who we are. And yet he punishes no one for having tortured, contenting himself with the thought that “
hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” Indefinite detention, torture, targeted assassination: all of these are not who we are. And yet they are what we do.
American exceptionalism, which held the country to be uniquely defined by its founding principles, has come to mean a country that routinely violates those principles while claiming its actions do not undermine the ideals it claims to embody. The contradiction here goes beyond simple hypocrisy to approach a kind of willed blindness. Perhaps that contradiction was always immanent in the American imperial vision and has emerged more clearly only as the American postwar order in the Middle East has begun its slow collapse. The attackers on September 11 were striking out at that order, at American support for the autocracies in Cairo and Riyadh, and their shocking success at undermining it could only have been possible with persistent, and unwitting, American help. I will describe that help in the pages that follow as I seek to understand how 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. Determining how we might escape this spiral will mean exploring how we trapped ourselves in it in the first place, and finally questioning not only how America has “fought terrorism” but how it has exerted power as the
“indispensable nation” it has long held itself to be.