We remain a nation at peril, but are we still a nation at war?
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama signaled, yet again, that the war in Afghanistan is effectively over. Soon, in fact, it will be over by any honest measure: The presence of American troops will be halved to 34,000 in the coming months, and erased entirely by December 31, 2014. On this arbitrarily chosen date, the president claims, we will “achieve our core objective of defeating the core of al-Qaeda.”
This was just rhetorical fluff. The core of al-Qaeda will still be intact, even resurgent. It will simply have moved on to more hospitable climes such as northern Africa – thanks in no small part to a windfall of new arms from Libya, courtesy of Obama’s unprovoked, unauthorized, and strategically disastrous war to topple the Qaddafi regime.
What, moreover, has Afghanistan got to do with “defeating the core of al-Qaeda”? We have been told for years that al-Qaeda has virtually no presence in Afghanistan. It has been a very long time since the mission of our troops there was to defeat al-Qaeda’s core. For several years, their mission has been incoherent: Prop up the ramshackle and often hostile sharia government we have birthed in Kabul, while simultaneously staving off and negotiating with the Taliban. You may think, as I do, that these are futile objectives and that it is irresponsible to put our troops in harm’s way for them. Or you may believe that, though difficult, they are worthy goals. One thing you cannot credibly believe, though, is that these are the aims for which we went to war in 2001.
It is essential to remember those aims because it is they, and they alone, that determine whether we are still, constitutionally and legitimately, a nation at war. That is a very real question. It is one we must confront because on it hinges such crucial questions as whether the intensified drone campaign – the subject of heated ongoing debate – is lawful.
Understand: Though war is political act, it is also a formal legal reality. Its existence and legitimacy, in our constitutional system, are up to Congress.
War is not a matter of rhetoric. Banter that “we remain a nation at war” is no more meaningful than claptrap about being at “war” with poverty or drugs. Many of us have long objected to the term “War on Terror” exactly because it is rhetoric that ducks identification of an actual enemy. As such, it invites such dubious mission creep as “Islamic democracy”-building in Afghanistan and elsewhere. If, in going to war, you don’t focus on the defeat of a concretely identified human enemy, all manner of foolishness can become policy under the guise of defeating a rhetorical abstraction such as “terror.”
Nor is war an exercise in deductive reasoning. The nation is not legitimately at war just because politicians and pundits can look around and draw the conclusion that the United States has enemies in the world. Merely to have enemies is not to be at war. We always have enemies – foreign countries and factions that mean us ill. North Korea is our enemy, as is Hezbollah, but we are not at war with them.
In the same way, the international jihadist network spearheaded by al-Qaeda was our enemy before September 11, 2001. In fact, prior to that infamous date, al-Qaeda repeatedly declared itself to be at war with us. It even acted on these declarations by, for example, attacking our embassies in east Africa in 1998 and the U.S.S. Cole as it docked in Yemen in 2000. Here, however, is the salient fact: We were not at war with al-Qaeda, regardless of their jihad against us. This was unwise on our part, but that does not make it any less true.