By Paolo von Schirach
May 24, 2013
WASHINGTON – In a major policy speech President Obama tried to outline current and future US conduct regarding the use of unmanned drones to target and kill terrorists. That said, there is something profoundly wrong in the way the President framed the issue. “This war, like all wars, must end” –he said– “That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands”. At least implicitly, this statement would make you believe that America, at its sole discretion, will determine when and on what terms this long conflict with radical Islam will come to an end.
When will this war end?
Indeed, to the layman Obama’s statement may appear unobjectionable. Of course this war, just like all wars in the past, will come to an end. They all do. Of course democracies do not want to be endlessly at war. Well, it may be so. But there is one key variable in this continuum that is entirely outside of America’s control. And the variable is “when” any war, including this “War on Terror”, will come to an end. Carl von Clausewitz wrote long ago that in any war, and that would include the “War on Terror” we have been waging, the actual end of hostilities is determined not by the victor but by the vanquished. This statement may sound innocuous; but it has profound implications. There is no victor until the other side says “I lost”. War does not end until one the parties says: “I give up. I accept defeat and I shall stop fighting”. Until this critical moment comes along, the war is on. It will cease only when the losing party formally accepts defeat and stops any kind of military operations.
How WWII ended
This is how WWII ended. The Germans capitulated in 1945; and later on so did the Japanese. But imagine for a moment that, even after the dropping of the A bombs on Japan, the Japanese had decided to keep on fighting on every beach and on every piece of their homeland, come what may. The war would have ended, eventually. But much, much later; and at a much higher cost for the US. The war ended when it did because the Emperor publicly conceded defeat and formally ordered the cessation of hostilities. If he, along with the Japanese ruling elites, had decided otherwise, the war would have continued, despite the devastations caused by the A Bomb. So, it wasn’t the A Bomb that ended the war. It was the subjective decision made by the Japanese. After they saw the devastation caused by the Bomb, they concluded that they were finished and therefore it made no sense to continue fighting. In other words, “They said: “We are licked. We give up“. And only at that point the US could rightfully claim victory.
Who will surrender on behalf of al Qaeda?
Well, what does this have to do with “War on Terror”? Plenty. Simply stated, the “War on Terror” will end not because America’s democracy demands this, as President Obama put it, (truly silly statement, in the light of the above); but because the last terrorist left standing will say: “Enough. I give up. No more of this“.
And here it gets really tricky.
In rigidly hierarchical war time Japan an order from the Emperor was obeyed by all. He said “We stop fighting “, and the armed forces obeyed. (With the notable exception of a few stranded soldiers who never received the information about Japan’s surrender and therefore, most amazingly, continued “the war” on their own in the jungles of the Philippines. Having received no new orders, as far as they were concerned, the war was still on.)
Someone will keep on fighting
When it comes to loose transnational organizations with unclear hierarchies like al Qaeda and affiliates, with nothing even remotely resembling a conventional “Chain of Command”, there is no one who can “surrender” on behalf of the entire organization. One particular group may give up. But this would not bind all the others, nor would it deny the opportunity for new groups to start their own fight. Which is to say that the “War on Terror” may never end, because we cannot have and enforce a binding agreement with a a collection of non state actors that keep morphing regarding membership, leadership, funding and recruiting methods. They are motivated by irrational ideologies. As long as some people will believe whatever they want to believe, they will keep on fighting.
“War on Terror” is a misnomer
In all this the real stupidity goes back to President George W. Bush who insisted on calling terror attacks against America “a war”. This was most unhelpful because the term “war” conjures up conventional ideas about armed conflict. “Here are the bad guys who do nasty things. We are the good guys. We mobilize. We go after the bad guys. We find them, engage them, destroy them. End of war. We go home and all is well”. This conventional wisdom about how wars start and end created the totally unwarranted expectation that the “War on Terror” –just like all the other wars– will follow pretty much the same predictable course. “We fight. We win. War over“.
Clearly this is not the case regarding the “War on Terror”. As the recent Boston attack shows, just a couple of determined people can launch a successful terror attack, with tragic consequences. Until any of these would be terrorists will be at large, the “War on Terror” will not be over.
When will it end?
Therefore, while it is true, in principle, that all wars will come to an end, regarding this one there is no predictable time line. And it is certainly wrong to assume that America’s might will have to prevail, because we are so much bigger and stronger than all the terrorists combined.
Sadly, the President of the United States, the Commander in Chief of the largest armed forces in the world, is in no position to determine the end of this conflict. It is not up to him. It is up to al Qaeda and its affiliates to conclude (some day) that this conflict is pointless. And they may not come to this sensible conclusion any time soon, because they are not sensible.