Victory in the War on Terror

2 September 2004

Victory in the War on Terror

By Gwynne Dyer

“With the right policies, this is a war we can win, this is a war we must win, and this is a war we will win,” said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in Tennessee on 31 August. “The war on terrorism is absolutely winnable,” repeated his vice-presidential running mate, Senator John Edwards. That is utter drivel, and they must privately know it, but truth generally loses to calculated lies in politics.

This outburst of bravado was prompted by President George W. Bush’s brief brush with the truth about terrorism the previous weekend, when he told an interviewer that he did not really think you can win the war on terror, but that conditions could be changed in ways that would make terrorists less acceptable in certain parts of the world. For a moment there, you glimpsed a functioning intellect at work. Such honesty rarely goes unpunished in politics.

This heroic attempt to grapple with reality was a welcome departure from Mr Bush’s usual style — “I have a clear vision of how to win the war on terror and bring peace to the world,” he was claiming as recently as 30 August — and so his opponents pounced on it at once. “What if President Reagan had said that it may be difficult to win the war against Communism?” asked John Edwards, in one of the least credible displays of indignation in American history.

Mr Bush promptly fled back to the safe terrain of hypocrisy and patriotic lies. “We meet today in a time of war for our country, a war we did not start, yet one that we will win,” he told a veterans’ conference in Nashville on 1 September. But it is not “a time of war” for the United States, and it cannot “win.”.

Some 140,000 young American soldiers are trapped in a neo-colonial war in Iraq (where there were no terrorists until the US invasion), but their casualties are typical of colonial wars: fewer than one percent killed a year. As for the three hundred million Americans at home, exactly as many of them have been killed by terrorists since 9/11 as have been killed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the same period. None.

The rhetoric of a “war on terror” have been useful to the Bush administration, and terrorism now bulks inordinately large in any media where the agenda is set by American perspectives. On the front page of the International Herald Tribune that carried the story on Mr Bush’s return to political orthodoxy on terrorism, four of the other five stories were also about terrorism: “Twin bus bombs kill 16 in Israel,” “Blast leaves 8 dead in Moscow subway,” “12 Nepal hostages slain in Iraq,” and “French hold hectic talks on captives.”

In other words, thirty-six of the quarter-million people who died on this planet on the 31st of August were killed by terrorists: close to one in eight thousand. No wonder the IHT headlined its front page “A Deadly Day of Terror.” Although it would have been on firmer statistical ground if it had substituted the headline “A Deadly Day for Swimming” or even “A Deadly Day for Falling Off Ladders.”

Actually, more than 36 people were killed by “terrorists” on 31 August — perhaps as many as fifty or sixty. The rest were just killed in wars that the United States is not all that interested in: in Nepal, in Peru, in Burundi, and in other out-of-the-way countries where the local guerrillas are not Muslims and have no imaginable links with the terrorists who attacked the United States.

Governments that are fighting Muslim rebels, like the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories or the Chechens in Russia, have had more success in tying their local counter-insurgency struggles to the US “war on terror,” but that only means that Washington doesn’t criticise their human rights violations so much. The only terrorists that the United States government really worries about — and this would be equally true under a Kerry administration — are terrorists who attack Americans. There aren’t that many of them, and they aren’t that dangerous.

George W. Bush spoke the truth, briefly, at the end of August, when he said that the “war on terror” cannot be won. It cannot be won OR lost, because it is only a metaphor, not an actual war. It is like the “war on crime,” another metaphor. Nobody ever expected that the “war on crime” would one day end in a surrender ceremony where all the criminals come out with their hands up, and afterwards there is no more crime. It is a STATISTICAL operation, and success is measured by how successful you are in getting the crime RATE down. Same goes for terrorism.

You could do worse than to listen to Stella Rimington, the former director of MI5, Britain’s intelligence agency for domestic operations: “I’m afraid that terrorism didn’t begin on 9/11 and it will be around for a long time. I was very surprised by the announcement of a war on terrorism because terrorism has been around for thirty-five years…[and it] will be around while there are people with grievances. There are things we can to improve the situation, but there will always be terrorism. One can be misled by talking about a war, as though in some way you can defeat it.” As Mr Bush said before his handlers got the muzzle back on.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Actually…dangerous”)