After the “Global War on Terror”

The global war on terror seems to be finished under Obama. Good riddance, I say. Better to divide our enemies than lump them together under a common slogan and thereby glorify their violence. Simply breaking from the disastrous policy of the past does not make a good policy , but the early signs from the Obama administration offer very encouraging signs that the prosecution of Al Qaeda will no longer threaten the US long term strategic interests or greviously violate our principles. Obama has made outstanding appointments to the legal offices that oversee the prosecution of terrorists,  restricted the ability of members of his administration to invoke executive privilege, and halted the military commissions trials at Guantanamo Bay. By reinstating restrictions on the use of force and executive authority, Obama has moved towards reestablishing the rule of law in the realm previously referred to as the “GWOT.”

In a sense, deciding that the war on terror must be fought within the rule of law is less difficult than determinig the framework by which the law will operate. Said differently, simply deciding to folllow the rules doesn’t make the right rules any easier to figure out. As in many other areas of policy, Obama will benefit from the “bad boyfriend” effect that comes from following George W. Bush’s presidency – anything he does that isn’t completely horrible will seem like a ray of sunshine in comparison. What will be more complicated is the process of determining how to instantiate the view that our ideals must guide our foreign policy and intelligence work and how to communicate this objective.

Daunting questions about the future of the process remain unanswered. What legal process will we use to try the detainees at Guantanamo? How can we withdraw from Iraq without leaving chaos in our wake? How do we deal with the Pakistani intelligence service’s reluctance/inability to going after Al Qaeda? These questions require much more sophisticated stances than blanket opposition to torture, or the war in Iraq. Of course, Obama has said much of these issues throughout the campaign and transition and liberal think tanks and advocacy groups have done much of the yeoman’s work on outlining the policies that would make a more effective War on Terror.

I guess my question is how to discuss the interrelated issues of antiterrorist and foreign policy without the framework of the war on terror. Perhaps it makes the most sense to simply quit using the phrase, as the British have done. Overall, I think this makes a tremendous amount of sense. As noted foreign policy analyst David Cross has suggested, it is rather difficult to make war on a verb. Even the lesser step of securitizing foreign policy, or even posing all legitimate foreign policy objectives in the language of security, has the unfortunate effect of eroding the rule of law and limitations on state violence.

I imagine that future attempts to narrativize US engagement in the world will be communicated under the rubric of “American leadership,” but I perhaps big thinkers like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was just appointed the chief policy planner under Hillary Clinton at the State Department, will propose a more defined framework for understanding our role in the world. I tend to think these kinds of thematic articulations have much more force than my institutional political science background would suggest – I agree with my anthro friends who argue official discursive formations have impact on the shape of policy and institutions. These kind of themes actually matter, and I wonder how they will be defined in a post-War on Terror world.

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