Why we’re stuck with the War on Terror
Prompted by this entry from Greenwald, Erik and Tim Kowal kicked off a Gmail debate about why there’s such a startling degree of continuity between the Obama and Bush Administration’s counter-terror policies. The answer you’re likely to get from a Bush sympathizer is that Obama was forced to abandon his campaign promises when confronted by the realities of national security. Let me propose an alternative hypothesis.
The costs of our counter-terror policies – from dead Iraqis to mistreated detainees – are largely invisible to the American electorate. I don’t doubt that many of us feel queasy about waterboarding or what happened at Abu Ghraib, but very few votes are decided by these controversies. Provided it’s “limited,” even war has lost its electoral salience – the all-volunteer military has taken care of that particular hurdle.
The prospect of being blamed for another attack, however, is politically radioactive. Anything short of a maximally-invasive approach to counter-terrorism allows the other side to blame incumbents for letting our guard down. The reality, of course, is that terrorists will always pose a threat to reasonably free and open societies, but that won’t stop political demagogues from assuring us otherwise. Unfortunately, “the bomber will always get through” isn’t much of a campaign slogan.
Despite challenges from the libertarian right and the activist left, I don’t think the political incentives governing counter-terrorism policy are likely to change any time soon. Which is probably why we’re stuck with the “War on Terror” framework for the foreseeable future.