An all-consuming `war on terror'

December 31, 2006|By Ian S. Lustick

PHILADELPHIA -- The official mantra is that we fight in Iraq because it is the "central front in the War on Terror." The exact opposite is the case.

We are trapped in fighting an unwinnable - even nonsensical - "war on terror" because its invention was required in order to fight in Iraq. After years of slaughter in Iraq, the neoconservative fantasy of a series of cheap, fast, neo-imperial victories is dead. But the war on terror lives on, stronger than ever.

How did the war on terror take on a life of its own and trap the entire political class, and most Americans, into public beliefs about the need to fight a global war on terror as our first priority, even when there's little or no evidence of an enemy present in the United States? What accounts for $650 billion worth of expenditures, along with baseless cycles of "sleeper cell" hysteria and McCarthyist policies of surveillance and "pre-emptive prosecution" not seen in this country since the early 1950s?

Consider how Congress responded to the war on terror. In summer 2003, a list of 160 potential targets for terrorists was drawn up, triggering intense efforts by members of Congress and their constituents to find funding-generating targets in their districts. The result? Widening definitions of potential targets and mushrooming increases in the number of assets deemed worthy of protection: up to 1,849 in late 2003; 28,364 in 2004; 77,069 in 2005; and an estimated 300,000 in 2006 (including the Sears Tower in Chicago but also the Indiana Apple and Pork Festival).

Across the country, virtually every lobby and interest group recast its traditional objectives and funding proposals as more important than ever given the imperatives of the war on terror. The National Rifle Association declared that it means that more Americans should own and carry firearms to defend the country and themselves against terrorists. On the other hand, according to the gun control lobby, fighting the war on terror means passing strict gun-control laws to keep assault weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

Schools of veterinary medicine called for quadrupling their funding. Who else would train veterinarians to defend the country against terrorists using hoof and mouth disease to decimate our cattle herds? Pediatricians declared that more funding was required to train pediatricians as first responders to terrorist attacks, because treating children as victims is not the same as treating adults. Pharmacists advocated the creation of pharmaceutical SWAT teams to respond quickly with appropriate drugs to the victims of terrorist attacks.

Aside from swarms of consulting firms and huge corporate investments in counter-terrorism activities, universities across the country created graduate programs in homeland security, institutes on terrorism and counter-terrorism, all raising huge catcher's mitts into the air for the billions of dollars of grants and contracts just blowing in the wind.

The same imperative - translate your agenda into war on terror requirements or be starved of funds - and its spiraling consequences surged across the government, affecting virtually all agencies. Bureaucrats unable to describe their activities in "war on terror" terms were virtually disqualified from budget increases and probably doomed to cuts. With billions of dollars a year in state and local funding, the Department of Homeland Security devised a list of 15 National Planning Scenarios to help guide its allocations. To qualify for Homeland Security funding, state and local governments had to describe how they would use allocated funds to meet one of those chosen scenarios.

What was the process that produced this list? It was, in part, deeply political, driven by competition among agencies, states and localities that knew funding opportunities would depend on exactly which scenarios were included or excluded (anthrax, a chemical attack on a sports stadium, and hoof and mouth disease were included; attacks on liquid natural gas tankers and West Nile virus were excluded).

Most instructive of all was the unwillingness of the government to define the enemy posing the terrorist threat. Al-Qaida is a tiny threat compared to the size of the enemy required by the thousands of interest groups crowding toward the counter-terrorism trough. For this reason, the enemy in these scenarios is referred to by the Department of Homeland Security as "the universal adversary," present everywhere and capable of taking on any shape. Instead of responding to real threats posed by real enemies, we find ourselves preparing for an endless list of possible bad things that could happen, as if the devil himself were out to get us.

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