RadioBDC Logo
| Listen Live
Juliette Kayyem

The war on terror is over

What has replaced it is a way of thinking that is more honest, less ideological, and more effective

By Juliette Kayyem
Globe Columnist / September 10, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

WHEN GOVERNOR Patrick came into office in 2007, he inherited a legacy of programs to protect a state that had suffered so gravely 10 years ago tomorrow. Since the week after 9/11, the Massachusetts National Guard had been protecting the perimeter of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant. That was understandable in those early months, even years, but the Guard remained six years later. No changes had been made, despite the growing recognition that the troops had been ably supplanted by legions of security personnel.

Several months later, Massachusetts became the first state to withdraw its Guard from a nuclear facility. We shifted away from a strategy that looked tough and militaristic, but that clearly wasn’t necessary. I say this as someone familiar with the deep political and even psychological obstacles to doing so, as I was the governor’s homeland security adviser. How could we withdraw the Guard without seeming soft, or weak? Other states quickly followed, as if they were waiting for the all-clear sign.

It’s not that the terrorist threat was over. Not at all. But there were other procedures - better communications, more aggressive intelligence sharing, increased lighting and surveillance on the streets - that we instituted instead of relying on a handful of overextended Guard members rotating their way through 24/7 security.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there has been much talk of how the war on terror, at home and abroad, has kept us safe. But there has been far less said about the constantly changing sources of that protection, and how far it has evolved from its militaristic roots. Ten years is a long time to fight any “war,’’ but particularly one in which the enemy has changed so dramatically. And over that time, there has been a whole range of shifts across the nation that have been similar to the changes at Pilgrim.

Unfortunately, there is a new narrative being written, or rewritten, by those who are inclined to hold onto the so-called war on terror. Defenders of the previous presidential administration - most notably former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bush administration legal adviser John Yoo - would like to have everyone believe that their policies have been vindicated because the Obama administration has supposedly continued them. And some liberal critics of President Obama, who seem only too willing to attack him for doing more of the same (or worse) as a sort of “Bush lite,’’ play into this narrative.

This telling requires a sleight of hand and a lot of forgetfulness. It equates the Obama administration’s use of the military through drone attacks and special operations as an extension of Bush’s “war.’’ But narrowly targeted military strategies to combat specific threats are not the same as the global war on terror that we lived under during the Bush administration.

So, it’s time to set the record straight:The war on terror is over. To still call the effort to dismantle, kill, and disrupt Al Qaeda and its affiliates the war on terror is to treat the United States and its government as frozen in time. It assumes that there has been no learning, no growth, no recognition of mistakes, no priority shifts, no advancement in capabilities. It assumes time has stood still.

The war on terror was an entire government ideology based on the belief that Islamic terrorism represented a unified and operationally centralized threat, demanding a predominantly military response with the president, as commander in chief, empowered to use any means necessary to defeat the enemy.

The US government, under any administration, is going to need a variety of tools to use to combat that threat of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Nobody needs to make apologies for seeking the power necessary to preserve national security. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force, approved by Congress immediately after 9/11, gave President Bush, and future presidents, the legal authority to fight Al Qaeda with force. It remains the law today.

But the war on terror was so much more. It was the “enhanced interrogation’’ of suspects, the insistence that allies be either with us or against us, the indiscriminate interviewing of Muslim communities, the registration of Arab immigrants, the military tribunals that adhered to standards unrecognized in military law, the use of Guantanamo Bay prison, the color-code alerts, the breathless press conferences about any new threats, the rejection of traditional laws of war, the dismissal of the Geneva Conventions, the secret wiretapping in violation of established law, and more.

Thankfully, some of those policies were curbed by the end of the Bush administration, others waited for new leadership to set different terms. Military tribunals, as one example, still exist, but they are very different than the ones Bush ordered. When Obama came into office he worked with Congress, and issued executive orders, that brought these counterterrorism strategies under accepted and clearly delineated law.

It has simply not been more of the same. The CIA’s “black sites’’ - secret prisons in other countries - are closed. Enhanced interrogation is outlawed. The laws of war have been restored. Guantanamo remains open not because Obama wants it that way, but because Congress has barred the expenditure of funds to bring its prisoners to the United States for trial.

Thus, to pretend that there has been no rejection of what came before - of what defined the “war’’ - is a mistake. It took court decisions, public opposition, congressional changes, new leaders within the Bush administration, and finally a new president to end the war on terror as we knew it.

And the effort was worth it. Because we got better. Over these 10 years, under both Bush and Obama, the US security apparatus became far more sophisticated. That is partly because the threat changed; it became more decentralized and disparate. We have adapted to that, certainly, by using military tactics to kill the leaders of Al Qaeda affiliates worldwide. But we have also become more focused, measuring success by effectiveness rather than sheer activity.

Homeland security is, fundamentally, a bottom-up process. It begins with local officials who run police departments or emergency management divisions or public health facilities. It is overseen by mayors and governors. Change has come to them, too; the only sitting governor who was in power on 9/11 is Texas’ Rick Perry.

The job of the federal government is to help these state and local officials do their jobs. Policies that are “dual use’’ - that help the cop on the street in fighting crime as well as in countering terrorism, that train emergency managers to contend with a tower falling or Hurricane Irene - are the most sustainable and effective over the long-term.

The color code warning system helped created a war-like climate - much like the nuclear countdown during the Cuban Missile Crisis - but left the people with no clarity about how to respond. And the public rightfully rejected it.

More localized efforts to engage immigrant communities, or the extend the “see something, say something’’ campaigns, are good government in action. And they are especially necessary now, as we have reason to be concerned with radicalization in our own nation. None of these require military engagement or a war-like mindset. They are simply useful strategies, adapted by people across the ideological spectrum.

When a Navy Seal team killed Osama bin Laden, I viewed the mission as an expression of smart counterterrorism - and smart counterterrorism allows room for effective military action. More military efforts will need to be utilized in the future. But we should not forget what the war on terror was and how much progress we have made in moving past it. What has replaced it is a way of thinking that is more honest, less ideological, and more effective. Surely not everything is perfect, but criticism is accepted and not ridiculed.

Over the last few days, the American public has been warned that there is potentially a new terrorist threat. Local leaders in New York and Washington, D.C., have asked citizens to serve as force multipliers and be aware of their surroundings. There was little bravado involved, and no mass fear. We have, somehow, become a little matter of fact about this; we know the drill.

It isn’t that hard to let go of a war-like mindset. Indeed, we already have.

Juliette Kayyem is a Globe columnist who formerly served as an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.