Paul Pillar

The Militarization and Politicization of Counterterrorism

One of the most misleading and distracting formulations that has been applied to the countering of terrorism is the notion that this effort is a “war.” The notion was in full bloom with the Bush administration's “war on terror.” Terrorism being a tactic, this concept, as Zbigniew Brzezinski once observed, makes as much sense as a “war on blitzkrieg.” The “war” idea also ignores several other realities: that military force is only one of several tools that can be used for counterterrorist purposes (law enforcement resources and the criminal justice system being a couple of the others); that counterterrorism does not entail a struggle against a single identifiable foe, as a real war does; and that counterterrorism does not have identifiable beginnings and endings, as real wars do.

Applying the “war” notion to counterterrorism has several negative consequences. It overly militarizes counterterrorism itself, encouraging excessive reliance on the military instrument. It invites the tendentious association of counterterrorism with unrelated military adventures or misadventures, as happened with the Bush administration's Iraq War. It further invites the open-ended use of extraordinary and even extra-legal methods, as occurred with the Bush administration's practices on detention and interception of communications. It elevates terrorists from the status of criminals to that of warriors.

The Obama administration sensibly discarded the term “war on terror,” but the “war” view of counteterrorism lives on and continues to have negative consequences. The most recent, and in a sense the most extreme, application of this view is found in efforts by Republican members of Congress to bar the use of civilian prisons and courts to handle terrorist suspects. These efforts do not involve the expansion of any counterterrorist tools or resources. Instead, they involve a prohibition on the use of certain tools and resources—ones that have been used effectively for years to handle many terrorist cases. How could such a prohibition be expected to improve counterterrorism?

Of course, it won't improve it. Instead, it would be a new impediment to counterterrorist investigations. If enacted, it would lead to awkward and ineffective procedures such as the FBI having to interrupt an investigation that had just gotten under way in order to turn a suspect over to military custody.

Earlier incarnations of the “war” notion were an indirect, lexicographical way of arguing for greater use of military force. Propelling the latest moves is some combination of two other drivers. One is sheer ideological momentum, driven in turn by the habit of referring for years to a “war on terror.” The other, far more calculated, motivation is to come up with something that can be used to portray Barack Obama as being soft on national security. The Republicans will have a hard time doing that, amid counterterrorist successes such as the killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki and Obama's striving to sound tough on Iran. The “war” concept of counterterrorism gives them something to grasp at and to put into play in the election campaign.

And so yet another important function of government, like many others, has been turned into either an ideological gesture or a campaign talking point.

Image: German Federal Archives