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Issues Of Policy In The War On Terror

In the realm of policy, first and foremost, the question must be asked: Is the United States truly at war in the war on terror? The determinations of the 9/11 Commission Report indicate that the United States is in popular deed, if not in legal fact, a nation at war, and lead to the Commission’s recommendations for establishing national objectives and a national strategy for conducting the war on terror. (1) The findings of the 9/11 Commission meet two of the three critical elements in Clausewitz’s military-political definition of war. First, that the effort is directed toward an identified opponent and, second, that it involves violence or use of force to compel our opponent to fulfill our will. According to the 9/11 Commission the United States’ opponent in the war on terror consists of the terrorist groups and their allies, particularly the global al Qaeda network, that form the threat of Islamist terrorism, thereby satisfying the first element of war: an effort directed at an identified opponent. (2) Although there are problems with this definition, particularly that it falls short of defining the full scope of the threat to the United States, it represents a start in developing a national objective and strategy. The use of American and allied forces to find and destroy terrorist groups, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq, partially fulfills the second element of war: the use of violence or force to compel our opponent to meet our will. (3) The issue to be resolved is whether the insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Iraq are the right enemy, at the right time, and in the right place.

The third element in Clausewitz’s military-political definition of war, that we know our national will, is partially, but not completely, satisfied by Public Laws 107-40 and 107-243. These laws, from a legal perspective, do not constitute a formal declaration of war. However, they give the President broad powers to prosecute the effort that has come to be known popularly as the war on terror. Under the provisions of Public Law 107-40, the President is authorized to use force against those nations, organizations, or persons who planned and carried out the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and those that harbored them, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States. (4) Public Law 107-243 authorizes the President to use the armed forces of the United States to defend the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq. (5) Based on these laws the first component of the national will – the political will of the United States – is presumed to be established, even without a formal declaration of war. The second element of the national will, the public will, remains uncertain.

This poses a number of policy issues in the war on terror. The rules for invoking the national will are embedded in Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, which gives to Congress – the elected representatives of the American people – the power to declare war. A declaration of war – to establish the national will – therefore becomes a shared responsibility between the political will of the government and the popular will of its constituents. This is more than just a formality. Failure by Congress to declare war in Vietnam led to a failure to mobilize the second element of the national will, the popular will of the public, and ultimately contributed to the United States’ defeat. A declaration of war gives the President clear-cut military authority, as well as non-military options, including internment of armed combatants and seizure of foreign funds and assets. A formal declaration of war in the war on terror might have precluded the Supreme Court’s decision to grant detainees at Guantanamo Bay access to the protections of the judicial system. Further, according to William F. Buckley:

To declare war is not necessarily to dispatch troops, let alone atom bombs. It is to recognize a juridically altered relationship and to license such action as is deemed appropriate. It is a wonderful demystifier… [leaving] your objective in very plain view. (6)

An acknowledgement of the need for the United States to establish objectives in the war on terror, and to develop a strategy to achieve those objectives, is found in the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the United States should “consider what to do– the shape and objects of a strategy,” and “how to do it – organization of [the] government in a different way.” (7) The Commission’s recommended objectives are to attack terrorists and their organizations, prevent the continued growth of Islamist terrorism, and protect against and prepare for terrorist attacks. The Commission says the strategy must incorporate offensive actions, with coalition partners, to counter terrorism; defensive actions with responsibilities for the nation’s defense clearly defined; a preventive strategy that is both political as well as military; and, finally, a responsive strategy that deals with attacks that are not prevented. Finally, the Commission recognized that if a national strategy is to be successful in the long-term, it must use all the elements of national power: intelligence, covert action, diplomacy, economic policy, foreign aid, and homeland defense. (8) From its recommendations it appears that the 9/11 Commission is suggesting a single overarching strategy for the United States in the war on terror.

(1) The 9/11 Commission Report, Authorized Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004), 363.
(2) Ibid, 363.
(3) Ibid, 363.
(4) Congressional Record 147 (2001), September 14. Public Law 107-40, 115 STAT. 224, Authorization For Use of Military Force.
(5) Congressional Record 148 (2002), October 10. Public Law 107-243, 116 STAT. 1498, Authorization For Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.
(6) Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1984), 58; William F. Buckley, “George Kennan’s Bomb,” National Review (April 1980). As quoted by Colonel Summers.
(7) 9/11 Commission Report, 361.
(8) Ibid, 363.


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