Five years after 9/11, we need to declare the national emergency over.
The war on terror, like the war on poverty, the war on cancer, and the war on drugs before it, has been mostly about marketing. "War" becomes a rhetorical device to rally the citizenry against some affront to public tranquility. But that effort is never sustainable.
First, a real war is by definition an all-out societal undertaking underlined by common sacrifice. Think of World War II's war-bond drives, victory gardens, gas rationing, wage-price controls and, of course, a universal draft. And victory is couched in achievable, commonly accepted goals, like the "unconditional surrender" that President Roosevelt demanded of Germany and Japan.
None of these metaphoric wars rise to this standard. And while we as a society can choose to view the "wars" on poverty, drugs and cancer as so much rhetoric in service of a seemingly good cause, the war on terror is another cat.
Five years after 9/11, it's increasingly clear that viewing the terrorism threat through the prism of "war" risks a calamitous over-response. Instead, we need to take a deep breath, look both ways before we cross the street (yes, there are dangers in the world), and get on with our lives.
The Bush administration's notion that we are reliving the 1930s, with "Islamo-fascists" as the modern-day Nazis, doesn't hold water. The Nazis were an emerging economic and military powerhouse. There was a frightening discussion whether National Socialism was the vanguard of the future.
The same could be said about communism and the Soviet Union. There was valid reason to fear that capitalism and American-style democracy had reached an ignoble end in the Depression. Maybe the next stage was fascism. Maybe it was communism.
But who in their right mind would say that the Islamic world in 2006 represents the future? These cultures are, for the most part, profoundly at odds with modernity and the values of a liberal society and a market economy. They are disdainful of secular life, of personal liberation, of women's emancipation.
These cultures represent the past, not the future. A far stronger argument can be made that the 21st century will be the Asian century. That the rise of China, India, Singapore and South Korea as economic juggernauts will be the defining trend of our children's and grandchildren's lives.
As for the Muslim world, without reformation much of it seems destined for the 21st-century backwater. Its vast oil fortune has been squandered. Its governments are often corrupt, dependent on a carrot-and-stick mix of lavish public subsidies and strong-armed security to control the disenfranchised masses.
The oil kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems particularly vulnerable to chaos. The large, sprawling royal family lives a decadent life worthy of Louis XVI's court. Much of the nation's heavy lifting is performed by a vast army of foreign servants, from Pakistanis cleaning the toilets to the Europeans and Americans running the technical infrastructure. How long before the streets of Riyadh and Medina run red with the blood of revolution?
That the United States is nonetheless entwined with Saudi Arabia and other corrupt vendors of Middle Eastern oil is a testament to our perverse energy policy: We are financing the very people who hate our guts.
As a furious Thomas Friedman, a liberal supporter of the Iraqi war, wrote in his column: "Here we are in the biggest struggle of our lives, and we are funding both sides - the U.S. military with our tax dollars and the radical Islamists and the governments and charities that support them with our gasoline purchases...."
This is crazy. A sensible policy would have us stressing energy conservation. And lowering the curtain on the war on terror and all its bloody sideshows.
History offers some lessons in leadership.
The Korean War, which was waged between 1950 and 1953, was certainly a nasty bit of business that left just about everyone unhappy. Repelling the communist North Korean invasion of the South cost 36,000 American lives and produced an armistice that 53 years later still divides the North and South Korean nations and requires an American military force to enforce.
But, throughout this conflict, staunch Cold Warrior Presidents Truman and Eisenhower showed a restraint that seems entirely missing from President Bush and his advisers.
Both Truman and Eisenhower resisted entreaties from American militarists to take the war to communist China. Truman wound up firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination over this. Eisenhower, on taking office in 1953, quickly decided that the war needed to be brought to an end. Both presidents feared that a wider war might bring calamity.
Officially, the Korean War was a United Nations "police action." As ridiculed as that phrase was, it indicated that, even as the bombs flew, both Truman and Eisenhower were willing to settle for limited goals: to push North Korea back behind the 38th parallel. Not to bring down Kim Il Sung's communist government. Not to destroy China's military might. Not to use Korea as a lever against the Russians. But as a "police action" to restore the pre-invasion status quo.
A police action: That's how we should deal with terrorism. Hunt the bad guys down. Capture them and try them. Or fight them if it comes to that. But treat it as a mission for law enforcement, much like the English did in breaking up the latest purported bomb cabal.
The notion that we're already engaged in "World War III," as Newt Gingrich and other prominent Republican proclaim, is exactly the sort of extremist view that Eisenhower and Truman rejected as dangerous to our nation's security.
If only President Bush had their sense. Instead, he wants to remake the Middle East in one fell swoop.
The good news, if you believe journalist James Fallows' argument, is that we're winning the fight against terrorism. In the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Fallows reports on his discussions with some 60 security experts across the globe. Their conclusion: al-Qaeda and its successor group's ability "to inflict direct damage on America or Americans has been sharply reduced."
Not that danger doesn't remain. But, Fallows says, the biggest risk is what the terrorists "can trick, tempt or goad us into doing." That is, overreacting.
Military strategist David Kilcullen offers a chilling analogy to the anarchist-terrorists in the early 20th century. They murdered perhaps 2,000 people - most famously Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in August 1914, sparking a chain reaction of war declarations that plunged Europe into madness.
German and English leaders rallied their boys to enlist with the confident talk that they'd be home for Christmas. Four years later, almost nine million people were dead from The Great War.
All this touched off by overreaction to a terrorist act. We run the same risk of calamity today. That's why it's time to declare that the war on terror is over. Not only has it been empty of real meaning, but it's dangerous to our security.