George W. Bush proclaimed himself to be a wartime president. In the aftermath of 9/11, he declared a war on terrorism. People are now furiously debating and challenging the particulars of his Iraq policy, whether to leave sooner or later. But it is time to put that conflict into a larger perspective and to realize a more encompassing truth: George W. Bush has lost the war on terrorism.
By making that stern and by no means premature pronouncement, I do not simply mean that he has left the terms of "winning" such a war ill defined, or that we are mired in an expensive and bloody quagmire (as we are). Rather, I mean exactly what I say: Bush has lost the war. Yet that begs the question: What does it mean to lose a war on terror?
It doesn't mean that terrorists have defeated our armed forces. It doesn't mean that a foreign ruler will now be occupying our territory and subjugating our people. It doesn't mean that terrorists have free reign to blow up as many of our buildings as they wish. It means something else, something perhaps far more debilitating to our country.
George Bush and his advisors--despite all of their accusations against their Iraq war critics along the same lines--never understood the unique nature of such a war. They continued to understand the post 9/11 world through the lens of a state-regime system. Pursue regime change, and blow up sponsoring states. Shock and awe with mighty artillery. In the meantime, kill as many sub-state, trans-national terrorists as possible. Then find some place to wait the rest out, in order to kill some more. Mission accomplished...er, eventually.
But terrorists well know that they are engaging in asymmetrical warfare. They know that they cannot blow up as many of our buildings as we can of theirs (if we can find them). They know that they cannot match firepower for firepower. Terrorism, at its heart, is an ongoing psychological battle.
What do terrorists want? What would constitute "winning" for them (short of the complete dismantling of our civilization)? Terrorists want to terrorize. They want us to live in fear. They want to get inside our heads, not just our subway stations. They want us to lose our innocence, our sense of casual safety. They want to disrupt our everyday routines, so that we have to entertain the possibility that they might strike at any moment. They want us to dwell upon the specter of their hatred, so that we become haters, too.
Rape is an apt analogy. Rape is a form of domestic terrorism. Rape is not about sex. It is about oppression, not just physical but psychological, emotional, and spiritual oppression. Rape survivors may experience horrendous trauma long after the rapist is caught, tried, imprisoned, or even killed. That is because the rapist has stolen something that is hard to get back: a precious sense of trust and safety that can and should attend loving intimacy with another. The lingering fear--no, call it terror--that a rape survivor encounters and tries to overcome is that she/he must now and hereafter live in the rapist's version of a dark, cynical, and ever violent world.
George W. Bush, along with Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld, played right into the terrorists' hands. Bush has acceded to the terrorists' fear mongering and in fact has become their accomplice (or dupe) in spreading and deepening their message of terror. The tragedy of 9/11 was indeed a wake-up call, a time of tremendous loss and grieving, but at the same time it should have been seen, in geo-strategic terms, as Osama bin Laden's sucker punch. Yet George Bush fell for it. Yes, take out the Taliban and their training camps. Yes, fight aggressively against the evil of terrorism. But, don't be gullible; don't overreact; don't lose your wits. Mostly, don't let the terrorists fundamentally alter our freedoms--and certainly don't dwell upon and exploit the very fears that they want to insinuate into our lives.
Let's face it: Osama bin Laden, holed up in his cave somewhere, must be laughing at us. He's calling the shots, and he really doesn't have to lift a finger. Why? George Bush is doing his bidding. His administration has suspended many civil liberties and deftly defied the U.S. Constitution. Junked the Geneva Convention. Tortured prisoners. Oversaw criminal acts at Abu Ghraib. Ignored due process at Guantanamo. Engaged in domestic spying without court supervision. Flushed billions down the toilet in Iraq. Weakened our military readiness. Set much of the world against us. The Middle East is now ablaze in terrorism. At home, we live constantly in "elevated fear" levels (whether color coded or not). Our internal politics have become poisonously divided, not united. Osama bin Laden is playing George Bush like a cheap fiddle.
We shouldn't be surprised that Bush has been so stunningly gullible. He fell for Saddam's bluster about WMDs. He allowed himself to be conned by the in-house neo-cons. He believes Karl Rove when Karl Rove assures him that it is a good thing to put on a flight suit for an aircraft photo-op.
The Republicans now want to ride the terror bandwagon back to electoral victory. If you're frightened to death about our national security, they tell us, vote Republican. And thus Osama bin Laden wins again, with the Republicans as his co-conspirators (or dupes). Don't they realize that every time a U.S. military war hero such as John Murtha gets "Swift Boated" by his fellow Americans, Osama bin Laden chuckles to himself: "Why, I didn't even have to pay those guys to be my agents of agitation!"
Dick Cheney has been making the same case about anti-war dissenters. Just yesterday, he insinuated that Ned Lamont supporters are secretly serving the cause of al Qaeda. Cheney claims that the best evidence that the administration's convoluted Iraq policy is working is that America hasn't been attacked--physically--since 9/11. How naïve can he be about the distinctive nature of a war with terrorists? Why should Osama bin Laden attack us again? There's been no need. Karl Rove and Dick Cheney will spread his fear for him. Osama bin Laden learned a lesson in 2004: Every time he releases a videotape, it serves the Bush administration's own cross-purposes. Better to lie low, and let Dick Cheney open his mouth and do the threatening.
Bush and bin Laden have become a tag team. They may be bitter rivals, but theirs has become a symbiotic, mimetic rivalry. The problem is, Osama bin Laden has gained more than the upper hand. He's won, because George Bush has been playing this dangerous game on bin Laden's terms. It's time for the rest of us to call it like it is: George Bush has lost. He screwed up. Big time. Americans hate to lose, and the nation is starting to realize that we've been following a loser, not just a losing strategy. Rebuilding American freedom, confidence, and comity after this lost war will require a great deal of fortitude, dedication, and love.