Why we lost the war on terror

Sam Smith

The other morning I got confused and used the wrong national metaphor. I had just read an AP story that started:

“Three suspected Islamic terrorists from an al-Qaida-influenced group nursing ‘profound hatred of U.S. citizens’ were arrested on suspicious of plotting imminent, massive bomb attacks on U.S. facilities in Germany, prosecutors said today. . . ”

My immediate reaction was: looks like we’ve got another marketing problem. Then I remembered that we weren’t trying to add Muslims to our consumer base; we were trying to get rid of them. For that you need a good military, not good marketing.

But military and marketing are both things Americans pride themselves in and it set me off on yet another heretical foray: what if we had reacted after 9/11 more like a corporation facing a consumer rebellion than as an army trying to eliminate the enemy?

Instead we have done absolutely noting to reduce the ‘profound hatred of U.S. citizens’ by Muslims and much to increase it, all in the name of something called the war on terror. And we’re not just talking about Republicans. Both the Democrats and the media has gone along with a military approach and won’t even discuss alternatives in any serious manner.

But wars are there to be won and I haven’t met anyone who expects Osama bin Laden or other guerilla leaders ever to show up on the deck of the contemporary version of the USS Missouri to sign the terms of surrender. Come to think of it that was over 60 years ago and nobody important has been able to do it since.

The truth is, though nobody talks about it much, countries like the US don’t win wars anymore unless the enemy is so small it doesn’t count. In fact, the most striking thing about wars is that they simply don’t work the way they used to.

It is fair to say, without the slightest hyperbole, that the war on terror has been a failure from the moment it started and has no place to go but down. Every escalation will just bring more profound hatred and every surge will just give opposing factions a reason to merge against us.

Seldom in history has so much money been wasted on such a failed military operation. Admittedly – unless you happen to be an Iraqi civilian – the death toll isn’t as bad as it’s been in the past but that’s because we’ve figured out how to substitute our budget for our bodies. It still doesn’t work.

Why do we keep doing it? Part of the answer is plain habit. We’ve been raised to think that the military will solve our problems and even in the face of contrary evidence we cling to that faith. We also have not only the most incompetent administration in American history but one pursuing a hidden agenda of preparing for a rapture in which all the stupid Christians get to go to heaven and everyone else ends up in hell. Whatever our own beliefs or lack thereof, we are trapped in a war between religious extremists. Finally, the people who are meant to warn us and provide a better alternative – like Democrats and the media – have become so intimidated and accommodating that they can’t even remember the emergency number, let alone how to dial it.

Sooner or later, the war on terror will end, probably as the result of some substitution of national purpose like dealing with the rise of 130 degree summers. We won’t have to admit defeat; we’ll just worry about something else.

Meanwhile, however, it is destroying us far faster than it is destroying the enemy, real or imagined. Every day we give the Muslim world something new to hate about us and every day we spend huge sums for this dubious purpose.

So maybe my early morning thought wasn’t all that askew. What if we thought of Muslims as people who go to a different store rather than a different religious citadel? What if we went after them not with bombs and Humvees but the way Steve Jobs would if he wanted to sell them Ipods?

What if we took seriously their customer complaints such as our miserable treatment of Palestine and the destruction of their lands, showed them some respect and stopped killing so many of them?

What if we talked to them calmly and fairly – as was recently demonstrated in our progress with the North Koreans – rather than with the implicit threat of convert or die?

What if we replaced the surge of war with the snail’s pace of negotiation?

What if we dealt with extreme groups by weakening their constituency through our response to the concerns of the more rational?

Maybe if we treated Muslims more like a business owner treats customers walking into a store or like a real diplomat treats those on the other side of the table, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about some of them flying into our skyscrapers instead.

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