So Much For the End of the War on Terror

Remember when Barack Obama was going to end the War on Terror? Well today, not only did the U.S. launch air strikes within Syria to target ISIL, we also struck against the Khorasan group, a small al-Qaeda offshoot that was purportedly plotting to blow up American airplanes, and the al-Nusra front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

Back in May of last year, Obama gave a speech meant to signal a break with the prior twelve years, in which he said, "we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror,' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America." One could argue that that's a distinction without a difference, that it's only about rhetoric. You might also say that the War on Terror isn't so much a set of military actions as it is a mindset. It's the state of being terrorized, in which the nation is constantly on the edge of panic, willing to approve almost anything in the name of staying "safe" from a threat that not only never disappears, but never even lessens. In other words, living within the War on Terror means we're all Lindsey Graham (the senator recently said of the dire threat from ISIL, "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home").

But when Obama expressed his desire to move beyond the War on Terror, there was an implication that while we might be taking plenty of small, targeted military actions against terrorists, it wouldn't define our foreign policy. Most Americans wouldn't even have to think about it—oh, there was a drone strike in Yemen? Who are we fighting there again? Nevermind.

Yet here we are, beginning a large-scale campaign against a terrorist group, and fighting some other terrorist groups while we're at it. And despite all his efforts at restraint, President Obama has probably overpromised what we can accomplish by saying our goal is to "destroy" ISIL. Whether that was required politically (all presidents have to promise victory, after all), no one seems to think it'll happen any time soon. The fact is that it's not just hard but perhaps impossible to completely destroy a terrorist group, because all it needs to continue to exist is a couple of guys who call themselves by the group's name. We've spent billions and expended untold effort trying to destroy al Qaeda, and for all the progress that has been made against them, including killing their former leader Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda still exists. We could help Iraq take back all the territory ISIL now controls, and the group still wouldn't be destroyed.

And one thing we do know is that American military actions create enemies, enemies that often see terrorist attacks as the only means they have of striking back against the world's most powerful country. Until the last couple of days, 99 percent of Americans had never heard of the Khorasan group, whose members number only in the dozens. We can kill every one of them, and others will take their place. Guantanamo is still open, the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs are still in force, Republicans are still crying "We're all gonna die!", the huge security state we built after 9/11 hums along, and not much has changed. 

So it increasingly looks like Barack Obama's foreign policy will be defined by the War on Terror, even if we don't call it that. It's just part of the miserable legacy his predecessor bequeathed to him, and he'll be passing it along to his successor.