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In the War on Terror, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Matt Shuham Dec 16, 2015

In early 2009, a leaked email from within the newly-elected Obama administration to senior Pentagon officials asked for a simple favor: “this administration prefers to avoid using the term Long War or Global War on Terror (GWOT) … please pass this on to your speechwriters.” Four years later, in the early months of his second term, Obama repeated himself, this time publicly. “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.”

Even after the official change in terminology, our military actions rage on in the name of fighting terror, and our safety from the threat of terror is the primary political ruler against which we measure America’s health. The so-called “war on terror,” conveniently more ambiguous than a “war on terrorism,” has been readily on the lips of politicians, journalists, academics, diplomats and investors since President Bush first declared its existence. Now, a new batch of presidential hopefuls has their own colorful contributions: Chris Christie says the San Bernardino attacks mark “the next world war.” Jeb Bush says we are in “a fight for Western civilization.” John Kasich predicts “we will all be on the ground [in Syria] sooner or later. Sooner is better than later.”

It is already the case that young men and women who join the military on their 18th birthdays don’t remember a world without this war. Maybe that’s why it has so profoundly changed the way we treat our politics, and each other: we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in peacetime.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, most of them Muslim, the vast majority innocent of any crime or even of actionable ill-will against the United States; despite the violations of our rights and our Constitution; despite human rights abuses by our military leaders, war profiteering by our corporations and demagogic self-aggrandizement by our politicians; we are more fearful than ever. Americans today have as much chance of being killed by a terrorist attack as they do a bee sting. And yet, the war on our bottomless national pit of terror continues. 

Our reaction to the September 11 attacks has made them the most significant event in the 21st century. But it’s time to ask: is this war worth it?

The Perfect Pretext

The first official use of the phrase “war on terror” — in President Bush’s speech to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 — anticipated the term’s elasticity in the years ahead. The speech referenced “terror,” “terrorists” and “terrorism” 33 times, each time expanding the definition of the words and the consequences they carried for the world. “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make,” Bush warned. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Such a statement, which manipulated Americans’ fears after 9/11 into a grand inquisition of international allegiances, captures the essence of the war on terror: it is a tool, an ever-changing, universally-applicable justification for the worst steps a government can take. Saddam Hussein, we were told, was with the terrorists. And so we went to war.

The invasion of Iraq, as with many of the U.S. initiatives in the course of the war on terror, seems in retrospect to have been a long time coming. The 9/11 attacks provided the pretext for the invasion — despite the lack of any concrete intelligence tying Iraq to al-Qaeda — but President Bush and his administration had sought such a pretext long before the attacks occurred.

At Bush’s first national security meeting on January 30th, 2001, for example, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil later remembered “[t]he President saying, ‘Go find me a way to do this,’” referring to Saddam’s ouster. Bush bombed targets close to Baghdad the next month. In March 2001, the Pentagon delivered a crucial report to Vice President Dick Cheney, “Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.” Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, spoke frequently with oil company executives while in office. The day after the 9/11 attacks, as counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke recalled later, “[Bush] told us, ‘I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this,’” even though overwhelming evidence, then and now, pointed to Saudi-funded al-Qaeda operatives.

The invasion of Iraq illustrates a much larger point about the economy of terror management: there are many reasons to use the war on terror as a political tool, and few incentives to end it.

Eroding Internet Privacy

For George W. Bush and friends, the incentives for going into Iraq were numerous and complex, and the war on terror provided cover for all of them. But the same is true for many politically influential groups in U.S. politics. With each additional incentive, the momentum behind the war on terror builds, regardless of the actual success of the war itself.

Take, for example, the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in the immediate weeks after 9/11. The Patriot Act is best known for its authorization of certain types of warrantless searches and seizures, bulk collection of phone and other types of metadata and enhanced intelligence sharing between federal and local officials, among many other things. How did legislators write, read and pass such a complex and lengthy bill in the immediate aftermath of a paradigm-shifting tragedy? In short, few of the ideas in the bill were new. 

Though the bulk of the Patriot Act was written by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, alongside Attorney General John Ashcroft and other members of the Bush administration, it was modeled on proposals written in 1995, months before the Oklahoma City bombings. At the time, then-Senator Joe Biden introduced the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995, known today, according to CNET, for “allowing secret evidence to be used in prosecutions, expanding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and wiretap laws, creating a new federal crime of ‘terrorism’ that could be invoked based on political beliefs, permitting the U.S. military to be used in civilian law enforcement and allowing permanent detention of non-U.S. citizens without judicial review.”

Many of the Patriot Act’s most egregious tactics, such as “sneak-and-peek” searches, have been much more commonly used for drug, immigration and fraud investigations than terrorism cases, which constituted just 0.5 percent of such searches in 2013, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. One can hardly blame politicians like Biden — who worked closely with the FBI as a senator, has advocated tough Internet copyright and censorship laws and is now the Obama administration’s unofficial liaison to the law enforcement community — for capitalizing on the concept of a war on terror to pass laws favorable to law enforcement, for which they previously could not rally enough votes. 

And, with every terrorist attack, the pattern continues. After the recent events in Paris, politicians and intelligence communities worldwide called for an end to encrypted messages, a demand that is decades old, even though the attacks were openly discussed on plain old cell phones: the failure to prevent the attacks can be traced to human intelligence error, not a shortage of data. Still, where there is a will, the war on terror provides a way. The proposed “Snooper’s Charter” in the United Kingdom would eliminate end-to-end encryption, obliterating the potential for anonymity from government surveillance and making Internet users more susceptible to hacking by foreign governments, terror cells and cyber-criminals.

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, everyone from John McCain to James Comey has advocated for similar laws in the United States: President Obama called on the tech world “to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.” Hillary Clinton echoed his sentiment, noting regretfully that “You’re gonna hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera.” Donald Trump proposed “closing that Internet up in some ways.”

Outlawing end-to-end encryption wouldn’t stop extremists of all stripes or others interested in maintaining online anonymity from establishing their own encrypted networks on private computer servers. But this war rewards tough talk and opportunism, even when they make people less secure. 

Profiting From Terror

The incentives inherent in maintaining a never-ending war on terror aren’t anywhere more clear than in the vast expansion of the American military industrial complex (see infobox). 

In early December, The Intercept released a stunning, if not surprising, recording from the Credit Suisse Annual Industrials Conference. In a Q-and-A session, we hear a question from the audience: Given “increased activity in the global war on terrorism… how [might that] leverage Lockheed’s portfolio?” Lockheed Martin Executive Vice President Bruce Tanner answers by citing the downed Russian jet in Turkey, an event that prompted the increased presence of surface-to-air missiles in the region, “making Syria a very dangerous place to fly. And who is flying a lot of those missions in Syria? The U.S. military.” 

What goes unmentioned: the nearly $15 million Lockheed has spent lobbying Congress and the White House every year since 2011, when President Obama considered shrinking the Pentagon budget.

It’s this kind of lobbying money — which, in addition to buying off members of Congress, funds think tanks, museum exhibits and academic chairs — that creates bizarre scenes like the one that took place at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January: 

“There has got to be a more effective and efficient method of procurement,” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said. “When [President] Eisenhower said ‘beware of the military industrial complex,’ man he knew what he was talking about. … We force stuff on you all that we know you don’t want.”

Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno agreed. “We are still having to procure systems we don’t need,” Odierno said, adding that the army spends “hundreds of millions of dollars on tanks that we simply don’t have the structure for anymore.”

Despite reports from experts in military procurement that we are simply buying too much stuff, the buying continues. This war is too profitable for private contractors and our fear is too abundant. If hawkish politicians — those who raise funds from companies like Lockheed — can scare us into believing that a smaller military budget is a sign of vulnerability rather than one of sanity, we will keep buying equipment that our own military says it would rather not have at all. 

Buying Votes With Fear

The demagogue, as a political character, has thrived in the war on terror. Bolstered by the right’s fearmongering, Islamophobes can do as well at the ballot box as the intelligence community has done with their new surveillance powers, or the military industrial community has done with their contracts. 

In November, 31 governors “refused” to take in Syrian refugees — even though it’s not up to them, and they know that — in order to score political points with their constituents. The House of Representatives set aside all other business to make this same point: despite a certain filibuster from Senate Democrats, 47 Democrats and 242 Republicans voted to stop refugees from Iraq and Syria from coming into the United States, despite what is now well-known: that all identified Paris attackers were European nationals. The Syrian passport found near a dead suicide bomber is almost certainly a fake, according to the Washington Post, intended by the Islamic State to sow Western fear of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. 

Meanwhile, Ben Carson compared potential Syrian refugee-terrorists to “rabid dogs.” Donald Trump has called for an end to all Muslim travel of any kind into the United States, monitoring otherwise unremarkable mosques and executing the families of terrorists. Ted Cruz wants to see “if sand can glow in the dark” in Syria. Actually, most presidential candidates heartily endorse this latter attitude, as have leaders from around the world: Turkey, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and others are currently engaged in airstrikes across Syria, many of them in cities where Islamic State soldiers are mixed in with civilians.

We hear about civilian casualties from drone strikes in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. We hear about civilian casualties from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. We’ve heard, for almost 13 years now, about the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives lost across the region from the destabilization spurred by the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. We have heard about these deaths, and yet we remain fearful of a wholly insignificant threat. These bombings are how we purchase peace of mind, and the cost in lives is astronomical.

Where Does This End?

It goes without saying that this means the “radical Islamic extremists” are winning: the Islamic State, the most recent and deadly creation of our war on terror, has stated that they want to engage with the Western world in an eschatological struggle. The Syrian town of Dabiq is central to this narrative, according to New York Times’s Rukmini Callimachi: “The countdown to the apocalypse begins once the ‘Romans’ — a term that militants have now conveniently expanded to include Americans and their allies — set foot in Dabiq.”

As a military force, the Islamic State is growing weaker by the day. And as a government and a society, they have absolutely failed: hospitals are understaffed and new recruits must be threatened with death for abandoning their ranks, and yet they still do. But as an instrument of propaganda, the war on terror is their favorite tool: by selling a narrative of Armageddon, of Islamaphobic Western governments and of the prospect of a never-ending war on terror, the Islamic State is using our own fears against us. 

No one will stop it for us: our politicians and our governments stand to gain too much off it, as do the people perpetrating acts of terror that serve to fuel their Armageddon fantasies, with our help. The hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve spent fighting the war on terror are now investments in its continued existence.

In “losing” the war on terror — by remaining terrified of the world around us — we allow it to continue indefinitely. The only way to win it is to refuse to fight it altogether. We must task our governments with addressing terrorism just as they did before the war on terror existed: by approaching it as a style of violence like any other; a crime punishable in court. 

Just as the “War on Drugs” has failed continuously for the past half century, so too will the war on terror. We must re-think our willingness to ascribe to the idea of such a war, or else it will never end.

The cost of War



Number of years since the War on Terror Began.


1.3–2 million

Estimated lives lost in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 10 years following 9/11.



Total U.S. troops killed in Iraq as of 12/10/15. 



Total U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan as of 12/10/15.



Number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have suffered a traumatic brain injury on duty.


Up to 300,000

Number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

$1.66 trillion

Total cost of war for U.S. Taxpayers Since 2001.


$8.36 million

hourly Cost of war for U.S. taxpayers since 2001.


$65.6 billion

Total cost of war for NYC taxpayers Since 2001.



hourly Cost of war for NYC taxpayers since 2001.


$293 billion

U.S. Department of Defense Budget FY 2000.


$598 billion

U.S. Department of Defense Budget FY 2015.



The year former Obama administration Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expects the United States to conclude a “30-year war” with the Islamic State.


$20.01 billion

NYC Taxpayers’ Contribution to 2015 Pentagon Budget.


$20.01 billion

The cost of supplying 3.4 million homes with renewable energy from wind power for 10 years.


$20.01 billion

The cost of providing 369,088 low-income people with health care for 10 years.


$20.01 billion

The cost of providing four-year university scholarships to 741,467 students ($6,746 per year, per student).


— John Tarleton


Sources: Boston University, Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, National Priorities Project, Physicians for Social Responsibility, USA Today, Washington Post.

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