When Sarah Palin told a convention of Tea Baggers last week that President Obama was weak on terrorism, she brought back into the open the inherent limits of the highly politicised current approach to terrorism. She added “to win that war, we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law.” Terrorism experts agree that counter-terrorism cannot be waged as a war. Terrorism is a tactic, usually employed by groups that cannot launch direct attacks against its enemies. They resort to terrorism in lieu of war. They bomb, sabotage, kill, even kill themselves in any attempt to frighten the population. You cannot wage war against tactics, or the decentralized, stateless groups that use them. Launching a “war” against terrorism also plays into the terrorist goal. They want to be treated like equals to nation states. In many ways, then, Sarah Palin and her fellow Tea Baggers and critics of the Obama administration are actually raising the level of public fear by harping on an approach to tackling terrorism that is more likely to increase it.
The problem for the American people is that the level of public debate and the Obama administration’s policies on terrorism are too ambivalent. They will not only make terrorism worse, they are likely to weaken our democracy. Obama has defended his policies by accurately portraying them as mostly identical to the Bush administration. He has banned harsh interrogation, wants to try terrorist defendants in criminal courts. But he has also sent hundreds of drone missiles to strike terrorist camps in Pakistan, tripled troop levels in Afghanistan, kept the surveillance program, rendition practices, and plans to hold some detainees without charging them. Like Republicans and Tea Baggers, Obama seems locked into taking a deeply flawed “tough” stance against terrorism. Not wanting or able to tackle the roots of terrorism, in Middle East economic and political policies, he has kept the essential self-defeating policy that if we kill some terrorists everything will be OK. Our politics in the U.S. have become so corrupt by the fear mongering and terrorist assaults of the Right, that the Obama administration appears posed to ignore the real lessons of our success and failure in Iraq.