TCS Daily

The Clausewitz Curse

By Lee Harris - July 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Author's Note: In June of last year, when I was writing my essay "Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology," the question on everyone's mind was, 'Was the U.S. prepared to handle another Al Qaeda strike?'


Needless to say, this question was on my mind, too. But, in the course of working through my essay, I found myself asking a startling question. What if Al Qaeda did not strike us again -- or at least, if it failed to strike for a year, a year and a half, or two years, or even more? How would the U.S. handle this?


At first glance this seems a rather bizarre concern. How could Al Qaeda's failure to attack us cause us mischief? But the more I reflected on the issue, the more I realized that 9/11 had changed things forever -- and that this would be true even if Al Qaeda never in fact attacked us again.


The conclusions that I drew from this reflection were not included in the published version of my essay: both my editor and I agreed that, at the time of the essay's publication, August 2002, the material was too speculative.


Today, however, it is not quite so speculative. Indeed, it has increasingly become the dominating political issue of our time. Below are the paragraphs I wrote fourteen months ago -- hence the allusion to the issue of "What Bush Knew" that had flared up earlier in 2002.


The phrase is frequently used: America is at war. But the war metaphor presents us with a problem, a domestic one. Saying we are at war inevitably conjures up the familiar narrative line of the various Clausewitzian wars that we have fought in our past -- wars in which there was a constant and on-going military exchange between us and our enemy. Here, in order to remind us that we are at war, we have only the images of 9-11, and the possibility that it might happen again -- but who knows where or when. And this yields the nagging doubt: If we are really at war, shouldn't our enemy be attacking us? And if he is not attacking us, then how can we say we are at war?


That this uneasiness is capable of creating mischief is evident from the recent furor over "What Bush Knew", and the initial response of leaders in the Democratic Party to revelations of what might be something short of perfect intelligence information. After all, had the U.S. been under continuous terrorist attack since 9-11, no Democrat would have dared to raise such an issue for public debate. What emboldened the President's critics was precisely this paradoxically troubling lack of the traditional war atmosphere, brought about by an enemy that simply refuses to play the role of the familiar Clausewitzian enemy.


But while this unfortunate episode has run its course, the underlying problem remains: Due to the on-going threat of a second attack, any administration has the duty to caution Americans of the danger of such an event. But the problem here is that such warnings, when they prove unwarranted, tend to diminish the credibility of the one who issues the warning -- the boy who cried wolf effect eventually takes over -- a difficulty that we would not encounter if our enemy were pursuing a Clausewitzian war of terror, in which we would assuredly not need constant reminders to be on our guard, simply because they would always keep us on our guard.


And this means that it is entirely up to the present administration to keep Americans alert to the standing danger of further attack. But this very duty places the current -- and indeed any -- administration in an odd bind, a bind made worse by the very metaphor of war as it is currently deployed. For the enemy's failure to play his part in the traditional narrative of wartime -- one in which there is an ongoing exchange of blows -- places any administration in the position of needing to manufacture a sense of war footing among its population.


But this manufacturing of a sense of normal wartime is not something that any previous administration was required to undertake -- this, after all, was the traditional job of the enemy. And this leaves the present administration vulnerable in ways that no other wartime administration has ever been vulnerable, for by its effort to keep Americans merely prepared the administration runs the risk of appearing to overreact -- and again simply because there is nothing that the enemy is doing to react to.


And there is an even worse danger. Because wartime is perceived as favoring the political interests of the party in power, the present administration's repeated insistence that America is at war may be interpreted by its domestic competitors as disingenuous and manipulative, even as a cynical ploy to keep popular support for the administration's policies.


But, given our uncertainty, what alternative does this, or any, administration have? It simply cannot give the all clear signal and advise the American people not to worry anymore about the possibility of such events as 9-11 occurring again.



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