Vulgarizing the War Debate

By Berkowitz, Peter | Policy Review, August-September 2007 | Go to article overview

Vulgarizing the War Debate

Berkowitz, Peter, Policy Review

STEPHEN HOLMES. The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS. 384 PAGES. $30.00

WAR PLACES A premium on knowledge. Certainly it's better to have more troops, bigger guns, and more powerful bombs and rockets. Yet nothing we have learned about human nature, politics, and battle in the past two and a half millennia calls into question the wisdom of the oldest classic of strategic thought, Sun Tzu's The Art of War: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

Indeed, our struggle against the varieties of Islamic extremism has only confirmed the importance of Sun Tzu's sage advice. We have suffered setbacks because we have been slow to appreciate that our grand strategy, our armed forces, and our diplomatic corps were not designed for the challenges presented by nonstate threats and asymmetric warfare. And we have incurred self-inflicted wounds because we have failed to grasp that neither our categories of criminal law nor the laws of war easily cover terrorists' strategic aims and characteristic tactics. Moreover, ten years after Osama bin Laden declared war on the U.S., we remain poorly informed about the jihadists' language, culture, sectarian differences, political grievances, and religious aspirations.

In these testing circumstances, scholars have a special role to play. Trained, ostensibly, in serious and systematic inquiry and devoted, presumably, to the pursuit of accurate and objective knowledge, scholars should be uniquely well-equipped to step back, set aside partisan posturing, and place the September 11 attacks and America's multifaceted response to jihadist terrorism in context.

Many, particularly in political science and law, have the opportunity to pursue their professional obligations and to contribute to the public good by analyzing the cultural, social, economic, political, and religious dimensions of Islamic extremism and authoritarian government in the Muslim world. They can devise better procedures under the Constitution for the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of unlawful enemy combatants. They can rethink the body of international law known as the laws of war and adjust it to an age in which not only nation-states but also nonstate actors are capable of threatening a country's territorial integrity and political sovereignty. They can examine our unwieldy collection of intelligence agencies--whose performance, dating back to the Cold War, has left much to be desired--and propose reforms to improve them. They can explore the proper role of the federal courts, which must find a way to hold the president accountable and keep Congress within constitutional bounds while preserving energy in the executive and democratic legitimacy in the legislature. And they can develop workable rules and regulations, consistent with constitutional guarantees of individual liberty, to govern the electronic surveillance and data mining that are crucial to U.S. national security.

FOR AN INSTANT, it appears Stephen Holmes agrees that at this critical moment, scholars have a special role to play. A professor at New York University School of Law and research director at the law school's Center on Law and Security, he declares in his opening lines that his book

  is an attempt to understand and explain America's reckless response to
  the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It builds on many previous efforts to
  get the story straight about the al Qaeda attack, the invasion and
  occupation of Iraq, and American counterterrorism policy more
  generally. Learning how to think clearly about the 9/11 provocation
  and America's response to it is an obvious first step toward
  correcting the tragically misguided course on which the nation has
  embarked. … 

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