By Steven Bodzin
Introduction by Tom Engelhardt
A month ago I wrote an essay, Are We in World War IV, about the naming of the “war” our President declared in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The neocons fell in love with the idea of us being in a generational struggle like the Cold War (which they thought of as World War III, though it’s obvious that World War III, which could have been planet destroying, never happened) – in love, that is, with the term “World War IV.” It seemed to them like a great mobilizing concept for the country. In my piece, I considered the messier and far more modest nature of the struggle that was actually taking place.
Two weeks later, former State Department official John Brown — in 2003, he resigned in protest over the coming invasion of Iraq — wrote a response to my piece, Why World IV Can’t Sell. He examined ways in which “global war” (under any name) was visibly failing to mobilize American energies and suggested that this helped explain the Bush administration’s sudden switch to its present leitmotif — the “spread of democracy,” especially in the Arab world.
Below, Steven Bodzin offers one explanation for why World War IV didn’t stick and the Global War on Terror hasn’t worn well. There are, as our Secretary of Defense might say, no “metrics” for victory.
The Quest for Desired Endstate
By Steven Bodzin
Sixty years ago this summer, New Yorkers threw open skyscraper windows and unfurled a joyous storm of tickertape. Paperboys hawked extra editions of the New York Herald Tribune. A sailor in dress whites dipped a nurse, their heady smooch preserved forever in a Life magazine photograph. The allies had won on the twin battlefields of World War II, celebrated in this country as VE-Day and VJ-Day.
Since George W. Bush announced the Global War on Terror (what insiders call GWOT), he has urged us to “unite in opposing all terrorists,” “stay on the offensive,” and “give the Department of Homeland Security every tool it needs.” In last fall’s election campaign, he asked a crowd in Lehigh, Pennsylvania, “Who can lead this war against terror to victory?” But while he used the word “victory,” tickertape and victory kisses now appear as alien as newsreels, B-29s and ration cards.
I wanted to know the administration’s vision of victory in the GWOT. So I dug up tens of thousands of pages of strategy objectives from government agencies and think tanks filled with negative goals like “disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations,” “conquer this enemy,” and “defeat the forces of evil wherever they are.”
But a definition of victory was nowhere to be found. Even the word “victory” was surprisingly rare in documents from the National Security Council (NSC), the CIA, the State Department, and the FBI. Dozens of on-line databases, articles, and speeches brought me no closer to discovering the war’s goal.
Then, late one night, I thought I had it. Plowing through Acrobat and PowerPoint files in the government’s vast network of Web sites, a search for the words “victory” and “war on terror” led me to a 30-page booklet, officially endorsed by the President, entitled: The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.
It too crackled with negatives: “Interdict and disrupt material support for terrorists.” “End the state sponsorship of terrorism.”
One tantalizing subsection was labeled “Victory in the War against Terror.” But it proved to be a tease – just two paragraphs, the first warning that victory would take a long time, the second instructing readers to remain vigilant.
Then, I clicked to page 13. That’s when I thought I had finished my quest. It was a printout of what looked like three PowerPoint slides bearing the kind of bold arrows that, on old World War II maps, would have shown troops sweeping toward victory. But rather than marching across a physical landscape, these arrows pushed to decreasing levels of terrorist activity. And the page included a goal: If all went well in the GWOT, terrorists would become unable to operate across borders, unable to communicate and less able to kill. Al Qaeda would still exist but be rendered “Unorganized. Localized. Non-sponsored.” “Terrorism” would be “returned to the criminal domain.”
The caption on this grand moment of finality was not “Victory over Terror.” Instead, it was labeled with a term more often seen in hard-drive installation manuals: “Desired Endstate.”
As in that great British battleship, HMS Desired Endstate. Or the battle cry, “Desired endstate or death!” As in DE-Day.
The diagram was interesting, but I needed to know, was this “Desired Endstate” official policy, and just how “unorganized,” “localized,” and “non-sponsored” would terrorism have to be for us to celebrate DE-Day? Whoever drew the diagram, I thought, would have the answers.
Unfortunately, The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism listed no author. I had downloaded my copy from the CIA Web site via a link from the State Department’s counterterrorism office. I left messages for each.
A spokeswoman for the State Department woke me at 6 a.m., California time, a few days later, her words jumping quickly from the phone. She explained that propounding goals for the War on Terror was outside her department’s purview. I reminded her that her department’s Web site said, “State is the lead agency for combating international terrorism.” She replied, “State is not the lead agency on counterterrorism. That’s not what our mission statement said.” The statement has since disappeared from the department’s website.
A spokeswoman at the CIA — Michelle, no last name — said she had never heard of the document and that, in any case, writing policy was up to State and the NSC. When told that the desired-end-state document had been downloaded from the CIA’s Web server, she promised to take a look. She called back to say that the logo on the back of the booklet was the State Department’s.
I tried the State Department again. In another 6 a.m. call, their spokeswoman said the booklet was probably “interdepartmental.” Call NSC, she suggested.
A gentle-voiced NSC spokesman asked about the rain in California before putting me on hold. A few minutes later he returned. “It might have come out of here. I’ll have to get back to you.” Despite a follow-up call and an e-mail, he never did.
Perhaps this amounted to yet another end run around any measurable goals, or “metrics.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself wrote in October 2003, “Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.”
Perhaps government officials worry that a definition of what constitutes success will give critics a new way to measure failure.
Seeking an endstate of my own, I next tried the pro-GWOT pundits. I found a collection of them at an organization called Americans for Victory Over Terrorism.
Their Web site includes an article by novelist Mark Helprin called “A Strategy for Victory in the War on Terror.” Perfect. Except that nowhere in the piece does he provide readers with a vision of our world after the war. Instead, he focuses on process. Steps, then more steps, but no end in sight.
Michael Ledeen, cofounder of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, is also a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. In his 2002 book The War Against the Terror Masters, he called for war with Iraq, Iran, or any other country that supports terrorism. He often appears on talk shows defending Administration policies. If anyone could describe victory, I thought, he could.
I called and explained my quest. He responded with a scoff, “Pfft. The goal? You wouldn’t be saying that if you had a daughter in Baghdad.” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but assured him I wanted terrorists gone as much as anyone. Still, my question was: What would the world look like then?
“There won’t be people blowing us up,” he said. “They won’t have a nation-state supporting them. That’s very important.”
“How will we know when we’re getting close to victory?”
“We’ll start seeing defectors,” he replied. “It will be all the usual signs when someone’s getting ready to lose a war. A drop in morale, recruiting getting more difficult. You’ll see their followers throwing down their weapons, giving up.”
So, was that the point? Have we really burned through our treasury, devastated civil liberties and killed thousands of people to diminish the morale of suicide bombers?
Ledeen told me to look at the president’s second inaugural speech. In it, Bush said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” So the GWOT is valiant — but vague. Does Russia count? How about Venezuela?
Bush’s inaugural imprecision epitomizes the armchair-warrior class. Sept. 11 inspired brave rhetoric, but these thinkers’ vision of resolution is as vaporous as their destructive fantasies are cold steel. If they won’t tell us what the desired endstate is, there’s no way for us to gauge our approach to victory.
It’s time for someone — I don’t know who — to define victory in the GWOT. Because until then, we won’t know DE-Day when we see it. It will remain as illusory as tickertape falling from the airtight skyscrapers of San Diego. Or paper boys hawking extra issues of FoxNews.com. Or a sailor in dress whites grabbing his backpack medical kit and dipping it low in an open-mouth kiss.
Freelance writer Steven Bodzin was working for the PBS Frontline documentary “Al Qaeda’s New Front” when he encountered the Desired Endstate. He has also covered counterterrorism for Wired News and Indymedia.
Copyright 2005 Steven Bodzin
This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com, and in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle‘s Insight section.