At the Arms Control Law blog, Marco Rosini writes that after reading President Obama’s inaugural address, he
“was surprised to find no reference whatsoever to disarmament and non-proliferation, which played an important role in Obama’s first four years. I also found that declaring that ‘We [the US] will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms’ was a bit too belligerent (but, to be fair, he mentions the rule of law too). And what ‘decade of war’ is ending? I assume the reference is to the ‘war on terror,’ an unfortunate expression that is obviously hard to get rid of.”
I rather suspect the “decade of war” was a (rough) reference to the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the fact that “the NATO-led ISAF Forces will hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013.” It could be in reference to the war in Iraq as well, as Deborah Pearlstein points out in her post at Opinio Juris: “A Decade of War is Ending.” I don’t think it’s a reference to the “war on terror,” however unfortunate the locution, as the Administration is loath to abandon the phrase (what the Washington Post called back in October of last year ‘the permanent war’) as long as it sees itself involved in “an armed conflict against al Qaeda and associated forces, to which the laws of armed conflict apply,” in the words of Jeh Charles Johnson, General Counsel of the U.S. Dept. of Defense. However, unlike the notion of a “permanent war,” it seems Johnson believes there will come a “tipping point” at which we can envision the end of this particular armed conflict while still engaged in “a counterterrorism effort against individuals….for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible, in cooperation with the international community – with our military assets available in reserve to address continuing and imminent terrorist threats.” If we assume that “armed conflict” is what justifies the expression “war on terror,” then an end to that war is envisioned. Nonetheless, war metaphors are obdurate and fairly commonplace in public discourse in this country (e.g., ‘war on poverty,’ ‘war on drugs,’ ‘war on working families,’ ‘Republican war on science,’ and so forth, as well as the many metaphors derived from the meaning of war), so I suspect, alas, the “war on terror” will persist long after the possible end of this particular “armed conflict.”
In the talk by Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson referenced above, he states an awareness “of studies that suggest that many ‘terrorist’ organizations eventually denounce terrorism and violence, and seek to address their grievances through some form of reconciliation or participation in a political process,” but states unequivocally that “Al Qaeda is not in that category.” In a future post I will discuss one such study (and Johnson’s claim as it relates to Al Qaeda) as part of a larger treatment of the “meaning(s) of terrorism.” With regard to our political vocabulary, I agree with these opening words from Ben Saul’s invaluable study, Defining Terrorism in International Law (Oxford University Press, 2006): “Few words are plagued by so much indeterminacy, subjectivity, and political disagreement as ‘terror,’ ‘terrorize,’ and ‘terrorism,’ and ‘terrorist.’” One need only survey the various scholarly definitions proffered in the law, social sciences, and political philosophy to arrive at this conclusion.