Will Americans Still Want the War?
Will Americans buy it? Will they give up the war, yet keep paying the sky-high bills for OCOs? The popular reaction to the end of the unmourned Global War on Terror is hard to discern, because there really hasn't been any. The obituaries dutifully appeared, were noticed by only a few, and are already almost forgotten.
That gives the Obama administration reason to hope they'll win their linguistic gamble—that Americans will let the War on Terror die as quickly as it was born, that they are as indifferent to it as they seem to be. Polls suggest that may be a safe bet. Throughout the 2008 election year, remarkably few Americans rated terrorism as their top concern. And that was even before economic collapse pushed the subject further down the list of national priorities.
On the other hand, reports of the death of the War on Terror could turn out to be premature. Maybe most Americans just assume that it continues, whatever anyone calls it. When given a chance to name several issues of concern, three-quarters or more of polling respondents typically put terrorism on their list.
Since the 1930s, Americans have, by and large, been willing to work together for common national goals only when they believed they were at war and following the orders of a commander-in-chief. Under the rubric of "the war against…," the federal government has had its greatest successes in mobilizing public support for major programs (as Michael Sherry has shown in his fine book, In the Shadow of War).
And we Americans go willingly to war only when we're convinced that our "way of life" is gravely threatened. The number one purpose of the government is to protect that way of life—or so the official story goes. Unfortunately, since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's day we have lived in a permanent state of national insecurity, always at war with or against someone or something, because there is always someone or something to be afraid of.
If Americans do turn out to be perfectly willing to let go of the magic word "war," the end of GWOT may lighten the shadow of war, which hovers over us and ultimately leaves us afraid of considering fundamental political change of any sort. That might prove important in the long run, even if, in the short run, it gets little notice.
By Any OCO Necessary
Sometimes President Obama sounds like fundamental change is really what he has in mind: to shift the nation's priorities from protecting what we've got to creating a new and better way of life. At other times, he talks like just another commander-in-chief of the national insecurity state, warning us about al-Qaeda and all sorts of other "threats to our nation's security and economy [that] can no longer be kept at bay by oceans or by borders." (In case you forgot, the "theft of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union could lead to the extermination of any city on earth.")
This ambiguity reflects the fine political line Obama has chosen to walk. Ending the "war on terror" may please millions of his supporters who expect him to offer genuinely new policies, foreign as well as domestic. Continued dire warnings may satisfy millions of middle-of-the-road voters who opted for him despite fears that he might undermine national security.
Satisfying both groups is no small trick. But if, with linguistic substitutions and innuendo, he can pull it off, he'll be free to carry out the empire's daily round of OCOs, large and small, without having to worry about the meddlesome vagaries of public opinion. That's one big advantage OCOs have over wars: They tend not to attract too much attention. For most inhabitants of the imperial homeland, OCOs are too distant to be noticed. If one or two (or three or four or five) go wrong, who's watching?
The daily routine of OCOs may be expensive, but as long as life in the homeland is comfortable enough, few questions are likely to be asked. Even when life grows uncomfortable for many, as today, the links between domestic economic meltdown and the costs of empire remain largely obscured. As a result, the imperial government has a relatively free hand to keep "order" around the world, by any OCO necessary.
Still, for those who would stand against the empire, the death of GWOT is one more reminder that under Obama, the glass, though usually half empty, is also half full. If we no longer say we're at war, it may be easier to see the brute fact that we are at empire, day in, day out, year around.
On the other hand, if the government no longer relies on the word "war" to scare the public into paying the bills, it may be harder to bring the national insecurity state's fear-based worldview to bear on decisions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or any of those places where OCOs are in progress all the time. That could just bring us a step closer to a different kind of politics. So Obama's gamble on banishing the word "war" could, in the long run, drain support for OCOs of all kinds, even the ones that actually are wars, regardless of his intentions.
For that to happen, Americans will have to be persistently reminded of those ongoing OCOs and their single goal: protecting the empire. After all, Americans have never much liked the idea of using their tax dollars for imperial purposes. The more the links between OCOs and the defense of empire are apparent, the more we'll be ready for the politics and policies of genuine change.
Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009 Ira Chernus