The Origins of the War on Terror

There is a terrible danger that defense intellectuals will have to go whoring.

Jeremy Azrael, RAND Corporation, 1990

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The invasion of Afghanistan that followed was the first in a series of military engagements in the Central Asia and the Middle East. Since then the United States has dropped bombs on, and sometimes invaded, Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq and, most recently, Libya. Various explanations have been offered for the increasing frequency and intensity of US attacks. In 2001, and throughout the Bush presidency, there was much talk of a millennial war against the menace of Islamist terrorism. For the time being there is a greater emphasis on humanitarian concerns. Occasionally the economic and geopolitical dimensions are referred to in passing, albeit it in such a way as to leave intact the dominant frames of preemptive self-defense and disinterested benevolence.

Over the next few months I am going to take a look at what was once called the War on Terror, beginning with its origins in the idea that America faced a new kind of threat in the post-Cold War era. I’ll look at the debate about America’s future in the absence of a superpower rival in the early nineties, at the politics of globalization in the 1990s, and the later reemergence of the idea that war, permanent war even, could be the key to maintaining America’s global preeminence.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union voices could be heard expressing concerns about the system’s inbuilt drive to identify, and build careers around, new threats. In 1990 the Washington Post ran an article by E.J. Dionne called ‘Defense Intellectuals in a New World Order’. Dionne quoted Jeremy Azrael, a specialist on the Soviet system, who warned that there was ‘a terrible danger that defense intellectuals will have to go whoring’. ‘Folks in the service’, he said, might ‘go looking for threats out there’. He explained that as budgets contracted it would become harder for analysts to stay honest; there would be a temptation for people in his line of work to come up with ‘new Shibboleths’, like ‘the Moslems are going to get us’.

While Azrael was worried that his colleagues would start cooking up new justifications for their existence the head of the political science department, Jonathan Pollock, sounded somewhat more relaxed. He told Dionne that there were growth areas for research – countries like India, Japan and China. And besides, RAND was already ‘conducting a large study the Andean nations, in connection with the drugs trade, and doing considerable work on the Middle East’. Intriguingly, Pollock told Dionne that:

You need concepts of war that may be different from the concepts of war that you had before.

A remark that immediately brings to mind the concerns about ‘narco-terrorism’ that surrounded America’s military engagement in Colombia under Clinton, and that seems to foreshadow the much more expansive concept of a ‘War on Terror’ that emerged in 2001.

While Azrael was warning about the dangers of intellectual prostitution, it seems that Pollock was busy with the job in hand.

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