Credible Threats

What is the nature of the war on terror? A police action on a massive scale, or a global war? A counterinsurgency writ large, or a retaliatory invasion? None of these labels fit comfortably, but the American right, at least thus far, seems to have settled on one dominant narrative. Beecause it furthers their domestic agenda, and meshes with the coalition’s theocratic elements, 9/11 was the first scene in a Huntington-style “clash of civilizations,” and the war on terror a New Crusade against a threat of true annihilation. Unless we meet it head-on, by preemptively striking even tenuously related actors, and suspending such niceties of the law of war and due process, we will lose. Take Gingrich:

[In an upcoming speech to the AEI,] Gingrich “will warn,” according to a synopsis of the event, “that now is the time to awaken from self-deception about the nature of our enemies and rebuild a bipartisan commitment, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to defend America.”

Never one to shy away from his somewhat professorial reputation, Gingrich plans to draw on “the lessons of Camus and Orwell” to explain “the dangers of a wartime government that uses language and misleading labels to obscure reality.”

This refrain — predicated on the assumption that Osama bin Laden could wipe America from the map — is a curious one to hear from the same party that continually upbraids the left, and the President, for their perceived lack of faith in American exceptionalism. Whatever they mean by the term, it should probably include some confidence that Al Qaeda won’t succeed where England, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union failed.

We need to remind ourselves that, ultimately, fundamentalist Islam isn’t an existential threat to America as a country. Just because an enemy can wound us doesn’t mean they are peers. If we “lose” the war on terror, we stand to suffer a dilution of our global influence, and run a risk of sustained criminal acts of violence against our citizens and our city centers. Both are best avoided, and deadly serious (I don’t mean to imply otherwise), but neither, separately or together, constitute dangers grave enough to question who we are as a country, and whether we need to fundamentally change our nature to survive. When we start asking those questions — or, by listening to the Republican Party, continue asking them — we become the instruments of our own downfall.

To be a hegemon is to suffer terrorism. This is the price of our success, but one we’re definitionally capable of paying. In the meantime, our greatest challenge is not to let the enemy win through fear what they can’t win through arms. True belief in American exceptionalism includes confidence in the courage of our convictions:

From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step o’er the earth, and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia… could not,  by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or set a track on the Blue Ridge, though the trial last a thousand years. No: if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.



  1. Regarding “the price of our success” – people (not just Americans) aways want a free lunch.

    BTW, what is the source of the “from whence shall we expect the approach of danger” quote?

  2. Lincoln! As paraphrased by Titus Andronicus:

    The video omits the spoken beginning, which leads with that quote, slightly altered.

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