A republic that wages unending war beyond its frontiers sets itself up for decline and fall. Its intractable military skirmishing is like the drip-drip-drip of water slowly eroding the sturdy foundations of an edifice before it collapses. Buffoons soon take their turns as mob rulers, coarsening and dividing a once-free society, before a barbarian horde tries to topple it.
Or so goes the “Roman narrative,” an old story of imperial decline that has instructed generations of politicians and political theorists seeking to stave off a similar fate. If you spend too much time fighting savagery, you become savage as well. “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual
warfare,” warned James Madison in 1795. Added Barack Obama in 2013, in a statement that, in retrospect, seems prophetic: “A perpetual war—through drones or special forces or troop deployment—will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.”
But there has long been both a minor and a major problem with the Roman narrative. The minor one is that no one ever seems to agree on when the free society went wayward. For millennia, observers have emphasized different causes and dates—which was easy to do since, as the 18th-century French political philosopher Montesquieu pointed out, from the beginning “Rome was in an eternal and always violent war” somewhere. Edward Gibbon, the most famous modern chronicler, opens his history with an admiring description of the Roman Empire as it embarked on its wars, with scenes from Augustus to the Antonines that read like a fanboy’s paean to military achievement. The pivot in his account comes only with the murder in 192 ce of Emperor Commodus, the narcissist who lacked “every sentiment of virtue and humanity” and was goaded into “unspeakable acts of cruelty” by a “servile crowd” that worshiped him. (He did not have red hair.)
But the larger problem with the Roman narrative is its complacent nostalgia for a time before the decline itself. Historical bickering about what went wrong and when presupposes that a lot—or enough—went right. Taking the virtues of the free society for granted, its way of life glorious until the intrusion of wartime vice, the Roman narrative, whether credulously or ideologically, implies that the problem was adventitious and occurred late. It becomes a matter of saving “the last best hope” from its “unwinding,” to quote the titles of two of George Packer’s recent books. But what if the sources of the cruelty and violence and putrefaction were of long standing? What if the crimes and pathologies of empire abroad and subjugation at home, belatedly fingered as the causes of collapse, had always prevented a republic from actually coming into being? What if the supposedly free society was unconscionably violent to its own people, and its military adventures far away were extensions or reflections of its unfreedoms nearby? The problem wasn’t a decline and fall, but a failure to rise in the first place.
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In Reign of Terror, Spencer Ackerman opens with Madison’s warning and refuses to narrate the main events of the War on Terror in the years after 9/11 separately from their domestic ramifications. In Subtle Tools, Karen J. Greenberg studies how policies enacted to allow the pursuit of foreign “terrorists” 20 years ago, with their unexpected and unholy uses at home in recent years, ended up degrading our laws and liberty. For both, the whirlwind of the “forever war” of the past 20 years allowed Donald Trump to reap the opportunity for American devastation.
Both books raise the question of whether the Roman tale of liberty spurned is the right one, while also suggesting the more disconcerting possibility that the pathologies were there all along. Ackerman at one point cites the observation of Aimé Césaire that unfreedom “oozes, seeps, and trickles” from “every crack” of an empire, including those found within its metropole: What happens abroad is only a manifestation of unfreedom at home. If this is true, then Ackerman’s and Greenberg’s focus on how the War on Terror led to Trump’s rise and reign—the Roman narrative applied to recent American history—is not necessarily wrong. But starting with the War on Terror and ending with Trump also isolates both from their genuine sources. It also distracts from how Joe Biden–who called in illegal air strikes in February and promised amid the fiasco of the pullout from Afghanistan to sustain counterterrorist operations—is continuing our war, not ending it.
Spencer Ackerman has been among the most important journalists to chronicle the War on Terror almost from its inception. Writing for, among other publications, The Guardian and, until recently, The Daily Beast, he has shown himself to be a gifted reporter, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his role in bringing Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance to the public. In Reign of Terror, Ackerman synthesizes two decades of his and others’ work to explore how the War on Terror “was not simply something that happened on the battlefields.” Rather, “it happened in the United States” and helped to create Trump and allow his profane works.
Karen Greenberg, a national security expert at Fordham Law School, has also been a precious resource, especially on the War on Terror’s legal machinations. The author of an indispensable study on America’s Guantánamo Bay prison, she has become one of the country’s leading experts on the perverse legal changes brought about by counterterrorism policy and the surveillance state. Like Reign of Terror, her new book draws from this experience to show how the “subtle tools forged out of the wreckage of 9/11”—the government’s use of euphemism, flexibility, and secrecy—worked for two decades to “smother the good out of a democracy in turmoil” and pave the way for some of the most infamous episodes of Trump’s presidency.
Ackerman and Greenberg hardly deny the excesses and ravages of our wars abroad. But their interest here—something the last president’s term and the current anniversary marking two decades (so far) of counterterrorism make pressing—is in what these excesses and ravages have done to America itself. And Trump, far from representing a deviation from the War on Terror, epitomized it. He “brought aspects of the war home,” Ackerman contends, even if “fundamentally the war was always home.” As Greenberg adds, Trump exploited existing “tools, already destructive, and sharpened them into weapons.” The boomerang of counterterrorism policy, invented to attack foreign enemies, ended up permanently disfiguring American life once it struck home.
Both authors sweep across the past two decades before reaching the age of Trump, and in doing so they help periodize the entire experience of the War on Terror. For Ackerman and Greenberg, the two pivotal moments in the evolution of America’s counterterrorism age were the early months of George W. Bush’s presidency and the early months of Barack Obama’s.
As both authors tell it, the initial days and months after Al Qaeda struck Manhattan and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, were formative for everything that followed—especially Bush’s proclamation of a war on “terror” and the supersession of limits that he and his neoconservative stewards demanded in consequence. “Having abandoned the concept of a war against a specific terrorist organization,” Ackerman observes, “Americans would never be able to agree on when it could be won.” From the start, therefore, the whole notion of a War on Terror was “conceptually doomed,” and yet it would remake the country in its wake. Chillingly, Greenberg cites Trump the celebrity businessman predicting this very thing himself: On September 13, two days after the attack, he noted that “a whole different city and world” would arise from the smoking ruins of “ground zero.”
It wasn’t just that Bush chose unending war; he also supercharged border and “homeland” policing, racializing it on the grounds that—as his attorney general, John Ashcroft, remarked—the “enemy’s platoons infiltrate our borders.” Even as foundational decisions were made about how to move—notwithstanding the constraints of international law—against Afghanistan and Iraq, starting with Congress’s near-unanimous 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the government began to round up terrorism suspects at home, initiate domestic surveillance, and lift controls on detention and interrogation. Greenberg calls the AUMF the “Ur document” of the War on Terror, because its vagueness meant that it would authorize force against anyone. And as she shows in a separate chapter, Bush also moved immediately to set up the agency with the sinister name Department of Homeland Security, placing border control in a counterterrorism framework. Meanwhile, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in October 2001, which ended up imposing few limits on such surveillance practices.
Ackerman stresses how near-universal the support for the War on Terror was across America’s partisan divide in this first pivotal period. The neoconservatives in the cockpit of Bush’s foreign policy, however showily many of them would later become never-Trumpers, continued or even extended their dangerous game of indulging the nativist part of the Republican base, which has proved to be anything but an atavistic remnant of the distant past. At the same time, the neocons were not above lecturing paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and others about their insufficient patriotism when they advised caution. As for liberals, they were compliant and supine—when they were not even more enthusiastic about the opportunity to slay monsters abroad than their neoconservative frenemies. Part of the reason was electoral fear. “Anti-communist liberalism built the structures that confronted the Soviet Union,” Ackerman comments, “but that did not spare it the demagoguery of conservatives for whom liberalism was a stalking horse for communism.” Yet the most important reason was that mainstream liberals, too, were grateful for a new enemy to replace the one that had long defined their aggressive posture.
Minor pushback came only with the faltering of the Iraq War and the Abu Ghraib torture revelations in the spring of 2004. The legacy of this period was that the War on Terror was touched up, its torture and related prisoner abuses removed (with an assist from the Supreme Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and other cases). In the process, however, the earliest assumptions of the war framing and the licensing of force abroad were continued, even entrenched. Perversely, as I argue in my own new book on the period, the “humanization” of perpetual war adopted in the later Bush years ratified and even fortified his foundational choices to move the country to a war footing, even as the president’s own popularity tanked. Just as, in 2001, mainstream opinion across the political spectrum had given the government carte blanche to create a new national security state, between 2004 and 2006 a renewed public legitimacy for the War on Terror turned on making it “moral.”
That evolution in the war is why its second pivotal moment came during Obama’s first months in office. The new president had campaigned on a selective opposition to the Iraq War, presenting himself as a broader peace candidate, while implying to those in the know his acceptance of an infinity war under the new and unconstrained authorities that Bush had asserted and Congress had granted. Obama’s anti-war speech as an Illinois state senator in 2002—providentially rediscovered as he battled Hillary Clinton, who had even fewer scruples about America’s might—was taken to be more significant than his votes to fund the Iraq War as a US senator or to expand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which increased government spying, the month after he clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
“Although his rhetoric about the war on terror suggested both legal and operational restraint,” Greenberg writes, “Obama proved reluctant to surrender the flexibility that vague language provided for the presidential exercise of elastic powers.” Neither expansive war powers nor limitless surveillance authority were reformed; their abuse continued, and in some instances they were even broadened. Nonetheless, liberals and the mainstream media lionized Obama for ending the War on Terror, while others nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize (which he won later that year). Never mind that he killed members of Faheem Qureshi’s family by armed drone on his third full day in office or that he used Congress’s original AUMF against new enemies and in many more places.
Although the haze of gratitude that Obama enjoyed for not being Bush took a long time to dissipate—and then returned once the identity of his successor became known—both Ackerman and Greenberg show that Obama chose forthrightly to make the War on Terror permanent. Indeed, he not only extended it in time and expanded it in space but, with his lawyerly bent, formalized its legal basis to provide extra legitimation.
The expanded range and startling rise in the number of drone strikes, so associated with this second period of the War on Terror, should not obscure its other forms, such as the ramped-up use of America’s special forces. “Drone strikes were more than just the centerpiece of Obama’s counterterrorism strategy,” Ackerman notes. “They represented how he saw the War on Terror: not as something to end, but something to reorient.” Obama understood that the War on Terror could not continue in its cruel earlier form, either in bloody ground campaigns or unspeakable prisoner abuse (which was easier to avoid if suspected terrorists were not captured but killed outright). Even when his other compromises were eventually challenged by a rising left indicting the rampant austerity and anti-Black violence of his era, Ackerman writes, the opposition to Obama was “not fueled by antiwar activism.” As a result of this transformative period during Obama’s first few months as president, what Ackerman dubs the “Sustainable War on Terror” was launched—and continues to this day.
But how persuasive is it to insist, as Ackerman and Greenberg do, that the War on Terror, aside from its grievous effects abroad, transformed America beyond recognition as well? And how illuminating is it to search for proof of a decline and fall in the coming of Donald Trump and his presidency—especially if Bush’s and Obama’s early months in office proved so decisive?
To the extent that both writers focus on the War on Terror proper, they face serious difficulties. Trump’s ascent marked what Ackerman calls the “decadent” or “exhaustion” phase of the War on Terror. In an excellent chapter, he shows that the American people and even some leading policy-makers had grown weary of endless war even before Trump was elected. Indeed, this fatigue helped give Trump an extraordinary opening, among the others he exploited in his astonishing 2016 breakthrough. Was his condemnation of the wars, then, genuine? Ackerman is contemptuous of any notion of “Donald the Dove,” and fair enough. Yet Trump pressed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, even if it is also true, as Greenberg documents, that his aggressive and lawless attack on the Iranian general Qassim Soleimani embraced the War on Terror’s legerdemain and the erosion of any limits on war powers.
If there was no Donald the Dove, it is mainly because the Sustainable War on Terror—with fewer deployed troops and more high-tech death from a distance—was something that Trump inherited more than invented. In reducing troops ever further in most theaters, even as he ramped up the use of drones and special forces against the Islamic State and others, Trump was simply following the policies of his predecessors to their logical conclusion (as would his eventual successor). Still, it is only fair to note that by running in 2016 on his own critique of US military policy—and of Bush himself, for the Iraq War—Trump helped make possible the Afghan withdrawal that Joe Biden is putting center stage to mark the 20th anniversary of September 11 and to take credit for ending the “forever war.” Moreover, the anti-war cause saw no greater successes than during the Trump years, not just on the left but on the right—notably among the US veterans who massively supported him.
In other ways, though, Ackerman and Greenberg argue, Trump’s tenure did not augur the end of the War of Terror so much as its return home. Ackerman notes how, from its start, the War on Terror helped reactivate a nativist current in American politics and thus shaped the constituency that supported Trump. Greenberg meticulously documents how Trump’s Muslim travel ban was debated in the Supreme Court within a War on Terror framework—and how the considerable deference the court showed to the president in its ultimate decision also presupposed the executive authority that had been granted over the past 20 years. “The legal and policy tensions of 9/11 persisted into the Trump era,” she writes, “and were brought into the open by the Muslim ban.” The same was true of border interdiction, with the Department of Homeland Security on the front lines of the administration’s outrageous policies. But the most vivid example for their thesis is in the nationwide protests after George Floyd’s murder. In response to the uprisings, Trump openly referred to the protesters as terrorists, explicitly calling for a counterinsurgency on American soil by the military, if possible, and by militarized police if not. “A wartime attitude took hold,” Ackerman writes.
That the former intelligence and military stewards of the War on Terror now professed themselves shocked to find their tools perverted in a domestic struggle against their fellow citizens was ironic, as both Greenberg and Ackerman note. Meanwhile, some Trump supporters moved to protect his nativist racism from the very national security state they once demanded, as the neoconservatives and national security functionaries bolted from Trump and were seen to be using their “deep state” powers to hem in and undermine the president. This development was the War on Terror through a fun-house mirror, as Ackerman notes, with paranoid fantasies of “Islamists in collaboration with the Security State.” Now American hatred and racism required turning on the American government itself—in defense of its leader.
Greenberg concludes her study with the prescription to control or eradicate the “subtle tools,” now that we can confirm their domestication and misuse. More darkly, Ackerman suggests that by the time Joe Biden providentially ousted Trump, “a perpetual-motion machine of death powered by the worst of American history” had made it “increasingly difficult to see America as anything more than its War on Terror.”
But for all the power of a general argument that invalidates the War on Terror through Trump and his works, there are also limits to memorializing its first 20 years this way. As Ackerman sometimes implies, all of American history culminated in Trump. If so, then reducing Trump to the culmination of just one particular episode in that history risks making it too easy for us to pretend otherwise. “The #Resistance,” Ackerman notes, tended after 2016 to “surgically separate their hatred of Trump from any examination of the America that produced him.” But by the very same token, one cannot surgically separate one’s hatred of the War on Terror from any examination of the country that produced it. American exclusion and nativism are hardly new, and the governmental euphemism, flexibility, and secrecy that Greenberg illuminates have been endemic features of America’s war-making for decades, if not centuries. Also, for all the appeal of the framework of counterterrorism’s blowback and boomeranging, racialized oppression—especially in the furious responses to bids for freedom and justice by the enslaved and their descendants—has been at home in the United States throughout its history.
Finally, by locating the costs of the War on Terror in the climax of the Trump presidency, we allow the argument to be made that, now that the “sane” conservatives and liberals are back in charge, all we need is some modest reform of the War on Terror’s blatant or subtle tools. That lesson is, indeed, precisely the dominant one among liberals today. Greenberg ends on an expectant note about Biden, even as she worries that the January 6 uprising has been widely analogized with 9/11 as a national trauma requiring the most emphatic kind of patriotic response. She knows, however, that Biden and his foreign policy stewards are old hands at the counterterrorism policy of the past two decades and have so far done little—the withdrawal from Afghanistan aside—to challenge its ways.
The Roman narrative of civilized freedom undone through foreign wars is alluring. But it is also misleading. For a while, scholars have rejected the whole notion that Rome “fell”—a “paradigm,” as Glen Bowersock wrote some years ago, that mostly represented the “fears” of observers centuries later “as they confronted the instability of the civilization to which they belonged.” It still serves such a function today. And as scholars like Dirk Moses and Richard Waswo have argued, the Roman narrative is a “founding legend” that permits a measure of self-criticism in the name of honoring an otherwise supposedly great civilization—ignoring what Mohandas Gandhi and other anti-colonialists have long noted: that civilization has mostly been a euphemism for its opposite all along.
This is why we should not separate the War on Terror from what came before, nor so innocently fasten its conclusion to Trump, especially as a symbol and symptom of civilization’s degradation, without a deeper reflection on what it means to be civilized in the first place. On the 20th anniversary of the War on Terror, it is easy to slip into the Roman narrative, mourning a distinctive or even decisive period of freedom’s collapse. The darker—and truer—story to tell is one in which the War on Terror extended and ratified the cruelty and oppression that define our history more than many might care to admit.
On the other hand, the Roman example could well instruct us that there are uplifting possibilities in disorder and “decline.” Much as the historian Peter Brown did so breathtakingly in junking all the accounts of Rome’s decline in the first centuries after Christ, people might someday see the current period as the birth of something creative and interesting. Not only may there be limited value in a narrative of imperial excess coming home, but the harsh transitions we are experiencing now might be the birth pangs of something better and new. Of course, it is up to us to make it so.