Recently, Mark Danner took stock of the President’s failed War on Terror abroad in three words: "Fragmentation, Diminution, Destruction."
"Gaze for a moment at those three words," he suggested, "and marvel at how far we have come in a half-dozen years. In September 2001, the United States faced a grave threat. The attacks that have become synonymous with that date were unprecedented in their destructiveness, in their lethality, in the pure apocalyptic shock of their spectacle. But in their aftermath, American policymakers, partly through ideological blindness and preening exaggeration of American power, partly through blindness brought about by political opportunism, made decisions that led to a defeat only their own actions — that only American power itself — could have brought about."
One day, we will also need to take full stock of George W. Bush’s War on Terror at home. After all, conceptually speaking, the War on Terror lay at the heart of everything he and his top officials hoped for in an administration — in, as they called it, a "unitary executive" that would be unrestrained by the checks and balances of either Congress or the courts. The announcement (not declaration) of "war" was, in fact, a necessity for this administration, the only lever available with which to pry a commander-in-chief presidency out of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Without the President’s self-proclaimed War on Terror, there would have been no "war" at all, and so no "wartime" atmosphere or "wartime" presidency to be invoked to cow Congress into backing Bush’s future war of choice in Iraq. Without "war" and "wartime," it would have been impossible to bring the American people along so readily and difficult to apply "war rules" from the Guantanamo prison complex in Cuba and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Otherwise, as Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris recently pointed out in the New Yorker, how could American officials and commanders have designated those prisoners seized by the U.S. military in Iraq as "’security detainees,’ a label that had gained currency in the war on terror, to describe ‘unlawful combatants’ and other prisoners who had been denied P.O.W. status and could be held indefinitely, in isolation and secrecy, without judicial recourse."
Every hope the Bush administration’s top officials had of future power hinged on the War on Terror that preceded actual war anywhere. True, in World War I, not 19 hijackers, but a single assassin triggered the mobilizing of the armies of all the Great Powers of Europe, which did indeed lead to global war. But after 9/11, on the provocation of 19 men (and the scattered bands behind them), only one power mobilized, which meant, by the standards of history, there was no war to be had. Only aggression.
On the domestic power grab that the President and his men (and a few women) believed would lead not just to a global Pax Americana, but to a Pax Republicana at home, the equivalent of a National Intelligence Estimate has yet to arrive. But the recent, little noted loss of the previously safe Illinois seat of former House of Representatives Majority Leader Dennis Hastert — a contest into which a strapped National Republican Congressional Committee poured $1.2 million (20% of the cash it had on hand) against a neophyte Democratic candidate–is a striking sign that Bush’s Pax Republicana may prove anything but generational.