What Is Terrorism, Continued

The more things you call terrorism, the fewer you’re likely to wipe out.

It is not good for North Korea to be developing nuclear weapons, but how exactly is it “terrorism”? The thought of Iran or Iraq as a nuclear power is, if anything, even scarier than the thought of Osama Bin Laden holed up with his dialysis machine in some new cave somewhere. But how did the “war on terrorism” change focus so quickly from rooting out and punishing the perpetrators of 9/11—a task that is still incomplete—to doing something—what?—about nuclear proliferation?

As this column and other nit-pickers have noted before, terrorism is a squishy concept. But if the word means anything at all, it embodies the concept that even in war, the end can’t justify the means. Terrorism is something-or-other that is bad even when used by the good guys in a good cause. It is a tactic or weapon that is inherently immoral. So shoehorning the problem of nuclear proliferation into the framework of terrorism is especially illogical, since the distinguishing feature of nuclear proliferation as an issue is its asymmetry. It is the United States saying to other countries: We can have nuclear weapons, and so can a few of our old buddies, but you cannot. This imbalance doesn’t mean that keeping nukes out of certain hands—even by force if necessary—is a bad idea. It does make terrorism a funny way to think about it.

What is the connection? In his State of the Union speech Jan. 30, President Bush stapled terrorism and proliferation together by declaring that our “goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction.” Which is like saying that you want to stop child molesters from robbing banks.

From the beginning, the Bush administration has been admirably clear and consistent that the “war on terrorism” is a long-term project, and not just a matter of nailing Osama Bin Laden. But it has been artfully inconsistent about what that project is. Starting with overwhelming approval for retribution against the perpetrators of 9/11, it has nudged us down the slippery slope from destroying al-Qaida headquarters to destroying the government that “harbored” the headquarters, to invading or bombing other countries where al-Qaida may have operations or that sponsor al-Qaida operations elsewhere, to military action against countries that harbor or sponsor terrorists unconnected to 9/11, to action against countries that do other bad things, like developing nuclear weapons. We haven’t actually acted beyond the first two steps, but the administration is building a paper trail that would allow it to claim authority for the whole trip.

Well, so what? Keeping North Korea from going nuclear is a worthy goal, isn’t it? Who cares if connecting it to 9/11 is a bit of a stretch? Answer: We should care for three reasons.

The first is advice and consent. Like every modern president, President Bush simply ignored his constitutional obligation to get a formal declaration of war from Congress before—or at least after—invading another country. But he was fully justified in assuming that Congress and the citizenry were behind him in Afghanistan. He would not be justified in assuming similar support for, say, bombing Iran. Imagine if Bush had proposed such a thing on Sept. 10. Yet now he can plausibly claim such support, by association with 9/11. It’s been less like a slippery slope than a bait-and-switch. (Conservative pundit William Kristol, writing Jan. 31 in the Washington Post, offers another possibility: Bush has been “thinking through the implications” of his original post-9/11 remarks. Anything’s possible. Next time, he may even want to try thinking through the implications before announcing the war.)

The second reason Bush’s public reasoning matters is that each expansion of the war aims weakens all of them, especially by multiplying the problem of inconsistency. The core commitment to oppose “terror” is problematic in itself: There are terror groups we have ignored or even supported. Our past opposition to nuclear proliferation has been an even wilder festival of double standards—often understandably so as more immediate diplomatic crises have trumped what seemed like a distant concern. The impression that America is motivated by a few immutable principles—not just revenge and not complicated Realpolitik—has been key to both the domestic and the international rallying to the cause. As the cause gets more ambiguous, support will get more ambivalent.

Third, even if you fully support the expansion of the war aims and any action Bush might take in keeping with his latest rhetoric, you ought to be alarmed at the way tacit support for one military action has been converted into implied support for something quite different. That’s because the process can keep going. By definition, the first few steps into a quagmire are ones you want to take. If you want to avoid sinking into a quagmire, you have to walk out of it (or at least stop walking into it) before taking the step that’s regrettable, not afterward. We avoided a quagmire in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, we are taken to have authorized a quagmire of global scale and can only wait and see whether the president—in his wisdom and sole discretion—keeps us out of one.