Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


An Argument to Jettison the Metaphor 'War on Terror'


Last week, British authorities said they had foiled a terror plot to bring down civilian airliners - another reason, said President Bush, to redouble efforts in the war on terrorism. To Richard Haass, that war has a mixed record and isn't even a war anymore - just a fact of contemporary life.

In an op-ed syndicated to over 300 newspapers, including Lebanon's Daily Star, Richard Haass wrote that the first thing we need to do in our effort to fight terrorism is to drop the metaphor of a war on terror.


We posted a link to his op-ed at the TALK OF THE NATION page at Richard Haass is former director of policy planning in the State Department, and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course. And he's with us now from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Nice to have you on the program again.

Mr. RICHARD HAASS (President, Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: The metaphor of a war on terror has been used since 9/11, and it's been sort of an organizing principle of the Bush administration. If it's not that, what do we call it?

Mr. HAASS: Well, the comparison I like much more than war is disease. It's a scourge. It's part of modern life, as I suggested. There's things you can do to reduce it. There's things you can do to protect yourself from it. But it's something that you can't eliminate it. And I think that's why the disease metaphor, for example, is much closer than the military metaphor.

CONAN: You use - you endorse what's essentially a policy of containment. Vigilance is a big part of it.


Mr. HAASS: Well, I think you've got to do a division of labor here. And the division you've got to make is between existing and potential terrorists. Existing terrorists, you've got to stop them. That means killing them or using law enforcement to arrest them, and unfortunately if and when they succeed, you've got to take steps that hopefully reduce the consequences.

The thrust of our efforts, though, should be on recruitment. We want to essentially persuade young men and women throughout the world to choose an alternative career path. We don't want to face hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands of terrorists worldwide. And that's where we ought to use the full range of diplomatic instruments of aid, of educational reform, of public diplomacy. Essentially, we want to, again, limit the scope of the challenge we face here.

CONAN: Well, one of the answers proposed by the Bush administration has been the promotion of democracy.

Mr. HAASS: Well, the problem with democracy is that it's awfully hard to promote. At best, it will take decades or even longer. And in the meantime, we've got this problem on our hands. Plus, as we've seen in places like Iraq, you can have elements of democracy, but you also create an environment in which terrorism flourishes - which is exactly what we're seeing, say, on the streets of Baghdad. Or going back to your previous conversation, you have groups like Hezbollah or Hamas, which do relatively well at the polls and then carry out acts of terrorism.

So maybe over the course of 50 or 100 years, countries or societies which become mature, full-fledged democracies will not carry out acts of terror, but that's not going to help us during that period of transition. We need a counter-terrorism policy in the meantime, and one that does not depend upon democratic transformation.

CONAN: And one of the things you point out - even in mature, democratic societies - like Britain - this doesn't always answer the questions.

Mr. HAASS: That's exactly right. I think that's in some ways the most worrisome development we've seen. And it's the lack of integration of small numbers of individuals in full-fledged, mature, modern democracies. And that's not something that you can solve by closing your borders. It's not something you can solve by beefing up your military.

This, then, becomes a challenge to host governments, ways of trying to find them through law enforcement - how to do that, though, in a way that doesn't unduly compromise civil liberties, but it also becomes a challenge for religious leaders.

And one of the things I call for in my own writing is a culture of shaming, a culture of de-legitimizing such individuals. And we're never going to win this struggle - whatever you want to call it -until the vast majority of Arab leaders, until the vast majority of Muslim leaders will stand up publicly and say people who commit these violent acts, people who take life - innocent life - in the name of some political cause are acting in ways that are contrary to Islam.

Until we hear that theme pronounced publicly again and again and again, we will not make substantial progress.

CONAN: Richard Haass joins us on our opinion page this week. There's a link to his column. You can get it at And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You write in your piece terrorism cannot be defeated by arms alone. Other instruments of policy - including intelligence, police work, and diplomacy - are likely to play a larger part in any effective policy. You cite that as another reason to jettison the martial vocabulary of the war on terror - and I have to say, Mr. Haass, there were some people who came to this conclusion five years ago, shortly after 9/11 when President Bush was arguing about it. And you were part of the administration.

Mr. HAASS: Indeed. I'm not claiming that everything here is necessarily fundamentally new, and indeed in London in the last few days, I think we've had a textbook example about how good police work, Homeland Security coordination, intelligence access and so forth are wonderful tools in dealing with existing terrorists.

And again, if you get to the point where you've got to use military force, you're awfully far down the road. But none of that will help you dealing with potential terrorists, and that's why I keep coming back to this division of labor.

We need to be putting a lot more time and effort and resources into thinking about how we persuade or discourage people from going down this path to begin with. I've already mentioned, Neal, what we look for from Muslim leaders and Arab leaders to de-legitimize these people. We need to see reform in educational systems, for example, in Madrases in a country like Pakistan. And we've also got to think about going back to your previous conversation, the effect of U.S. policy.

When people see events like they saw for the last month in Lebanon, that has got to have the effect of radicalizing a new generation. Or take what's going on in Iraq. If Afghanistan was Terrorism 101, it's my concern that Baghdad has become Terrorism 201. We're training a whole new generation, and we've got to think about these potential consequences - what in the intelligence business is called blowback - before we necessarily embark down certain policy paths.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Tom joins us on the line from Minneapolis.

TOM (Caller): Hi, yes. I am a Muslim, and I am in the medical field, so I really like your guest's analogy of disease, because terrorism is a disease, and it has a lot of root causes. And what we see -like a bomb exploding - is a symptom of the disease.

And also, I do agree with him that we cannot win the war on terrorism until all the Muslim scholars and the Muslims agree that this is a bad thing. A lot of Muslims (unintelligible), but 90 -maybe 99 percent of the Muslim scholars have condemned terrorism.

But what happens, like what happened in Lebanon, is that there's a lot of Muslims who are being - Muslim civilians who are being killed. This actually cuts the legs right from underneath the Muslim scholars and Muslim Madras who would go to argue against the recruitment of these terrorists that killing innocent civilians is wrong. It actually (unintelligible) - defeats all their efforts.

And you know about Mike Shire(ph), who has actually been writing in his books and saying in his interviews that the number one cause of terrorism is our unconditional support for Israel. And the second is about oil and support for states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and so on. So unless we really talk about and debate about the cause of terrorism and our government's support for such actions as Lebanon, it is really hurting us, and it's not helping us on war on terrorism.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Tom, thanks very much for your call. Richard Haass, this calls for a fundamental change in foreign policy.

Mr. HAASS: Well, I think we've got to be selective about it, but let me say where I agree with the caller. There are aspects of U.S. or international policy which do help bring about an environment which alienates or radicalizes. Again, I mentioned Lebanon. I mentioned the lack of progress, say, on a Palestinian problem.

One thing the United States could usefully do is spell out some of its ideas about what a Palestinian state would look like, how you somehow square commitments to Israel and commitments to Palestinians. I think that would be helpful.

There might be one other thing we could usefully do right now. Lebanon has really been destroyed badly. I believe there ought to be an extremely public U.S. effort through the Lebanese government to help the people of Lebanon.

We learned in places like Indonesia after the tsunami. We learned in places like Pakistan after the earthquake that tangible, visible aspects or elements of U.S. aid - getting relief supplies to innocent men, women, and children - could have a tremendous impact. People could see the American people and the U.S. government doing concrete things to help them. I would suggest that both privately and publicly, we ought to see an overwhelming response from the American people and from the U.S. government in Lebanon.

CONAN: Richard Haass, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. HAASS: Thank you.

CONAN: Richard Haass, former director of policy planning in the State Department, president now of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course. His op-ed was published by Project Syndicate and syndicated to over 300 newspapers, including Lebanon's Daily Star. I'm Neal Conan, this is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.