Don't oversell an 'idea war'

Eighty-five percent of Americans today are in favor of war, according to a recent New York Times poll. On the surface, that seems to be a powerful statistic. In fact, it means only as much as the war does - which, in the case of a war against terrorism, is very little.

President Bush declared war from the Oval Office and from a heap of rubble in lower Manhattan. Congress did it, forcefully, from the floor of the Capitol. Pundits were almost as unanimous.

It is important to pay attention to cooler heads, especially as forces build at Afghanistan's frontiers. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for instance, was quick to remind Americans that war is difficult when the enemy has no land, no defenses, and no military target more concrete than an idea.

Indeed, where is the United States military to fight? Afghanistan, which has sheltered deadly terrorists for years, is an almost certain target. But Pakistan, which has sheltered deadly terrorists for years, is suddenly an ally.

And how is the United States military to fight? It could bomb Afghanistan to mountains and scrub, but Afghanistan is already little more than mountains and scrub. It could send in troops, but if you are a terrorist, and you see the US Army coming, you make like a civilian and head for a crowd - or better, the border. The Soviet Army killed more than a million people in Afganistan before giving up and withdrawing in defeat. Washington has fought this kind of war before.

Every president since Richard Nixon has declared "war" on drugs. Every presidential candidate has emphasized that he will win the war on drugs, because each president before him has failed. But there is no drug lord in chief, no single network to break, no one nation to beat or sanction into submission. The idea of a war on drugs implies that we can eradicate the problem - as likely as police eradicating crime or firefighters eradicating fire - and that dooms the US to failure.

Even earlier, President Johnson's administration declared "war" on poverty. Poverty is an insidious enemy. The suffering it visits upon Americans and the world is staggering, the deaths slow and bitter. Yet the problem with a war on poverty is the same as the problem with a war on drugs. The enemy is vast and fluid, and victories against it are seldom more than a reminder of how much remains.

These wars are "idea wars," in which leaders appropriate the language of war to rally political support and signal big budget commitment. But we have never moved aircraft carriers to combat poverty. We have not marched ground troops on coca farmers. This time, for the first time, an idea war is intended to be a shooting war as well. That is a dangerous and politically risky proposition.

If our recent idea wars are any indication, our impending war against terrorists could prove long, expensive, and bloody - yield little in the way of meaningful results within the time frame that Americans have typically been willing to support a foreign military campaign. Meanwhile, the real fight against terrorism, an ongoing combination of thankless police and intelligence work - more like fighting crime on a global scale than waging war - could get overshadowed.

The 85 percent of Americans who support war expect victory. If that victory is largely symbolic - for instance, forcing extradition of Osama bin Laden or executing gunpoint justice abroad - war will have been a therapeutic distraction.

Right now, Americans are consumed by grief and rage. Real retribution, however, will come from aggressive counterterrorism efforts that pull together the resources of America's military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities. Struggle, but not war. There will be no parades for the victories, many though they will be. It would be a shame if calls for an impossible war diminished the real fight against terrorism as less heroic than a vengeful march through Kabul.

Douglas McGray, a contributing writer at Foreign Policy magazine, has also written for The New York Times Magazine.

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