The "war on terror" and "our way of life"

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, has written compellingly in the WashingtonPost[i]that the damage done by the phrase, War on Terror, "is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves." The persistent invocation of the phrase has created a culture of fear that "obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue."

It brings to mind a fleeting moment in the immediate wake of September 11, 2001 when it seemed that Canada would steer a radically different course.

In those deeply disturbing days, the dominant refrain was of course that the menace had arrived on our shores and we in North America would now all have to rise to the challenge and defend "our way of life." But Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's early message was different.[ii]" Our actions will be ruled by resolve but not by fear," he told the House of Commons. "We will remain vigilant but will not give in to the temptation in a rush to increase security to undermine the values that we cherish and which have made Canada a beacon of hope, freedom and tolerance in the world."

The focus was less on "defending" our way of life and more on "depending" on it: "Let our actions be guided by a spirit of wisdom and perseverance, by our values and our way of life. As we press the struggle, let us never, ever, forget who we are and what we stand for."

But it was a distinction that went unnoticed where it counted most.[iii]Washington adopted the mantra that on 9/11 "everything changed" while CNN's omnipresent banner headline trumpeted "America 's New War." The claim that "everything changed" actively discouraged the idea that we could depend on the durable civil values and standards of our way of life in responding to the challenge of terrorism. The insistence that we were in extraordinary times fed the view that extraordinary measures were now required, that we should not be constrained or inhibited by the rules and values that guide us in normal times. The "everything changed" mood fostered the sense that we were in a new context in which the usual political rudders or navigational aids offered by established morality and the rule of law could not be relied upon and could thus be jettisoned in favour of new tools.

Within weeks of the attack CNN's banner ceased to be a metaphor. The United States attacked Afghanistan claiming self defence, the UN Security Council implicitly agreed, NATO states invoked Article V of their alliance pact to declare the terrorist attack on the US an attack on them all, and Canada sent four ships to the war effort in symbolic but unmistakable acquiescence to the prevailing mood - not to mention in sanguine disregard for the Prime Minister's earlier wisdom.

Five years on, we've seen a surfeit of innovative tools, used by the US as well as Canada: arrests without trial and security certificate detentions, violations of privacy through wiretap programs, illegal deportations, abuses of prisoners, and of course renewed warfare. In time, the "war on terror" spread to Iraq, this time in defiance of the Security Council and without even the pretext of legality, and, notably, without the political support of Canada. It is a war on terror that has successfully transformed Iraq from a murderously oppressive state that nevertheless eschewed Islamic extremism and refused cooperation with Islamic terrorism into a spectacularly failed state where lawlessness and unrestrained violence offer an open arena for the recruitment, training, and practice of terrorism.

In Afghanistan and Iraq , the all-out American attacks deposed the regimes of the day with impressive efficiency, but then things got a lot more complicated. Five years later, the security situation in Afghanistan continues its steady decline, as Canadians and Afghans have tragically learned, while the tragic chaos of Iraq renders the might of America impotent and searching above all for escape.

The end is not in sight, and it is a costly irony that these wars to build democracy and end terror follow more than a decade of lessons learned about what does and doesn't work when trying to reverse state failure, build sustainable societies, and prevent violent conflict - peacebuilding, in other words.

The basic understanding that had emerged out of the peacebuilding decade that followed the end of the Cold War was that to prevent violent conflict, and especially to prevent backsliding in societies just emerging out of prolonged armed conflict, it was necessary to focus on building conditions in which the local population could see positive change and in particular would develop some confidence that the pursuit of positive change was being seriously engaged. Elections, as a means of demonstrating a commitment to political inclusiveness and power sharing, were an important component, but by no means the central strategy.

Inclusiveness had to be part of a much larger strategy: building local security institutions, like the police and judiciary, that were experienced by the people as fair and operating in the interests of all; building an infrastructure of basic services, notably humanitarian relief to the most stricken populations, as well as education and health care, transport and communication; the demobilization and disarming of combatants to give the civilian population the assurance of a serious effort to control crime and sectarian violence; and the start of economic development measures.

Complementing the peacebuilding lessons, the Canadian-sponsored report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS ), "The Responsibility to Protect," was released in late 2001 and gradually became the focus and stimulus for an international effort to formally recognize the international community's responsibility to come to the protection of highly vulnerable communities when their own governments failed or refused to provide such protection.

On the military protection of the vulnerable, the report had brief but explicit advice about a new kind of military intervention, for humanitarian purposes, that "involves a form of military action significantly more narrowly focused and targeted than all out war-fighting." Winning the acceptance of civilian populations, says the report, "means accepting limitations and demonstrating through the use of restraint that the [military] operation is not a war to defeat a state but an operation to protect populations in that state from being harassed, persecuted or killed."[iv]

Yet in both Afghanistan and Iraq wars were launched to defeat a state without any plan for how to protect the affected populations or how to successfully support a successor regime. They were both invasions intended toadvance the interests of the invaders, but as Brzezinski confirms, these two hot wars joined the mythical "war on terror" to violate the rule of law, to advance intolerance at home, and to "gravely damage the United States internationally."

Echoing the famous and much earlier confession of "shame" by the Dixie Chicks[v] at the actions of their president, Brzezinski concludes that "someday Americans will be as ashamed of this record as they now have become of earlier instances in U.S. history of panic by the many prompting intolerance against the few."

[i] "Terrorized by ‘War on Terror'," March 25, 2007.

[ii] Hansard, Government Orders, attack on the United States ," September 17, 2001.

[iii] The following is drawn from, and is elaborated on, in: Ernie Regehr, " Canada is ignoring its own advice," Inroads: The Canadian Journal of Opinion, Issue No. 20, Winter/Spring 2007

[iv] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001, December). The Responsibility to Protect. Ottawa : IDRC. [Online]. Available:, pp. 37 and 63.

[v] In March 2003, during a now famous performance in London, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, a native of Lubbock, Texas, told the audience: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

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