New York Times Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal, who last April argued that Barack Obama's abuses of executive power are less appalling than George W. Bush's because they are necessary, is now suggesting that Obama's war on terrorism is less scary than Bush's because it will end someday. Maybe. Rosenthal highlights a recent speech by Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department's general counsel (and, not at all incidentally, "a good friend of mine") as evidence that we need no longer worry about an "Orwellian war without end" in which "real vigilance and necessary action will become an excuse for government intrusion into our lives, the erosion of our civil liberties and the maiming of our sons and daughters." To his credit, Rosenthal disagrees with Johnson about the propriety of summary execution and indefinitine military detention as responses to terrorism, but he holds out hope because Johnson, while defending such policies, also said this:
"War" must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs. War permits one man—if he is a "privileged belligerent," consistent with the laws of war—to kill another. War violates the natural order of things, in which children bury their parents; in war parents bury their children. In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the "new normal." Peace must be regarded as the norm toward which the human race continually strives.
So when can we expect this war to end? On that point Johnson is a bit hazy:
In the current conflict with al Qaeda, I can offer no prediction about when this conflict will end, or whether we are, as Winston Churchill described it, near the "beginning of the end."
I do believe that on the present course, there will come a tipping point—a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.
At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an "armed conflict" against al Qaeda and its associated forces; rather, a counterterrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of al Qaeda, or are parts of groups unaffiliated with al Qaeda, for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible, in cooperation with the international community—with our military assets available in reserve to address continuing and imminent terrorist threats.
That sounds more like a de-escalation than an armistice, occurring at some indefinite point in the future, almost certainly after Obama has left office. Even if we assume that Johnson's pretty words resonate with Obama, that does not mean they will have any impact on his policies, let alone those of his successors.
But for Rosenthal, the main point is that Johnson's avowed distaste for war sets him apart from the less enlightened folks who are not part of his social circle. "It's important to note," Rosenthal writes, "that there are many people—sadly, many of them Republicans—who would not agree with this. They believe that a 'military approach' to terrorism is always the right one and that to argue otherwise shows weakness." Does anyone really believe that Rosenthal is sad to once again point out that Democrats are morally superior to Republicans?
It has been a while since I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, but as I recall the rulers of Oceania never declare, "We are engaging in an Orwellian war without end." They always present the conflict as winnable and therefore endable, just not right now. So everyone waits for the "tipping point" that never comes.
[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]