The Face of War

RICHARD K. BETTS – The War on Terror has blurred the lines of war and law enforcement.

How has the War on Terror blurred the lines between war and peace, that is, the use of military force during peacetime in policing actions? 

I don’t think the War on Terror has blurred those lines so much, as it has blurred the lines between war and law enforcement. There was never a sense that terrorists would leave us in a world of peace. There was always conflict and combat against terrorists. I don’t think counterterrorism blurs the line between war and peace. What did change with the much higher profile of terrorism after September 11 was that the old debate in the United States about whether pursuing terrorists should be thought of in the same vein as pursuing criminals or as a matter of national security was pretty much resolved in favor of the image of war. The instruments used in the war on terror — any kind of war — are used in whatever mix that seems to be effective.

How has the “shape of international conflict” changed during the War on Terror; is what we read about in the headlines — surprise bombings or transnational terror organizations — going to be the face of war in the future?

All forms of warfare and conflict are going to persist. The question is: “which ones are going to be more common than others?” For some time unconventional warfare — terrorism, revolutionary wars, or insurgencies — will likely be more prominent than conventional war because there is no political conflict among great powers at the present. When considering conflict between weak states and powerful ones — say, between Iran and the United States — it is   not in the interest of the weaker party to wage a conventional war. Rather, they have a greater interest in exploiting unconventional means in order to get leverage. As long as the imbalance of power among states in the international system lasts, conventional war will seem less likely. That may change as we get farther into the 21st century, as the balance of power among major states changes. As China rises, the possibility for more intense great-power-conflict may increase. I may not live to see this happen, but you probably will.

Is there a real possibility of a future war with China?

There is a danger that there will be conflict between the West and China. That is not necessarily because China will become aggressive, but because of the tragic nature of international relations. Historically, as powers have risen to challenge existing powers, political conflict is generated, thus raising the risk of war. That is not necessarily because China will want to conquer other countries, but because there will be disagreements about the prerogatives of the United States and China are in managing security in East Asia. For example, as time goes on, China may become less patient about resolving the “Taiwan question” — if the United States decides to defend Taiwan, then there will be a conflict there; again, it would not be borne from aggressive designs, since China considers Taiwan simply a rebellious province. The competition among major states can generate conflict,  although neither one desires it: that is the problem.

Andrew Bacevich answered our questions about his book Washington Rules: America’s Road to Permanent War. Is there a likelihood that America could be at permanent war in the future, against terrorist groups or rising nations like China?

No, it may take a while to disentangle from the situation in Afghanistan, but I think there will be a great deal of reticence for some time about getting into more situations of that sort. We got a bloody nose in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that has made American political leaders more cautious. That restraint may not last forever as conflicts come up. We will not have “permanent war” but rather occasional war, although to make such a statement we need to leave aside the so-called “War on Terror.” This fight is constant, just like the War on Drugs or Crime. Counterterrorism will be constant, and if you want to call that a war, then yes, there will be permanent war on terror. But that is different from the wars we have waged in Iraq or Afghanistan.

What made [Professor Bacevich] use that term — “permanent war” — is that we have been at war, in a regular sense, for longer than we have ever been at war in our history: for over ten years since the invasion of Afghanistan. That is a unique situation. The danger of permanent war seemed, especially when [Prof. Bacevich] wrote his book a few years ago, very real: there was not an end in sight, and it looked like American leaders were engaging in one combat situation after another. That was an unusual and significant development after the 1990s, but one against which there will be some resistance in the future.

I understand that you worked on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. How have the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affected the role which Intelligence agencies play, and to what degree of scrutiny are these agencies held today, especially in light of incidents like torture at Guantanamo Bay?

The importance of intelligence always increases in wartime. I do not think these wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have had a major effect on the oversight of intelligence. If anything did, it was 9/11 and the new, higher priority on counterterrorism, which is mostly separate from the wars in the Middle East. The War in Afghanistan does overlap with counterterrorism, since it was launched with the goal of pushing Al Qaeda out of the country, but the War in Iraq had nothing to do with counterterrorism. The events of September 11 made getting reliable, actionable intelligence a much higher priority, and it raised people’s tolerance for “pressing the envelope” in getting this information. At least for a while after September 11, there was a widespread consensus in favor of a fairly permissive stance about intelligence collection. Over time, as the hysteria about Al Qaeda declined, people became more questioning of pressing that envelope and using so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

As far as oversight goes, the real breakpoints came in the 1970s when President Oversight Committees for intelligence agencies were established in Congress for the first time, thus providing a fairly substantial role for Congress in checking the executive, and monitoring intelligence programs. I do not think there have been radical changes since then. There have been ups and downs in how effective or bipartisan oversight has been, but that has not changed in recent years, and certainly not because of what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The problems in oversight have happened because it has become caught up in regular American partisan politics. Because of the polarization of domestic politics, there has been a polarization of oversight, thus leading to more friction than what may be desired.


RICHARD K. BETTS is the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies in the political science department, Director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and Director of the International Security Policy program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He served on the original Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the National Security Council, and is an occasional consultant to the National Intelligence Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.

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