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The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia on April 23, 2015 (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The Fog of Forever War

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Was the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States a crime or an act of war? In 2009, Rosa Brooks, a professor of law at Georgetown, was brought into Barack Obama’s Pentagon to ponder that question and others like it. Her conclusion about the 9/11 attack: Its legal status is “effectively indeterminate.”

That is a lawyerly finding and not one that is especially useful to policy makers. But such maddening ambiguity is precisely the problem we now face, argues Ms. Brooks in “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.” Many of the categories with which we think about national security, she says, have become obsolete.

In a world where our enemies do not belong to armies or wear uniforms—where a weapon can be a roadside bomb or a computer virus—confusion reigns. Do the laws of war apply, allowing for the liberal use of force? Or must we adhere to the laws of peacetime, which constrict the application of force within a web of legal procedures? “We don’t know,” Ms. Brooks writes, “if drone strikes are lawful wartime acts, or murders.” We don’t know “when it is acceptable for the U.S. government to lock someone up indefinitely, without charge or trial.” We don’t know “if mass government surveillance is reasonable or unjustifiable.”

Thanks to the haziness of our present situation, Ms. Brooks concludes, we are losing “our collective ability to place meaningful restraints on power and violence.” Decisions taken first by George W. Bush and then by Barack Obama, she writes, “have allowed the rules and habits of wartime to pervade ordinary life.” She cites “the militarization of U.S. police forces,” evident in the proliferation of SWAT teams armed with equipment intended for war zones; the blanket of secrecy thrown over court proceedings; and intensified surveillance that can have “chilling effects” on the exercise of constitutional rights.

Such domestic troubles are matched by what Ms. Brooks sees as a disastrous record abroad. Our invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought chaos, she says; our departure in 2011 brought more. In Afghanistan, “we caused untold suffering for the very population we so earnestly tried to help.” The more we try to fix things around the world, she laments, “the more we end up shattering them into jagged little pieces.”

Despite such harsh criticisms of our post 9/11 record, Ms. Brooks’s book is not intended as a polemic. Her aim, she says, is to help America become a force for good in the world, and to that end she proposes reforms. Unfortunately, they are often vague or utopian. She urges us to “develop new rules and institutions to manage the paradoxes of perpetual war.” Her most specific proposal is to embrace more “transparency” and “better mechanisms to prevent arbitrariness, mistakes and abuse” in conducting drone warfare. To avoid setting precedents that hostile states might follow, she suggests that the U.S. accept a “further loss of sovereignty” and establish “robust” international governance, “a strong global referee committed both to stability and human dignity.”

Yielding sovereignty to international governance is the longtime dream of American progressivism. One would think that the sorry history of the United Nations—a cesspool of corruption and anti-democratic ideology—would be enough by now to show the impossibility of finding an evenhanded “global referee” that can protect “human dignity.”

Interspersed with such analysis are, as the subtitle has it, “tales from the Pentagon”: vivid depictions of bureaucratic maneuvering. We encounter Samantha Power, for example, serving on the National Security Council, trying to advance a change in policy at Guantanamo: “Before the election, this guy [Obama] was my friend,” we hear Ms. Power complain, “but right now I can’t even get ten minutes with him without going through six layers of self-important jerks.”

As Ms. Brooks was to discover in her capacity as a legal adviser to the defense secretary, it was just such self-important jerks who often held the critical levers of policy. In one episode, a White House aide—unnamed but described as “smart” and “energetic”—called her and demanded that Central Command position a “surveillance platform” over Kyrgyzstan to monitor a human-rights crisis in its capital. Ms. Brooks replied that the request would have to go through the chain of command, a response that left him “incredulous.” The conversation concluded with him embittered, “convinced that ‘the military’ was refusing to take atrocity prevention issues seriously.” Ms. Brooks’s uniformed colleagues at the Pentagon, for their part, were taken aback that a senior White House official did not grasp the elementary fact that “sensitive, expensive military assets couldn’t instantly be moved from a war zone to foreign airspace via a simple phone call from a midlevel staffer.”

Such moments of insight aside, Ms. Brooks’s general analysis is often tendentious. Without evidence or argument, for example, she dismisses the accomplishments of the hard-fought “surge” of 2007, when stability had been restored to Iraq and there was some hope for democratic equilibrium. She says that we pulled out of Iraq four years later with our “tails between our legs,” leaving behind “a level of civil violence that remains astronomically high.” In truth, it was Mr. Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq that set in motion the chaos that we now see there. (At the time, Vice President Biden crowed about Iraq’s stability, calling it one of the administration’s “great achievements.”) On the home front, Ms. Brooks never comes close to demonstrating that “everything became war and the military became everything”: She sweeps up widely different policies in a simplistic thesis and overbroad assertions. If we are ever to make progress in sorting out the genuine ambiguities of our current moment, we’re going to need a sharper analysis than is provided here.

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