The Bush administration has called the fight against terrorism a 'war.' They have made this 'war' a central point of their national and foreign policy. They use the rallying cry of 'war' to motivate the public and Congress to support it's initiatives. They use this designation to silence opponents, since if you're anti-war you 'hate America' and 'want it's enemies to win.' Terming the effort against terrorism a 'war' is a misguided and dangerous oversimplification.
Dictionary.com defines a war as "A state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties," but the inclusion of 'or parties' makes this definition too generic. War - real war - has always been between two sovereign entities. Kind of like a football game, you need to have a clearly-defined enemy before you can defeat them. Otherwise you're just playing whack-a-mole. In the Navy we called this a 'FlailEx,' or Flailing Exercise. Without a clearly defined enemy, how can you define progress or declare victory?
Even though it's politically unpopular, the fight against terrorism should be treated the way it was in the 90s, as an effort to combat criminal activity. When the government sought to fight back against organized crime in the early part of the 20th century they didn't use the military. They didn't send in troops, tanks and fighter planes to catch Al Capone. They used anti-crime techniques to investigate, capture, prosecute, convict and incarcerate him. The fight against Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or any other terrorist organization should be conducted the same way.
This may not be as glamorous or invigorating as a declaration of war -- come to think of it, we really don't have one of those either -- but it's the only intelligent way to proceed.
FBI agent Bassem Youssef has filed a lawsuit against the FBI, claiming he was passed over for top counterterrorism jobs despite his expertise. (Story here in the Washington Post.) Agent Youssef has questioned under oath many of the bureau's top leaders, including Director Robert Mueller and his predecessor, Louis Freeh, as part of this lawsuit. One quote in this story by Dale Watson, the FBI's terrorism chief in the two years after Sept. 11, 2001, stands out: "A bombing case is a bombing case. A crime scene in a bank robbery case is the same as a crime scene, you know, across the board."
While the FBI's focus on hiring and promoting specialists in Middle Eastern terrorism could justly be derided as being 'less than laser-like,' the point Watson makes is a sound one. We're not fighting against nations with territorial or resource goals here; we're fighting against criminals who operate outside the boundaries of international law and custom. Al Qaeda is not a nation, it's a gang. Islamic Jihad is not a country, with borders, laws and clearly defined leaders. They're a bunch of thugs. The fact that their alleged goals are political/cultural rather than profitable makes no difference. They're a group of lawbreakers that need to be pursued by law enforcement officials using law enforcement techniques.
The war in Afghanistan was the only effort that deserved the term. The Taliban as a nation and government were providing substantial material support to terrorists. The government of Afghanistan needed to be brought down, just like you exterminate termites by tenting and gassing the house. But beyond that, this 'war' on terrorism, by it's very vagueness, has given the government carte blanche to run rampant over our civic liberties, most egregiously in the form of the Patriot Act. It has also led to the over simplistic public impression that all Muslims are terrorists and that all terrorists are Muslims, which of course is not the case.
This is not a war and it should not be sold as one. The 'War on Drugs' was not a success. The 'War on Terrorism' isn't either. In both cases, the harder effort of determining the true nature of the conflict and pursuing terrorists for what they do has been abandoned in favor of a simplistic declaration of 'war' (and not even a formal or legal one, at that) which fills undiscerning minds full of misguided patriotic fervor while promoting misguided and wasteful effort and expenditure along military lines. This approach may give us short-term satisfaction but it will not lead to long-term success, nor to anything that can be termed 'victory.'