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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Global War on Error

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American and Soviet participation in World War II lasted less than four years. U.S. President George W. Bush's Global War on Terror, or GWOT as acronym-loving security people call it, has already gone on longer but shows no sign of winding down. It is still used by Washington to justify security laws and spending programs, and by foreign governments trying to roll their domestic problems into a wider terrorist conspiracy. President Vladimir Putin blames the Chechen insurgency on international terrorism whenever it is convenient for him, even while refusing to recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization and inviting its leaders to Moscow. Colombia, too, recently found links with al-Qaida in a passport counterfeiting ring run by its own narco-leftists.

By most measures, the GWOT has been a failure. Osama bin Laden remains at large, thumbing his nose at Bush in video-taped comments. No Guantanamo-incarcerated "illegal combatant" has been brought to trial. The only terrorist attack prevented -- for real, not in dark hints from the CIA -- has been when a flight attendant subdued shoe bomber Richard Reid. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were an isolated event, and the GWOT did not have to follow them the way the war with Japan followed Pearl Harbor. Brutal bombings in Spain and Britain triggered a localized police response, not a global anti-terrorist crusade. Perhaps not coincidentally, arrests were made in both cases.

In a recent book by British historian Simon Montefiore, "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar," I was struck by similarities between Stalin's anti-terrorist rhetoric after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1935 and Bush's GWOT bombast. True, the United States was a victim of a terrorist attack, while Stalin probably ordered Kirov's murder to use it against his rivals. Nor are the provisions of the Patriot Act remotely comparable to the NKVD bloodbath of the 1930s. Nevertheless, the way it was framed by Washington, the GWOT clearly wasn't meant to be won -- merely fought. Terrorism was never defined, the enemy was never identified and no parameters for victory were ever set. From the start, the GWOT was an Orwellian war without end -- the kind governments wage on their own citizens to tighten the screws, eliminate opposition or keep people from asking uncomfortable questions.

It has often been said that terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It is used by fringe groups whenever they can't advance their aims by mainstream means, and by weaker nations against stronger foes. Stalin and Hitler were running totalitarian states in which dissent had been stomped out. The only way to oppose them was terrorism -- which was then called Resistance. Both dictators used terrorism to justify repression, but they genuinely feared it, too.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the United States built history's most formidable military machine. The last person to challenge it on the battlefield was Saddam Hussein. His Mother of All Battles in the first Gulf War became the Mother of All Disasters.

Given modern weaponry and control methods, the superiority of the strong has become such that even traditional guerrilla tactics are no longer effective. Iraqi insurgents can't inflict much pain on U.S. forces: In three years, they have killed about 2,300 U.S. troops, or 5 percent of the number of Americans murdered at home over the same period.

By definition, then, the only way to oppose American power is terrorism. But Iraqi insurgents can't even get to U.S. government officials or civilians and have been forced to seek ever-softer targets. They have been blowing up their own population, trying to thwart the U.S.-led invasion by plunging their own country into chaos.

This new, horrendous twist in terrorist tactics -- which the Bush administration has characteristically missed -- can be effective only if the United States remains a democracy, and retains an open society and free press. What Americans need to ask themselves is whether their own democracy will have a stomach for this kind of New World Order. Or, rather, whether the New World Order abroad is compatible with democracy at home.

Alexei Bayer, a former Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.