President Obama has declared that the Global War on Terror has put al-Qaida "on the path to defeat" and reduced the scale of terrorism to pre-9/11 levels:
"Make no mistake," he said, "our nation is still threatened by terrorists," noting that the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last September and in Boston last month were tragic reminders.
But he also left little doubt that he thinks it is time to turn the page on the post-9/11 approach. He was referring not only to the controversial use of armed drones to target terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries, but also the commitment of tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops in conventional fighting.
"For all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe," he said. "We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root," adding that "a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling way."
The trouble with that proclamation is that it doesn't take into account the domestic side. In Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, Robert Higgs demonstrated that wars and other major crises typically trigger a dramatic growth in the size of government, accompanied by higher taxes, greater regulation, and loss of civil liberties. Once the crisis ends, government may shrink somewhat in size and power, but rarely back to pre-crisis levels. Just as a ratchet wrench works only in one direction, the size and scope of government tends to move in only one direction—upwards—because the interest groups that favored the changes now have an incentive to preserve the new status quo, as do the bureaucrats who gained new powers and prestige. Hence, each crisis has the effect of ratcheting up the long-term size and scope of government.
There's a slew of domestic restrictions on our liberties that came into place after 9/11. The TSA's security theater apparatus at airports is just the most noticeable. As Jonathan Turley has noted:
For civil libertarians, the legacy of bin Laden is most troubling because it shows how the greatest injuries from terror are often self-inflicted. Bin Laden's twisted notion of success was not the bringing down of two buildings in New York or the partial destruction of the Pentagon. It was how the response to those attacks by the United States resulted in our abandonment of core principles and values in the "war on terror." Many of the most lasting impacts of this ill-defined war were felt domestically, not internationally.
Starting with George W. Bush, the 9/11 attacks were used to justify the creation of a massive counterterrorism system with growing personnel and budgets designed to find terrorists in the heartland. Laws were rewritten to prevent citizens from challenging searches and expanding surveillance of citizens. Leaders from both parties acquiesced as the Bush administration launched programs of warrantless surveillance, sweeping arrests of Muslim citizens and the creation of a torture program.
What has been most chilling is that the elimination of Saddam and now bin Laden has little impact on this system, which seems to continue like a perpetual motion machine of surveillance and searches. While President Dwight D. Eisenhower once warned Americans of the power of the military-industrial complex, we now have a counterterrorism system that employs tens of thousands, spends tens of billions of dollars each year and is increasingly unchecked in its operations.
Obama's speech strikes me as an opportunity to unwind these infringements. Unfortunately, if Higgs is right about how the ratchet effect works and Turley is right about the creations of a counter-terrorism complex, it will take more than just a single speech to overcome the ratcheting down of our civil liberties.