Last week's announcement that the Obama administration plans to move alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammad to New York City and put him and four other alleged conspirators on trial has touched off a round of predictably partisan bickering in the United States. Democrats, mostly, are in favour of the plan. Republicans, mostly, are opposed.

Congressmen and Senators from states half-way across the country are accusing Attorney General Eric Holder of endangering the people of New York by placing self-confessed terrorists in their midst, ignoring the fact that neither New York City's mayor nor its police commissioner foresees any problem with holding the trial a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Centre.

Indicative of the partisan tone was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In 2006 he praised the civilian trial of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui as evidence that "we are a nation of law." Back then, of course, the decision (however grudging and reluctant) to give Moussaoui a civilian trial was made by a Republican president. With Democrats now in charge, Giuliani's views on trials for alleged terrorists have evolved.

"This was an act of war and an act of terror," he told Fox News shortly after the Attorney General's announcement. "They should be prosecuted in a military tribunal. We would not have tried the people who attacked Pearl Harbor in a civilian court in Hawaii for what they did."


The irony of this line of argument is that it negates the reasons for setting up the prison camps at Guantanamo in the first place. The Bush administration's original rationale for moving prisoners half-way around the world and dumping them in a remote corner of Cuba was that it offered a secure location that, though under US control, was, technically speaking, outside the jurisdiction of US law. Guantanamo was envisioned as a place where people could be detained indefinitely without recourse to courts or lawyers.

The military tribunals which some of the detainees will now face were established after the US Supreme Court rejected the theory that American law does not apply at Guantanamo. Many Republicans originally objected to those tribunals as well, apparently believing that the people imprisoned at Guantanamo were so awful that they should simply be left to rot. It was a mindset built mainly on a desire for revenge, not justice.

In this, as in much else, Republicans are now experiencing the consequences of their war rhetoric of the last eight years while Democrats are coping with the consequences of letting the GOP set the terms of debate.

From 2001 until about this time last year George W. Bush and his party spoke constantly of the ‘war on terror'. Rhetorical wars have a long history in American politics: Lyndon Johnson rallied support for his domestic agenda by christening it the "war on poverty". In the 1980s Ronald Reagan launched a much-ballyhooed "war on drugs". Jimmy Carter called facing up to America's energy crisis "the moral equivalent of war".

George W. Bush, however, was different. Though he had sent real armies to fight real battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, that was not what he was talking about when he called himself a "war president". He referred, instead, to the much-harder-to-define "war on terror". In doing so, Bush clearly wanted to invoke the atmosphere of the First World War and Second World War: periods of total mobilisation in which supporting the commander in chief was equated with patriotism itself.

Political ploy

It was a clever political ploy and, for a surprisingly long time, it worked. In 2004 John Kerry attempted to make the, eminently sensible, observation that "terror" is a tactic, not an adversary. For his efforts he was mocked and had his patriotism questioned. As a candidate in 2008, Obama took Kerry's example to heart and paid lip service to the rhetoric of the "war on terror".

After taking office, however, Obama simply stopped talking about it. Apparently he hopes that if the American people are not constantly told they are at "war" with a tactic then, perhaps, the concept will fade out after a year or two. Ten months into his presidency, the early indications are that this approach might actually work. In America today, one hears much talk about Afghanistan, some about Iraq, but virtually none about the everywhere-and-nowhere-all-at-once idea of a "war on terror".

Only good can come of abandoning the self-evidently ridiculous idea that America is on a "war footing", with everything that entails for the expansion of government power and the curtailing of individual freedom. Moving the country away from the poisoned terminology of the "war on terror" must be counted among the more important, if less remarked-upon, accomplishments of Obama's still-young presidency.

The test of the coming months will be whether these small victories can survive the inevitable partisan onslaught.

Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.