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The never-ending ‘War on Terror’

By Ken Macnab - posted Thursday, 14 March 2013

Even as it continues to be exposed as a largely artificial, politically inspired, illegally conducted, ineffectual and counter-productive campaign, the American-led 'war on terror' continues to maintain its momentum, expand its scope, aggravate the underlying grievances, create new generations of potential terrorists and provide all sorts of states with excuses to label and treat chosen groups brutally.

It warps international relations and domestic politics in many countries, infringes on civil liberties and human rights, and pours money into military-industrial enterprises and surveillance agencies, much as it has done since its inception.

Despite early promises, the award of the Nobel Prize for Peace and (following the British precedent) abandonment of the ‘War on Terror’ phrase, President Obama has used ‘nation at war’ and 'special operations' rhetoric, his executive powers and commander-in-chief authority to shape a distinctive and aggressive phase of this never-ending war. This war has become self-perpetuating, ever expanding, increasingly complex and systematically institutionalised.


American foreign, military and economic policies dominate the international agenda. A Google search for ‘War on Terror’ produces ‘about 140,000,000 results’, headed by a massive Wikipedia site, which is crammed with a mish-mash of ‘factual’ details, and links to hundreds of other sites. Virtually everything related to the United States. Starting the war at the official invasion of Afghanistan, Wikipedia dates it as ‘7 October 2001 - ongoing’.

In his farewell speech in January 1961, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said that the new ‘conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry’, while necessary, possessed all-pervasive influence and had ‘grave implications’ for ‘the very structure of our society’. The ‘potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power’ by the ‘military-industrial complex’, and the danger to American ‘liberties’ and ‘democratic processes’, must be guarded against in ‘the councils of government’.

Since then, most of what Eisenhower feared has come to pass. In 1995 Robert Higgs expanded the concept to ‘military–industrial–congressional complex’, and many commentators add the media. But the role of both politics and the media, while fundamental to the military-industrial complex, is crucial for all the powerful American lobbies. More significantly, since September 11, 2001, this already all-powerful alliance has expanded to become the military-industrial-terrorism complex.

For example, in a two-year examination of ‘Top Secret America’ published in the Washington Post in 2011, reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

In this shadowy world, some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. In the Washington area alone, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work were under construction or had been built since September 2001, with about 17 million square feet of space.


Much the same process is happening in Australia. By May 2012 the cost of the enormous new Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation headquarters in Canberra, twelve months before completion, had blown out to $631 million. The number of employees and annual budget of ASIO – only one of several Australian counter-terrorism agencies – have also reached record highs. At the time, ASIO Director General David Irvine warned that ‘the threat of terrorism remains real and persistent’. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs argued in The Price of Civilisation (2011), that America was caught in a ‘feedback loop’, in which the relationship between corporate wealth and political power was such that ‘Wealth begets power, and power begets wealth.’ The American ‘corporatocracy’ was dominated by four key sectors of the economy: the military-industrial complex, the Wall Street–Washington complex, the Big Oil–transport–military complex and the health care industry.

The counter-terrorism industry features to a greater or lesser extent in all four areas. According to Time, on the tenth anniversary of the ‘War on Terror’, a ‘Costs of War’ study group of two dozen academics put the total, real cost thus far at $5 trillion. Massive amounts of this expenditure result from widespread ‘snouts in the trough’ activity. The question of ‘value for money’ is impossible to answer.

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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