As endless wars go, the “war on terror? would appear to be Exhibit A. As the war in Iraq continues unabated, how do we talk about it and react? And how does democracy fare as war rhetoric heats up and restrictions on civil liberties are imposed in the name of national security? These are questions that Ron Krebs is exploring in his study of 21st century war.
Krebs, an assistant professor of political science who recently received the prestigious McKnight Land Grant Professorship, has always been interested in how democratic institutions evolve and function, especially under duress. His current research is a natural successor to his earlier work on the role of military service in advancing full citizenship rights for minorities.
The common thread is how movements and events are framed rhetorically. “In my recent book [Fighting for Rights: Military Service and the Politics of Citizenship], I argue that one of the ways military service shapes citizenship is by making available to minority groups a certain kind of rhetoric—"We've sacrificed for our nation and consequently we deserve appropriate rewards," says Krebs. “That got me thinking about political rhetoric during wartime."
For his current project, Krebs' working hypothesis is that the ultimate effects of war turn less on objective realities than on the way events are rhetorically framed. “The framing of war is inherently a political maneuver, and I want to understand more about the dynamics under which that occurs," he says.
Another, more surprising, hypothesis is that in contrast to unconventional or limited warfare, total war is generally less disruptive to liberal democracies. That's because total war is readily understood to be a deviation from the norm, an unpleasant but limited interruption of business as usual. When such wars occur, “damage to civil liberties rarely persists long beyond the war itself," says Krebs.
Limited interstate wars as well as counterterrorist campaigns, especially those that drag on with no apparent end in sight, tend to “redefine expectations," Krebs thinks, making it more difficult, at war's end, to restore the prewar democratic status quo. Citizens become accustomed to rewritten rules, and restrictive measures that initially emerged out of crisis (say, 9/11) become accepted as routine.
The immediate trade-offs between security and civil liberties in the “war on terror" are worrisome, says Krebs, but the long-term impact is of even greater concern. Without an identifiable front or battlefield, and with fewer major high-profile battles than daily skirmishes, wartime comes to seem almost indistinguishable from peacetime. Meanwhile, crisis rhetoric keeps the war on the front page and the public skittish, and civil liberties are gradually eroded in the name of national security.
Over the long haul, Krebs asks, “Do people renormalize to new civil liberties base lines? Do they accept wartime measures as ‘the new normal'? Or is there a backlash against wartime over-stepping, with greater long-run protection for democratic contestation?" The answer, he suggests, is that it depends—on such factors as the kind of war fought (total, limited, unconventional, or imperial), on the type of democratic regime (presidential or parliamentary), and on the nature of the wartime restrictions (formal or informal, transparent or hidden).
The answers have enormous implications for the health of democracy in times of stress, says Krebs. “What is of greatest concern to me is the silencing of opposition. The language of crisis makes it difficult to have a sustained national conversation."
For democracy to survive, Krebs cautions, we must maintain “an appropriate balance between security and liberty in an anxious age."
Tim Brady also contributed to this story.