Six years after the start of the “war on terror,” Americans are less safe, our enemies are stronger and more numerous, and the war’s key geographic battleground—the Middle East—is dangerously unstable. In Iraq, thousands of American soldiers, and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians, have been killed or wounded while more than 150,000 U.S. troops fight to contain an insurgency and a civil war—at a cost of over $300 million per day. In Iran, an Islamic fundamentalist regime remains firmly in power and is defiantly pursuing a nuclear weapons program, undermining American efforts in Iraq, and subsidizing increasingly brazen terrorist groups in the Middle East. Palestine is now led by one terrorist group, Hamas, while another, Hezbollah, is increasingly popular and influential in Lebanon, having proclaimed victory in its war with Israel in the summer of 2006. Syria remains under an anti-American dictatorship allied to Iran, and no peace process between Israel and any of its neighbors exists. More broadly, according to repeated public opinion polls, the popularity and credibility of the United States is at an all-time low—Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is far more popular in the Muslim world than President Bush; most Muslims would prefer to see China or France replace America as the dominant outside power; and majorities even among America’s traditional allies now have a highly unfavorable view of the United States. While the U.S. homeland has not been attacked successfully since 9/11, Osama bin Laden remains at large, and there have been numerous major terrorist attacks all around the globe in that six-year period—approximately twice as many as in the six years before the war on terror was launched. Far from being “on the march,” democracy in the Middle East is in trouble, and where it has advanced in most cases—including Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon—it has produced unintended and often unwanted consequences. For a war that has now been going on longer than World War II, the balance sheet is dismal.
The Bush administration always warned that overcoming the terrorist threat would take time. One possible conclusion, therefore, is that the challenge posed by Islamist terrorism is so enormous that the current difficulties are to be expected, and that there is in any case no alternative to the administration’s approach. According to the journalist and author Max Boot, a prominent supporter of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, “It is far too soon to judge the results of the President’s grand strategy of transforming the Middle East, which is still in its early stages.”1 This is the argument used by the White House when it claims “significant progress” in the war on terror, makes the case for resolve and perseverance, and warns its critics that they risk encouraging the terrorists by raising questions about the administration’s approach.2
An alternative explanation of the failure to make more progress could be that the United States is mostly on the right track but simply failing to put sufficient resources and energy into the war effort. This is the argument made by many of President Bush’s critics on the right, such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who argues that Bush’s “strategies are not wrong, but they are failing.” Gingrich believes the struggle between the West and the forces of militant Islam should be considered an “emerging World War III” and argues that it can be won by mobilizing more “energy, resources, and intensity.”3
It would be comforting to believe that the main cause of America’s difficulties has been the lack of time or resources. But few signs indicate that things are moving in the right direction, and there is little reason to believe that “staying the course”—or indeed expanding the fight—will succeed. In its first six years, the Bush administration’s war on terror has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, exhausted the U.S. military, alienated friends and allies, and squandered America’s moral authority, yet has made little progress toward its ultimate goals.
Sadly, there is a more compelling conclusion. The administration is failing because it is fighting the wrong war. It is fighting against an alleged single enemy, when the enemy is extremely diverse. It is putting its faith in tough talk and military power, when ideology, intelligence, diplomacy, and defense are in fact more important. It is polarizing the public and alienating the world when national unity and international legitimacy are badly needed. It is focusing on a tactic, terrorism, when the real issue is how to address the political, diplomatic, social, and economic factors that lead people to use that tactic. And it is assuming there is a set number of terrorist enemies who must be stopped or killed, when in fact the number of potential terrorists varies greatly, in part as a function of U.S. policy itself. Put most simply, the administration is fighting the “war on terror” like a traditional, hot war—taking the offensive militarily, aiming to destroy a fixed enemy, expanding executive authority, and downplaying the importance of legitimacy—when something more akin to the Cold War—a long, patient, moral struggle against a hostile ideology—is required. Until America’s leaders learn to think differently about the new war, they will continue to lose it.
From the moment George W. Bush started talking about a “war on terror”—less than twelve hours after the 9/11 attacks—critics have argued that the president’s terminology was flawed. Declaring war might well have been useful to rally public opinion, but it had the significant disadvantage of implying there was a military solution to the problem, and it endowed the terrorists with a warrior status they did not deserve. The object of the war was also a problem—terrorism was merely a method, not an organization or country, and it covered such a broad range of activities that it risked confusing Americans about just whom they were at war against.4
These were sound critiques, but over time they have become moot. The “war on terror” has now entered the public vernacular and is used by both the administration and its critics to refer to the set of policies designed to protect America and its allies from the threat of terrorism from Islamist extremists. Moreover, and more important, the debate about the name tends to obscure the fact that the real problem is not so much what we call the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism but the flawed assumptions and principles on which it is based. The “war on crime,” the “war on drugs,” and the “war on poverty” are also highly flawed concepts (as are all such simplifications), but we judge—and we should judge—those endeavors by the sets of policies that they encompass rather than by their names. A more accurate description of the target for this war—al Qaeda, its affiliates, imitators, and sponsors—would doubtless have made more sense. But a war on terror it was and a war on terror it will likely remain. In this book I want to focus on the best ways to deal with this serious challenge rather than to perpetuate a largely meaningless semantic debate.
It is not too late to start fighting the right war, but doing so will require major changes in U.S. policy. Like the Bush approach, a new strategy for fighting terrorism will seek victory, but it will recognize that victory is more likely to be achieved by maintaining America’s strength, cohesion, and appeal than by destroying its enemies through the force of arms. The right war will require continued military operations. But it will also require efforts to improve America’s moral standing in the world, which has been deeply damaged by the war in Iraq and by U.S. policy on detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere. It will require resisting the temptation to hype the terrorist threat for political purposes and a realization that militaristic reactions to terrorism can play into the terrorists’ hands and potentially do more harm than good. It will require understanding that democracy promotion in the Middle East will not quickly or necessarily lead to peace, but that good governance, education, and economic modernization can help alleviate the feelings of frustration and humiliation that fuel terrorism. The right war will require a dramatic reduction in America’s dependence on imported oil, which in turn will not only reduce available funding to those who support terrorism but also promote democracy in the Middle East by removing the oil lifeline that allows regimes in that region to avoid giving their people a voice. It will require restoring America’s reputation as an honest broker in a much more active quest for Israeli-Arab peace, the absence of which is a far greater stimulation of global terrorism than the Bush administration and its supporters like to admit. The right war will require seeking a sustainable peace in Iraq, containment of Iran, a far greater commitment to the people and government of Afghanistan, greater use of leverage and engagement with Pakistan, and new efforts to repair the strained relations with Turkey, the most advanced democracy in the Muslim world. And the right war will require a new form of diplomacy to ensure the global legitimacy and support of allies, without which no war on terror can be won.
This alternative path will not be easy. Each time a new terrorist attack occurs—or even each time a new threat is revealed—there will be a temptation to go on the offensive, rounding up and holding suspects or deploying American military power. Politically, it is difficult for American leaders to argue for patience and restraint, especially if their opponents are offering “moral clarity” and promising quick fixes based on America’s unmatched brute power. It is difficult for leaders to put the terrorist threat into perspective when hyping the threat has political advantages. But the yardstick for judging the war on terror should not be how tough it sounds but how effective it is, and that requires a fundamental change of approach.
The precedent of America’s triumph in the Cold War should give us confidence that patience, strength, resolve, and good sense can once again lead us to victory. The new challenge is not identical to the Cold War, of course, but their similarities—as long-term struggles against insidious and violent ideologies—suggest that there is much to learn from this recent, and successful, experience. As in the Cold War, we must be willing to fight to defend ourselves and our interests, but we must also recognize that the war will be won only when our enemy’s ideology is defeated and our adversaries abandon it. Just as the Cold War was not won or lost in Vietnam, the war on terror will not be won or lost in Iraq. The decisive terrain for this struggle is in the hearts, minds, and souls of a billion individuals across the greater Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Western Europe—not on the streets of Baghdad.
It is difficult today to imagine a world without the Islamist terrorist threat—just as it was difficult for the last generations to imagine a world without the communist threat. But the extremist ideology responsible for the current threat is doomed to fail just like the extremist ideology that preceded it. Terrorism will not go away entirely, any more than other types of violent crime that have been around for centuries. But its sources can be dried up, its access to the most dangerous weapons curtailed, and its political motivations significantly reduced. With confidence in our values and our way of life—and a determination to preserve all that is good about both—we can defeat the scourge of our time as our predecessors defeated the scourge of theirs.
This book presents a new strategy for confronting the terrorist challenge. It is not meant to be a comprehensive policy agenda but rather a plea for a new philosophy to guide the way we think about, and act against, the terrorist threat. The current approach is not working, nor is it likely to work, because it is based on a flawed understanding of the nature of the challenge and a counterproductive strategy for dealing with it. As Americans look beyond the presidency of George W. Bush, they must seize the opportunity to rethink the current approach and consider alternative paths to security for America and the world. The stakes could not be higher.
Copyright © 2007 by Philip H. Gordon. All rights reserved.