Thursday, February 21, 2008

Will Obama End the War on Terror?

If elected, will Barack Obama end the global war on terror? Michael Hirsh offer his analysis:

Using bold rhetoric that often makes his followers rapturous, Barack Obama has declared over and over that he will be the president of "change." But is Obama brave enough to bring about a really radical change? Will he end the permanent "war" George W. Bush has left us with? Will a candidate or a President Obama be willing to go so far as to question whether "the war on terror"—the framework for nearly every discussion of U.S. foreign policy today—is truly the pre-eminent challenge of our time?

Obama has come close. He has repeatedly called the war in Iraq a needless distraction, and he has accused Bush of "lumping" all sorts of enemies together. "It is time to turn the page," Obama declared last August in a defining speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "When I am president, we will wage the war that has to be won." But Obama's rhetoric still suggests that he too will be spending his term as a war president. And his "comprehensive strategy" for that war, while it calls for "getting out of Iraq and onto the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan," still implies that the Illinois senator believes the war on terror should be the overarching framework for his foreign policy.

Let's think about this for a moment. A small group of ragged America-haters, who had one lucky day of mass murder nearly seven years ago, will continue to define the foreign policy of the lone superpower for years, possibly decades to come. There's something wrong with this picture. Yes, we can all agree that 9/11 was one of the worst moments in American history. And we can certainly agree that Al Qaeda must be completely eliminated. But the group has never come close to duplicating 9/11; even the train bombings in London and Madrid that were attributed to Al Qaeda-inspired cells were minor by comparison. Are Al Qaeda and its ilk still really our number one challenge? What about global warming? What about the emergence of China, the resurrection of Russia, the decline of the dollar, the slackening of free trade, the spread of debt and disease, and the persistence of ethnic cleansing? What about the virus of "ethnonationalism"....

None of these broad trends has made it into the headlines of the campaign yet. As E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post has pointed out, John McCain has fully embraced, even expanded, Bush's concept of a broad-gauge war on terror, declaring that "the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical extremism." But McCain has not said why he thinks that is, and Obama has not questioned this premise. Perhaps, like most Democrats, Obama suffers an insecurity complex about his national security credentials—especially going up against a Republican lion and war hero such as John McCain. Some Obama aides admit that he could put himself in political peril if he backs away from the "war on terror" construct. One top adviser to Obama conceded to me this week that "we have not as a party had this debate [about the war on terror]. We had an opportunity to have it in 2002, but it lasted about a day." Why? Because the Dems didn't want to look softer than Bush on terror.

It is a debate that only Obama can start. McCain won't bring it up. Nor will Hillary Clinton. Apart from being on the verge of oblivion politically, she is too fully vested in the war on terror, having voted in 2002 to authorize the war in Iraq as part of it. And if that debate doesn't start, we as a country will be effectively doomed to a "war" that has no prospect of ending....

The rational policy would be to replace the overblown "war on terror" with what we should have been engaged in every day since 9/11: a war of annihilation against Al Qaeda, an all-out effort to rid the earth completely of the small, lunatic group that attacked us on that day....

Ironically, only if the next president downgrades the war on terror to a far more focused military and policing effort to destroy Al Qaeda completely—winning back all the natural global allies we've lost, placing groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in another category entirely—can he finally achieve the goal of making sure another 9/11 doesn't happen. But to do that we need to rethink the war on terror entirely. Is Barack Obama up to it?
While Hirsch is playing into the left's anti-administration "forever war" meme, he's got a point, although more thoughtful commentators have previously raised the question.

James Fallows suggested in 2006 that it was time to "declare victory" in the war on terror, moving on to a less epochal approach to combatting the remaining but not insignificant global challenge of coldblooded Islamic fundamentalism:

The U.S. military has been responsible for the most dramatic recent improvement in American standing in the Islamic world. Immediately after the invasion of Iraq, the proportion of Indonesians with a favorable view of the United States had fallen to 15 percent, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. After American troops brought ships, cargo planes, and helicopters loaded with supplies for tsunami victims, the overall Indonesian attitude toward the United States was still negative, but some 79 percent of Indonesians said that their opinion of America had improved because of the relief effort. There was a similar turnaround in Pakistan after U.S. troops helped feed and rescue villagers affected by a major earthquake. But in most of the Muslim world, the image of American troops is that of soldiers or marines manning counterinsurgency patrols, not delivering food and water. “The diplomatic component of the war on terror has been neglected so long, it’s practically vestigial,” a Marine officer told me. “It needs to be regrown.” But in time of war, the balance is harder to correct.

Perhaps worst of all, an open-ended war is an open-ended invitation to defeat. Sometime there will be more bombings, shootings, poisonings, and other disruptions in the United States. They will happen in the future because they have happened in the past (Oklahoma City; the Unabomber; the Tylenol poisonings; the Washington, D.C.-area snipers; the still-unsolved anthrax mailings; the countless shootings at schools; and so on). These previous episodes were not caused by Islamic extremists; future ones may well be. In all cases they represent a failure of the government to protect its people. But if they occur while the war is still on, they are enemy “victories,” not misfortunes of the sort that great nations suffer. They are also powerful provocations to another round of hasty reactions.

War implies emergency, and the upshot of most of what I heard was that the United States needs to shift its operations to a long-term, nonemergency basis. “De-escalation of the rhetoric is the first step,” John Robb told me. “It is hard for insurgents to handle de-escalation.” War encourages a simple classification of the world into ally or enemy. This polarization gives dispersed terrorist groups a unity they might not have on their own. Last year, in a widely circulated paper for the Journal of Strategic Studies, David Kilcullen argued that Islamic extremists from around the world yearn to constitute themselves as a global jihad. Therefore, he said, Western countries should do everything possible to treat terrorist groups individually, rather than “lumping together all terrorism, all rogue or failed states, and all strategic competitors who might potentially oppose U.S. objectives.” The friend-or-foe categorization of war makes lumping together more likely.

The United States can declare victory by saying that what is controllable has been controlled: Al-Qaeda Central has been broken up. Then the country can move to its real work. It will happen on three levels: domestic protection, worldwide harassment and pursuit of al-Qaeda, and an all-fronts diplomatic campaign....

Americans still face dangers, as they always have. They have recently lacked leaders to help keep the dangers in perspective. Shaping public awareness—what we mean by “leading"—is what we most remember in our strong presidents: Lincoln’s tone as the Civil War came on and as it neared its end; Theodore Roosevelt taking the first real steps toward environmental conservation and coming to terms with new industrial organizations; Franklin Roosevelt in the Depression and the Second World War; Eisenhower managing the showdown with the Soviet Union, but also overseeing the steady expansion of America’s transportation, scientific, and educational systems; Kennedy with the race to the moon; and on up to George W. Bush, with his calm focus in the months immediately after 9/11. One of the signals Bush sent in those first days may have had the greatest strategic importance in the long run. That was his immediate insistence that America’s Muslims were not the enemy, that they should not be singled out, that they should be seen as part of the nation’s solution rather than part of its problem. It is easy to imagine that a different tone would have had damaging repercussions.

Now we could use a leader to help us understand victory and its consequences....

The question now is whether a President Obama is capable of providing this leadership.

He may indeed be called to the task, and with dangers clear and present, his performance will be measured by record of American history.