Imagine if a terrorist network assassinated Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, President Nikolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy, President Bush and numerous other national leaders. Suppose, too, that terrorists managed to explode a bomb inside the U.S. Capitol and blow up part of a European presidential palace—all over a span of just a few years. The outcry would be deafening. CNN, BBC and other 24/7 media channels wouldn’t know which attack to feature and follow up. Congress would demand immediate action against someone, anyone.
Yet roughly all of the above happened between 1880 and 1910. In 1879, Prince Dmitry Kropotkin of Russia was assassinated. In 1881, it was Czar Alexander II. Two years later, a nail bomb exploded in the French National Assembly, and a year later, French President Marie François Sadi Carnot was assassinated. In 1897, it was the turn of Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo. In 1898, Elisabeth of Bavaria met the same fate. In 1900, it was King Umberto of Italy. In 1901, it was President William McKinley, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The assassinations and explosions continued for another two decades.
The perpetrators of these crimes were a loose international network of individuals committed to a common political ideal that knew no borders. They were not Islamic fundamentalists, but anarchists. Yet no country, including the United States under its new and audacious President Theodore Roosevelt, declared a “War on Terror”, though terror was exactly what the anarchists intended to produce through their violent actions. Today, the United States and other countries confront a new, loose network of terrorists who, like the anarchists, are motivated by a political ethos that opposes established Western political principles and culture. They cloak that ethos in religious terms, but for all practical purposes they are guided by a political ideology just as 19th-century anarchists were. But unlike the past, the United States today has declared a “War on Terror” which, together with the so-called Freedom Agenda, has constituted the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy in the Bush Administration. Why did this Administration respond so differently? Where has it led? Should the next president take the same approach?
The Bush Administration’s War on Terror postulates that “stateless” terrorists constitute a fundamental threat to American national security and that of key allies. Accordingly, current policy has not treated terrorists as mere criminals, as appears to have been the case during the eight years of the Clinton Administration.
There is a strong argument for rejecting the approach of the 1990s. One element of that argument turns on well-known episodes during the Clinton Administration in which senior U.S. officials passed up chances to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. For example, the chance to capture bin Laden as he made his way from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996 was passed up on the grounds that a legal case against him might not have stood up in court without requiring the government to divulge national security secrets. Later chances to kill him in Afghanistan vanished either because too many innocents would be harmed in the process or for reasons of diplomatic prudence. Looking back from 9/11, it seemed to Bush Administration principals that these judgments were ill considered.
Another reason for the Bush about-face is the fact that, unlike their anarchist predecessors, today’s terrorists would gladly employ weapons of mass destruction, if only they could get their hands on some. Such people certainly are not ordinary thugs, and to treat them as such is to be cavalier. Today’s terrorists also have the capacity to constitute themselves as a quasi-military force. No anarchist group ever fought pitched battles against Western militaries as did al-Qaeda during the Battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, or Hizballah against the Israelis in the 2006 Lebanon war.
The Bush Administration’s view that operations against terrorists constitute a war has had many practical consequences. Those most often discussed and criticized concern civil liberties, but this focus has deflected attention away from other very significant subjects. Defining the terrorist threat as a war has been a major factor in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That view has also prompted reorganizations in several agencies, notably in the Department of Defense. Special Operations Forces, once a relatively small component of total U.S. military force levels, have undergone a major transformation. The number of Special Forces units and the funding allocated to the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) have risen significantly. U.S. Special Forces now operate in a variety of theaters—not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but also lesser-known theaters, such as the Philippines and the Horn of Africa. At the same time, some less challenging tasks that used to be the responsibility of the Special Forces, such as training foreign militaries, have devolved to the general-purpose forces.
The Bush Administration has also significantly increased spending elsewhere in the Department of Defense and other national security-related agencies. The Administration is spending billions on intelligence to fight terrorists worldwide and to undermine states believed to sponsor them, most notably Iran. Within the Department of Defense, the United States is devoting large sums to develop systems to cope with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), one of the terrorists’ frequently used weapons. One such system has already been fielded in Iraq: the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, known by its acronym MRAP. In general, all of these changes have been worth the effort and cost, though if they continue unchecked they could come at the expense of preparing against other, equally dangerous and perhaps even more devastating threats.
As in the anarchist era, the United States has not been the only country to suffer from terrorist bombings in recent years. The attack on the Twin Towers was by far the most graphic and resulted in more casualties than any of the other bombings, but the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004 arguably had a greater political impact than did 9/11, in that they affected the 2004 Spanish elections enough to cause a change of government. As for the London bombings on July 7, 2005, they clearly altered the way Britain deals with security and created a sense of social unease that the British have not experienced since World War II.
Non-Western countries have also suffered from terrorism. Indonesia was the scene of the Bali bombings in 2002 and again in 2005, attacks that appear to have targeted foreigners in general and Australians in particular. Jordan, Morocco and Algeria have been the scenes of Islamist-perpetrated bombings that have left scores dead. India has suffered numerous terrorist attacks, including attacks on its Parliament. Suicide bombings in Pakistan rose to an all-time high in 2007, though these killings, like many of those in India, receive far less media coverage in the West.
The U.S. government has made common cause with these and other victims of Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks. It has committed funds for counterterrorism training for friendly militaries and police forces and engaged in significant intelligence sharing. Yet apart from Great Britain, few countries view the War on Terror as the United States does. While all recognize the serious threat that terrorism poses to individual safety, most still see terrorists essentially as criminals. Even Britain under Prime Minister Gordon Brown has shifted away from Tony Blair’s echoing of the American position.
One reason other countries have been leery of championing a “War on Terror” is that few nations share the American assessment of Iraq’s centrality in that war. Indeed, the Iraq war has become a central front for opposition to U.S. policy broadly construed. A second reason is that the phrase “War on Terror” is logically deficient. One cannot make war against a tactic, which is what terrorism really is. Many therefore advocate a combination of police and intelligence activity, combined with development assistance to address the supposed “root causes” of terrorism. Most also recommend greater efforts to combat the ideas that underlie terrorism. Such efforts would employ the written, spoken, broadcast and broadband word in what are often termed “strategic communications”—essentially an expanded form of public relations that are distantly related to psychological operations and involve influencing the moral and intellectual milieu of the societies in which terrorism has flourished.
What are we to make of such criticisms? Despite all of America’s efforts, no one can argue that the U.S. approach these past six and a half years has brought about a decline in terrorism, much less brought it to a halt, even though the United States itself has not suffered from a major attack since 9/11. No doubt, the United States has also begun to achieve some measure of military success in Iraq, but Iraq was not the original locus of the Islamic extremist terrorist movements that gave rise to 9/11; nor can it be said to be so today. The focus of al-Qaeda, which the United States has elevated as its terrorist arch-enemy, is again South Asia. Even before Pakistan was thrown into worse turmoil by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 (a true throwback to anarchist tactics), it was unclear just how successful the U.S.-led coalition had been in undermining al-Qaeda strongholds based in Waziristan.
While in a formal sense the United States is still prepared to contemplate pre-emptive action against terrorists or states harboring them, in practice the Iraq war has placed that policy in abeyance. There is virtually no talk of a pre-emptive attack on Iran, which in any event would be motivated by concerns about that country’s nuclear program, not its sponsorship of terrorism. Nor is there talk of anything more than limited, and possibly covert, operations inside Pakistan, a significant portion of whose population clearly sympathizes with the Taliban and extremist anti-American elements. The United States has also proceeded very cautiously with yet another major source of terrorists, Saudi Arabia. Such cooperation as exists between the two countries takes place so far from the public eye that all but government insiders are powerless to judge its effectiveness or scope.
At the heart of the matter, therefore, is the question of whether viewing the terrorism challenge as a war is the most effective way of dealing with it. Calling the threat a war may have been useful in late 2001 for mobilizing the American people, and that trope may have appealed thereafter to some officials in the Bush Administration. But the approach has elevated al-Qaeda’s profile beyond prudence in such a way as to help rather than harm it, and it has harmed rather than facilitated allied cooperation, whether from association with the Iraq war or for other reasons. It is time to adjust. The next administration should contemplate how to conduct future battles against terrorists as it backs away from the grandiose and somewhat empty notion of a “war” on terrorism. Yet it must do so without returning to the equally dysfunctional view that Islamist terrorists are simply criminals.
Struggle, Not War
It will take time to bring the terrorist threat under control, much as it took more than three decades to bring violent anarchism to heel some ninety years ago. Equally clear is the fact that the United States must work in tandem with other countries in order to do so. It cannot effectively fight terrorists without cooperation, but it cannot efficiently cooperate with other states if its basic premises differ from theirs. It is therefore not enough for Washington to help its partners build counterterrorism capacity by training military and police forces. If other countries that have experienced terrorist attacks recoil from the term “war on terror” and all it implies, it behooves the next administration to devise both a new approach to fighting terrorists and a different formula to describe it.
One possibility is to shift from a “war on terror” to a “struggle against terrorists”, to borrow a formulation currently making the rounds of Australian policy circles. A struggle is clearly prolonged, yet it neither elevates the enemy to the level of warriors nor underrates them as common criminals. Branding terrorists as a special breed of criminals, and dealing with them as our forbears dealt with anarchists, will remove the defiant underdog aura that various individuals, beginning with bin Laden, have arrogated to themselves.
Adopting such a formula would also underscore what is already a reality: that the military is but one of many tools the United States and its partners can employ against terrorists, and not necessarily the most crucial one. Strengthened cooperation in intelligence agencies and specialized anti-terror police forces, in addition to military cooperation, may not eliminate the terrorist scourge quickly, but it will generate more sustained support for the effort both domestically and internationally. Most important, emphasizing that the struggle is with terrorists, not terrorism, will provide the American and other Western publics with a better sense of both the scope of anti-terrorist efforts and the time horizons involved.
It is not enough to deal with only one part of the current policy cornerstone, the War on Terror. The Freedom Agenda needs revision, too, not least because the Iraq war merged these two objectives. The Freedom Agenda, or the “forward strategy for freedom”, as the President put it in his November 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, constituted the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address. In retrospect, however, it appears to have been a major catalyst for the launching of the Iraq war some two years earlier, though the Administration chose not to highlight it at the time. The Freedom Agenda trope has caused as much, if not more, confusion among America’s friends and foes as the War on Terror. It poses not only a strategic communications barrier; it is mistaken, too. Riddled with inconsistencies, whereby some repressive regimes are tolerated while others are subject to moralistic hectoring, its premises are based on a fundamental misconception: that the entire Muslim world is ripe for democracy, as expressed primarily by elections and secondarily by Western notions of the rule of law.
It is incontrovertible that some countries, for example Chile and Argentina in Latin America, have adopted democratic norms over the past few decades. Others have barely moved at all, notably several Arab allies of the United States. Still others, such as Egypt, have made noises as if they were opening up their polities, only to back away from preferred American norms as elections loomed near. Some states that at one point were functioning democracies clearly have regressed—Venezuela and Zimbabwe, for example. Kenya may now be joining them. The election of the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza has probably constituted the Freedom Agenda’s most spectacular failure, but still at risk are the heavy wages of having abetted sectarian voting in Iraq and the gradual decay of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon to the point of incipient civil war.
Pakistan has posed the latest dilemma for the Freedom Agenda. The murder of Benazir Bhutto has resulted in her husband and her 19-year-old son’s joint appointment as leaders of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Bhutto’s husband has served time in prison. Her son may be talented, but he is not yet in the same league as Octavian or Alexander the Great. And a third-generation Bhutto as party leader is hardly an advertisement for democratic change, even in a manifestly elitist operation like the PPP. As problematic as the Pakistani military has been as a partner in the War on Terror, it is far from obvious that the new PPP would be an improvement.
Aside from the counterproductive record of the Freedom Agenda, which is reason enough to abandon it, the very notion of it has provoked resentment and outrage throughout the Muslim world. It has been received as a nearly perfect combination of American arrogance and ignorance, and not without reason. The notion that the rule of law is somehow a Western invention flies in the face of centuries-old adherence to sharia, which even the most powerful potentates were forced to accommodate, if not submit to.
Moreover, it is important to understand that it is not the rule of law as such that the United States seeks to promote. Instead, it is the expansion of a very particular kind of rule of law, namely secular law in support of a free market economy. While many states welcome America’s free market approach, they are not ready or willing to buy the rest of the secularist package. Indeed, it is not at all clear why they should. Moreover, when the United States violates its own norms regarding the rule of law it loses all credibility when it seeks to export those norms to others—as highlighted by Abu Ghraib, the representation of Guantánamo (rightly or wrongly) as a 21st-century Bastille, and the debate over the legality of torture.
The Bush Administration’s Freedom Agenda has been seen not only as an insult, but also a threat. With the launching of the Iraq war it became obvious that a commitment to export the Freedom Agenda could lead to the deployment of military forces. Furthermore, it is a threat that keeps company with ineffectuality: In five years of war in Iraq the United States has yet to accomplish any of the objectives of the Freedom Agenda other than the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. It is not at all clear, either, that any future attempt to employ the military to enforce democratic change will be any more successful. America can certainly serve as a model for others, what Ronald Reagan famously described as the “shining city upon a hill.” In that sense, George Bush’s Second Inaugural was inspiring. But neither the vision of a “City on a Hill” nor that of George W. Bush is a good reason to force others to adopt the model before they are themselves prepared to do so.
Certainly, the next administration should refashion the Freedom Agenda to avoid the current unhappy reality that, however high-minded America’s intentions might be, they have subjected the United States to charges of hypocrisy, double standards and militarism. Indeed, it is arguable that the stress on a Freedom Agenda has undermined the War on Terror by serving as a source of ridicule for those who violently oppose Western values in general and American ideals in particular.
The next administration should drop the term “Freedom Agenda”, but it can still foster democracy abroad by working more closely with NGOs than it does today. It should allocate more funding to them and pool resources with allies and friends to support non-American NGOs, which often can make greater inroads than those identified with the United States.
Ironically, perhaps, some of the most imaginative approaches to collaborating with NGOs have come from the military. The U.S. Command in Afghanistan has been working with NGOs since 2002. The U.S. Southern Command has also developed innovative ways of cooperating with regional and local NGOs throughout Latin America. These are models that others in the U.S. government should follow and expand on—particularly in the new Africa Command, whose creation Donald Rumsfeld approved not long before leaving office.
When sponsoring and working with NGOs, officials should take care not to highlight those led by people who are Western-educated, English-speaking and themselves members of the elite classes. Too often the Washington policy community, both Left and Right, has focused on helping opposition leaders who are too far removed from those they seek to represent. Ahmed Chalabi is an extreme example, but hardly the only one.
The next administration should also reconsider its approach to development assistance, which has become linked too closely to the Freedom Agenda and the security realm under the rubric of “stabilization and reconstruction.” In truth, the United States has a miserable record of “nation-building” (or really, to be precise, state-building). Iraq is only the latest example of failure. There is still some hope in Afghanistan, but only if the effort is conducted in conjunction with other states and perhaps the United Nations, with the United States most definitely not in the lead. This is because our lead development agency, USAID, still favors large infrastructure projects built by out-of-country contractors over smaller, local efforts that put wayward youths to work.
There is much to be gained in working with NGOs in this regard, as well as in recognizing the value of highly targeted Defense Department efforts, such as the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) and Section 1206 military and police training programs. The CERP achieved some success in Iraq, but it could have accomplished much more in the early days of the Coalition Provisional Authority if it had been funded adequately. More funds are now available, but CERP should be part of a coherent development effort that eschews grandiose projects in favor of those focused on the daily lives of people wracked by war, dislocation, poverty and general misery. As things stand, our efforts are too scattered and the basic approach of our lead agency is misaligned with both reality and best practice.
The threat of terrorism is nothing to take lightly, and the possibility of a WMD terror attack ought to focus the mind of any new president in January 2009. But terrorism is not the only ongoing security challenge facing the United States. The next administration will inherit a host of other international headaches. It will certainly inherit some aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict, even if the Annapolis Conference of November 2007 results in some progress between Israel and the Palestinians. It will face an increasingly belligerent Russia and a China that will no longer feel constrained by its need to be a model host of the Summer Olympics. It will have to cope with lies and broken promises flowing incessantly from North Korea, the bluster of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the specter of a nuclear Iran. It will face ongoing instability in Pakistan and perhaps elsewhere in South Asia. It must determine the nature of its relationship with India and a changing Japan. Finally, it must pay attention to a still-unstable and impoverished Africa.
All this is obvious once one hears the list. What is not so obvious is that it is consistently a major challenge for any administration to devote high-level attention to more than one crisis at a time. The most graphic example from the Bush Administration is the insufficient attention paid to Afghanistan by senior policymakers for several years after the invasion of Iraq. The Clinton Administration’s neglect of Japan and Southeast Asia is another example. The tendency of many administrations to ignore Latin America and Africa unless there are some immediate headline-grabbing crises on the scale of Rwanda or Darfur is yet another case in point.
Bureaucracies focus on what they already are doing. The key to anticipating and reacting to new challenges therefore lies with the White House itself, and specifically with the National Security Council staff. Every new president and national security advisor reorganize the NSC staff to reflect their own styles; that is as it should be. But the next administration must undertake that reorganization with its eyes wide open to the fact that there is an ongoing terrorist threat, that American forces are at war in two countries, and that numerous military operations are being conducted elsewhere, too. This means that the NSC staff must expand in both breadth and depth in order to cope with all this and with contingencies yet to emerge.
The Executive Office of the President needs to be transformed in another way, as well. Despite its small staff, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the past, notably during the early stages of the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, has seemed incapable of controlling its urge to micromanage Executive departments by wielding the budget club. That is not the OMB’s proper role. In the early years of the Bush Administration, these efforts at micromanagement caused much harm. The OMB seems to have been kept under control in recent years, but the next administration must ensure that the OMB remains reined in, at least with respect to U.S. national security agencies.
Just as it should not turn back the clock to give the OMB the role it played at the beginning of this decade, the next administration should also ensure that it does not roll back changes in organization and management identified with Donald Rumsfeld and with the term “transformation.” Transformation has become a stale buzzword, but the principles behind it remain as fresh as ever. These principles led to, among other things, a bolstered role for the Special Forces, a new Northern Command to focus on the defense of North America, and the merger of several commands to form a Strategic Command and a Transportation Command. It also engendered experimentation and risk-taking under the aegis of the Joint Forces Command, as well as in NATO’s reorganized Allied Command Transformation. On balance, these are all necessary and positive developments.
Most importantly, transformation now underpins the U.S. military’s ability to respond rapidly to a crisis, and to do so by drawing upon new combinations of unmanned systems, special forces, and naval and air power. The concept proved its worth not only in Afghanistan, but also in the first stages of the Iraq war. It was never intended as a blueprint for nation-building, however, and America’s post-2003 experience in Iraq is no reason to jettison either the concept or the changes it wrought. To do so would be to repeat a mistake that bureaucracies make all the time: They like the familiar, and shun the experimental.
Transformation forced the Defense Department bureaucracy to recognize that it was facing an uncertain future armed only with the tools of the past. To deal with all contingencies and to bolster America’s non-military instruments of influence, the Department of Defense must remain flexible, agile and responsive to change. That is really what transformation was all about in 2001, and it remains so today.
In addressing future contingencies, including those that might lead to war, the next administration needs to consider carefully whether the default option when diplomacy fails should be the military. The Bush Administration has successfully wielded financial instruments as a constraint on North Korea, Iran and others, as well as with respect to terrorist financing. Its successor should therefore institutionalize the roles of the Treasury Department and its secretary as key players in the U.S. national security community. The Treasury secretary should be on a par with the secretaries of State and Defense in all national security deliberations. Financial pressure should accompany diplomatic pressure. Indeed it, rather than the military, should be the default option when diplomacy falters or fails.
The intelligent use of financial weapons could also free the United States from its historically self-imposed, and usually self-defeating, disinclination to negotiate with hostile states except on its own terms. A willingness to sit at the negotiating table with avowed enemies, even as they are being squeezed financially under the table, would be far more effective, as well as far more likely to win international support, than eschewing diplomacy altogether. Of course, the United States does not monopolize international finance. Yet in concert with a very few countries, the U.S. government has the ability to choke off the trade and economic growth of any state on earth. Indeed, because of the complexity of international financial mechanisms, such pressure would be difficult for all but the most sophisticated outsiders to understand. It would also be less likely to spark the public resentments that are the regular byproduct of military threats.
Every new administration is predisposed to throw out the old and introduce the new. In some cases that is warranted; in others, it is not. The reality is that any administration will be more shackled by the past than it would prefer, for the simple reason that the bureaucracy is too entrenched to permit wholesale reform. The challenge for any administration, therefore, is to determine which portion of its predecessor’s legacy it will accept and which it will fight to jettison. This is perhaps the most crucial judgment that any new administration can make, for if it seeks to do too much, it can end up achieving nothing.
How to choose? There is no magic formula, but choices must be based above all on the practical considerations inherent in America’s global role, and on its relationships with current and potential allies, friends and adversaries. One must learn to accommodate reality before one deigns to tamper with it.
As our new leaders make that determination, they need bear in mind the ubiquity of irony in politics. Some changes actually lead one back into the past, for in truth there is not much new under the sun. Just about every mistake that can possibly be made has already been made many times. Other changes represent the only practical path to a successful future. We elect leaders to discern which changes are which. We can only hope they’re up to the task.