WASHINGTON - If U.S. President George W. Bush was counting on Sunday's "Freedom Walk" and country music festival at the Pentagon to revive the patriotic spirit (and rally his sagging approval ratings) that followed the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on their fourth anniversary, he is likely to be very disappointed.
And it won't be just because of his administration's fatal bungling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, which will certainly overshadow the Pentagon's commemoration; nor even due to the growing popular discontent over the way things have been going in Iraq.
Although both developments pose potentially lethal threats to Bush's continued effectiveness, the president's management of his "global war on terrorism", which he declared in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, is increasingly under siege.
Public approval of his handling of that war, which, in contrast to steadily declining confidence in Iraq policy, had remained remarkably solid over most of the past four years, has fallen sharply in recent months to a razor-thin majority. Recent polls have also shown that U.S. citizens see themselves as increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attack as a result of the administration's actions.
It now appears that much of the national security elite has made a similar assessment and, in an indication of the shifting political winds, is now more willing to speak out about it.
A growing number of policy experts are arguing that Bush's strategy for conducting the war on terrorism -- particularly his preferences for military action over "soft power" and for working with compliant "coalitions of the willing" over independent allies and multilateral mechanisms -- is in urgent need of redirection.
This was made abundantly clear by the appearance of a who's who of national security and foreign policy experts at a well-attended conference here this week that appeared designed chiefly to assert the existence of alternative frameworks for conducting the war on terrorism on the eve of its fourth anniversary.
"There is an emerging consensus that while a military response to 9/11 was necessary, it was certainly not sufficient for dealing with terrorism over the long term," said Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation (NAF) and the main convener of "Terrorism, Security and America's Purpose: Towards a More Comprehensive Strategy.
"Enlightened diplomacy must be combined with a robust commitment to compete vigorously for 'hearts and minds'," he said.
Capping the conference, which was addressed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former NATO commander Wesley Clark, and Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, among others political heavyweights, was the publication of a statement by the new Partnership for a Secure America (PSA), a bipartisan group of former veteran lawmakers and top national-security officials, including half a dozen secretaries of state and national security advisers, that implicitly criticized Bush's conduct of the war.
Noting that "terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy", the statement stressed that success in the war will require "strong partnerships with allies based on mutual respect"; living up to traditional U.S. principles, such as the rule of law, in conducting the war, at home as well as overseas; and "breaking our over-dependence on oil".
In contrast to Bush's rhetoric about "evil" and "evil-doers" as the source of Islamist terrorism, the statement also stressed that "terrorism is a political act requiring a political response", which, in addition to promoting democratic institutions in the Muslim world, should also include "addressing legitimate grievances", the existence of which the administration has been loathe to concede over the past four years.
While the statement did not define what those "legitimate grievances" were, a number of speakers -- some of whom are rarely heard in Washington's more exalted and politically sensitive policy circles -- made clear that U.S. policies in the Greater Middle East should be included.
"They do not hate us for what we are, but for what we do," declared NAF fellow Nir Rosen, whose writings in The New Yorker about his experience in insurgent-controlled Falluja, Iraq last year won wide notice. "The American empire will cease to be a target when it ceases directly or indirectly to oppress weaker people or to support those who oppress them."
"The motives for Muslim terrorists directed against America are no secret. They are clearly stated over and over again by the most reliable sources, the perpetrators themselves," he said: "...Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Guantanamo, America's presence on holy Muslim land in the Arabian peninsula, and American support for dictatorial or corrupt regimes."
"An American withdrawal from Iraq and an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories to the 1967 lines would do more to fight terrorism than any military action ever could. So would American empathy," he said.
Similarly, Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago whose recent book, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism", is the most comprehensive profile of successful suicide bombers, asserted that "the war on terrorism is heading south" and will likely continue doing so until Washington recognized that its military presence in the Gulf region is al Qaeda's "best recruitment tool".
Both Pape and Harvard University expert Stephen Walt called for Washington to return to an older regional strategy of "off-shore balancing" in the Gulf region, in which the U.S. would intervene directly only when the local balance of power breaks down, and even then as a last resort.
The Bush administration's policy of "going on the offensive" against perceived foes since 9/11, according to Walt, whose own new book, "Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy" has won strong reviews in mainstream publications, has "made us look trigger-happy (and)... made (Osama) bin Laden's accusations that we wanted to dominate the world look correct".
These views were backed up by the findings of task forces, each made up of a dozen or more experts with a wide range of political views, that have worked on recommendations on the war of terror since last spring.
One group, chaired by Louise Richardson, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard, reached unanimity on the necessity for Washington to be more sensitive to the causes of terrorism. "(Members) also reject the view that to address grievances exploited by terrorist leaders is to reward terrorism, quite the contrary, we agree that addressing these grievances is essential to diminishing support for terrorism."
Task force members, according to Richardson, also called "for undermining radicals and strengthening moderates (in the Islamic world) by re-evaluating our policies (and) addressing their grievances ...that serve to mobilize resentment," including resolving the Israeli/Palestinian issue that "would not satisfy the absolutists but ...would undermine their support by reducing the reservoir of bitterness among their potential recruits".
A second task force on grand strategy, headed by Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that Bush administration "had overreacted" to the 9/11 attacks by "turning its back" on many of Washington's traditional foreign policy objectives, including the strengthening of international institutions and alliances built up during the Cold War and making the struggle against terrorism the defining mission of U.S. grand strategy.
"The challenge is to get our priorities back in sync," he said.
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service