During the past century the United States has faced two brutal assaults. Within four years of the first, on December 7 1941, the US and its allies had mobilized, taken on and defeated two powerful enemies, Japan and Germany. Four years after the second, on September 11 2001, what real progress can the US and its allies honestly claim for the war on terror?
The answer, tragically and alarmingly, is that they have not made enough. Not only is terror very much still with us, it is also on the increase. Last year, the US state department reported 651 "significant terrorist attacks" around the world, three times the total for 2003 and the highest annual number since Washington began to collect such statistics two decades ago. Around a third of those attacks took place in Iraq, supposedly the central front of the war on terror, in some parts of which terrorist killings have now reached pandemic levels. Since April, more than 4,000 Iraqis have been killed by terrorists in Baghdad alone. But the killing is in no way confined to Iraq. No one in London needs any reminder of that. And Britain, like the US and many others, is wrestling to balance established liberties and ways of life with the danger that another 9/11, or another 7/7, may occur at any time.
The assault on America four years ago this week was in every way as infamous a deed as the one committed by Japan in 1941. Much of the response to it, however, was not just ineffective but counter-productive. Faced with 9/11, George Bush's initial response was briefly both brainy and belligerent. But the initial advantages were quickly squandered under pressure from the ideological right. By choosing to rid the world of evil - above all in Iraq - rather than to hunt down, take out and politically disable al-Qaida, Mr Bush set his country on a path which continues to dismay America's friends and to delight its enemies.
In effect, though, he also did Osama bin Laden's job for him. The war on terror, with its rhetoric of a battle between good and evil and its talk of a fight that will last for generations, depended for credibility upon the efficacy of American power and upon the accuracy of the US neocon prescription of a "democratic revolution" across the Middle East. In reality, both have proved to be wishful thinking - the real surprise being the limits of the US military effort. America has fought and occupied, but it has not shown that it can rebuild. The idea that Iraq would set off a domino democratic effect across the Middle East now seems even more preposterous than ever - if Iraq is exporting anything to its neighbors, it is violence not democracy. Faced with a ruthless insurgency, American public opinion is faltering as the gulf on the ground between reality and objectives widens. Post-Katrina, the question is not whether the US will begin to withdraw - but when, how and, above all, with what damage.
Politically this may be inevitable and even desirable - but we will all live with the consequences. The most damning charge against the war on terror is that it has been a recruiting sergeant for the very forces it sought to destroy. As Mark Danner put it in the New York Times yesterday, Mr Bush's failure to focus on al-Qaida has created a global "al-Qaidaism" of the kind that struck this country on July 7. Such al-Qaidaism is not going to go away. If the earlier generation could produce a 9/11 in the face of American power, what will the next generation produce in the wake of the American weakness inseparable from an Iraq withdrawal? Bin Laden's organization may have been damaged and disrupted since 2001, and his dreadful cause may in many places be in the hands of amateurs, but he could never have dreamed that the world four years after the twin towers would look so favorable to his objectives.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.