A week ago, I had a long conversation with a four-star U.S. military officer who, until his recent retirement, had played a central role in directing the global war on terror. I asked him: what exactly is the strategy that guides the Bush administration's conduct of this war? His dismaying, if not exactly surprising, answer: there is none.
President Bush will bequeath to his successor the ultimate self-licking ice cream cone. To defense contractors, lobbyists, think-tankers, ambitious military officers, the hosts of Sunday morning talk shows, and the Douglas Feith-like creatures who maneuver to become players in the ultimate power game, the Global War on Terror is a boon, an enterprise redolent with opportunity and promising to extend decades into the future.
Yet, to a considerable extent, that very enterprise has become a fiction, a gimmicky phrase employed to lend an appearance of cohesion to a panoply of activities that, in reality, are contradictory, counterproductive, or at the very least beside the point. In this sense, the global war on terror relates to terrorism precisely as the war on drugs relates to drug abuse and dependence: declaring a state of permanent "war" sustains the pretense of actually dealing with a serious problem, even as policymakers pay lip-service to the problem's actual sources. The war on drugs is a very expensive fraud. So, too, is the Global War on Terror.
Anyone intent on identifying some unifying idea that explains U.S. actions, military and otherwise, across the Greater Middle East is in for a disappointment. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid down "Germany first" and then "unconditional surrender" as core principles. Early in the Cold War, the Truman administration devised the concept of containment, which for decades thereafter provided a conceptual framework to which policymakers adhered. Yet seven years into its Global War on Terror, the Bush administration is without a compass, wandering in the arid wilderness. To the extent that any inkling of a strategy once existed -- the preposterous neoconservative vision of employing American power to "transform" the Islamic world -- events have long since demolished the assumptions on which it was based.
Rather than one single war, the United States is presently engaged in several.
Ranking first in importance is the war for Bush's legacy, better known as Iraq. The President himself will never back away from his insistence that here lies the "central front" of the conflict he initiated after 9/11. Hunkered down in their bunker, Bush and his few remaining supporters would have us believe that the "surge" has, at long last, brought victory in sight and with it some prospect of redeeming this otherwise misbegotten and mismanaged endeavor. If the President can leave office spouting assurances that light is finally visible somewhere at the far end of a very long, very dark Mesopotamian tunnel, he will claim at least partial vindication. And if actual developments subsequent to January 20 don't turn out well, he can always blame the outcome on his successor.
Next comes the orphan war. This is Afghanistan, a conflict now in its eighth year with no signs of ending anytime soon. Given the attention lavished on Iraq, developments in Afghanistan have until recently attracted only intermittent notice. Lately, however, U.S. officials have awakened to the fact that things are going poorly, both politically and militarily. Al Qaeda persists. The Taliban is reasserting itself. Expectations that NATO might ride to the rescue have proven illusory. Apart from enabling Afghanistan to reclaim its status as the world's number one producer of opium, U.S. efforts to pacify that nation and nudge it toward modernity have produced little.
The Pentagon calls its intervention in Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom. The emphasis was supposed to be on the noun. Unfortunately, the adjective conveys the campaign's defining characteristic: enduring as in endless. Barring a radical re-definition of purpose, this is an enterprise which promises to continue, consuming lives and treasure, for a long, long time.
In neighboring Pakistan, meanwhile, there is the war-hidden-in-plain-sight. Reports of U.S. military action in Pakistan have now become everyday fare. Air strikes, typically launched from missile-carrying drones, are commonplace, and U.S. ground forces have also conducted at least one cross-border raid from inside Afghanistan. Although the White House doesn't call this a war, it is -- a gradually escalating war of attrition in which we are killing both terrorists and noncombatants. Unfortunately, we are killing too few of the former to make a difference and more than enough of the latter to facilitate the recruitment of new terrorists to replace those we eliminate.
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Finally -- skipping past the wars-in-waiting, which are Syria and Iran -- there is Condi's war. This clash, which does not directly involve U.S. forces, may actually be the most important of all. The war that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made her own is the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Having for years dismissed the insistence of Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, that the plight of the Palestinians constitutes a problem of paramount importance, Rice now embraces that view. With the fervor of a convert, she has vowed to broker an end to that conflict prior to leaving office in January 2009.
Given that Rice brings little -- perhaps nothing -- to the effort in the way of fresh ideas, her prospects of making good as a peacemaker appear slight. Yet, as with Bush and Iraq, so too with Rice and the Palestinian problem: she has a lot riding on the effort. If she flops, history will remember her as America's least effective secretary of state since Cordell Hull spent World War II being ignored, bypassed, and humiliated by Franklin Roosevelt. She will depart Foggy Bottom having accomplished nothing.
There's nothing inherently wrong in fighting simultaneously on several fronts, as long as actions on front A are compatible with those on front B, and together contribute to overall success. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the Global War on Terror. We have instead an illustration of what Winston Churchill once referred to as a pudding without a theme: a war devoid of strategic purpose.
This absence of cohesion -- by now a hallmark of the Bush administration -- is both a disaster and an opportunity. It is a disaster in the sense that we have, over the past seven years, expended enormous resources, while gaining precious little in return.
Bush's supporters beg to differ, of course. They credit the president with having averted a recurrence of 9/11, doubtless a commendable achievement but one primarily attributable to the fact that the United States no longer neglects airport security. To argue that, say, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have prevented terrorist attacks against the United States is the equivalent of contending that Israel's occupation of the West Bank since in 1967 has prevented terrorist attacks against the state of Israel.
Yet the existing strategic vacuum is also an opportunity. When it comes to national security at least, the agenda of the next administration all but sets itself. There is no need to waste time arguing about which issues demand priority action.
First-order questions are begging for attention. How should we gauge the threat? What are the principles that should inform our response? What forms of power are most relevant to implementing that response? Are the means at hand adequate to the task? If not, how should national priorities be adjusted to provide the means required? Given the challenges ahead, how should the government organize itself? Who -- both agencies and individuals -- will lead?
To each and every one of these questions, the Bush administration devised answers that turned out to be dead wrong. The next administration needs to do better. The place to begin is with the candid recognition that the Global War on Terror has effectively ceased to exist. When it comes to national security strategy, we need to start over from scratch.