Expanding War, Contracting Meaning

The Next President and the Global War on Terror

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.

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

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.

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.

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