The Next President's Task in War on Terror

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The Boston Globe

The Next President's Task in War on Terror

AND SO it ends. The longest, most expensive, and riveting campaign in living memory is finally over. It has been an international cliff-hanger, with people in Europe, Africa, and Asia following every little twist and turn as avidly as anyone in the United States. For even though they may not have the vote, all the world knows the importance of America's choice.

Seldom has there been such an all-encompassing drama. It seems almost too theatrical remembering now how the Clintons, so full of confidence and entitlement, were brought low by a newcomer of whom most people had never heard five years before. And John McCain, his campaign in tatters and out of money in New Hampshire, prevailing over the deep--pocketed Mitt Romney, whose positions kept shifting with the political winds.

Books and magazines are full of advice on what our new president faces in his first term. Pundits are saying that not since Franklin Roosevelt, or perhaps Abraham Lincoln, has the task been so daunting, given the messes that President Bush and Dick Cheney are leaving on the White House floor. Two unfinished wars, a national debt rising to dangerous levels, an army stretched to the breaking point, and an economy in shambles limit the ability of a new president to carry out anything new.

Given the political establishment's inertia, the lack of maneuver room the new president will have, and the all-but insurmountable difficulties he faces, it may be, as a recent New Yorker cartoon suggested, that real change can only be found in drink during the "change you can believe in hour" at your local bar.

Looking back, the most amazing aspect of the Bush years was not the arrogance and imperial over-reach. It was its sheer incompetence. It was something unexpected when Bush came to power, given his team: Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and, yes, Dick Cheney. I thought at least they could get things done, for better or worse.

But it became clear before their armies reached Baghdad that this was a quick, unplanned dash with no follow-through. How agonizingly slow the administration was to admit even to an insurgency in Iraq. How slow it was to recognize the damage that Hurricane Katrina had inflicted, and how slow it was to realize that pushing Reagan-era deregulation too far was about to beggar us all.

Although Bush has been keeping such a low profile up to now that many could be forgiven for thinking he has already left office, the grim and sobering truth is that he has 77 days left in power, enough time to do a lot of mischief. The administration is now free of any responsibility to the Republican Party or the election. As for the American people, they were never considered by this administration to be anything more than an entity to be manipulated and lied to in the interest of unrestricted executive power.

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The danger of an American attack on Iran has now passed. There would be stiff resistance from the Pentagon, and the neoconservative hawks that held such sway in Bush's first administration are now in eclipse. Bush and Cheney might give Israel the green light, however. I was told by a source whom I trust that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel sought a promise from Bush that he would bomb Iran before he left office. Such an attack would delay, not stop, Iran from building a bomb, and the results of an attack, the political fallout in the Middle East and around the world, would be the only thing worse than Iran having a bomb.

To bring about real change in the world, the new president will have to rethink and reorganize the entire concept of preventive war and the so-called war on terror. As the author Thomas Powers wrote recently, what "no country can do for long [is] force strange people in distant places to reshape their politics and society more to our liking. The effort passes as nation-building at the outset, but in the long run counterinsurgency always comes down to the same self-defeating strategy - killing locals until they stop trying to make us go away."

H.D.S. Greenway

H.D.S. Greenway

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Boston Globe and author of Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.

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