Why We're Losing the War on Terror
Assuming that the principal terrorist threat still comes from Al Qaeda or, more broadly, a violence-prone fundamentalist strain of Islam, and that the "enemies" in this struggle are a relatively small number of Arab and Muslim men, it is all the more critical that we develop close, positive ties with Arab and Muslim communities here and abroad. By alienating those whose help we need most, the preventive paradigm has had exactly the opposite effect.
At the same time, we have given Al Qaeda the best propaganda it could ever have hoped for. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld identified the critical question in an October 2003 internal Pentagon memo: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" While there is no precise metric for answering Rumsfeld's question, there can be little doubt that our preventive tactics have been a boon to terrorist recruitment throughout the world.
More broadly still, our actions have radically undermined our standing in the world. The damage to US prestige was perhaps most dramatically revealed when, after the report of CIA black sites surfaced in November 2005, Russia, among several other countries, promptly issued a press release claiming that it had nothing to do with the sites. When Russia feels the need to distance itself from the United States out of concern that its human rights image might be tarnished by association, we have fallen far.
In short, we have gone from being the object of the world's sympathy immediately after 9/11 to being the country most likely to be hated. Anti-Americanism is at an all-time high. In some countries, Osama bin Laden has a higher approval rating than the United States. And much of the anti-Americanism is tied to the perception that the United States has pursued its "war on terror" in an arrogant, unilateral fashion, defying the very values we once championed.
The Bush Administration just doesn't get it. Its National Defense Strategy, published by the Pentagon, warns that "our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism." The proposition that judicial processes and international accountability--the very essence of the rule of law--are to be dismissed as a strategy of the weak, aligned with terrorism itself, makes clear that the Administration has come to view the rule of law as an obstacle, not an asset, in its effort to protect us from terrorist attack.
Our long-term security turns not on "going on offense" by locking up thousands of "suspected terrorists" who turn out to have no connection to terrorism; nor on forcing suspects to bark like dogs, urinate and defecate on themselves, and endure sexual humiliation; nor on attacking countries that have not threatened to attack us. Security rests not on exceptionalism and double standards but on a commitment to fairness, justice and the rule of law. The rule of law in no way precludes a state from defending itself from terrorists but requires that it do so within constraints. And properly understood, those constraints are assets, not obstacles. Aharon Barak, who recently retired as president of Israel's Supreme Court, said it best in a case forbidding the use of "moderate physical pressure" in interrogating Palestinian terror suspects: "A democracy must sometimes fight terror with one hand tied behind its back. Even so, a democracy has the upper hand. The rule of law and the liberty of an individual constitute important components in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and this strength allows it to overcome its difficulties."
The preventive paradigm has compromised our spirit, strengthened our enemies and left us less free and less safe. If we are ready to learn from our mistakes, however, there is a better way to defend ourselves--through, rather than despite, a recommitment to the rule of law.