This election, more than any other since 1980, could turn on questions of foreign policy and national security. Yet despite the obvious difference in worldview of the two candidates, and the increasingly acrimonious exchanges between them, the two campaigns have staked out remarkably similar positions on Iraq, the “war on terrorism,” and more generally on America’s position in the world. Indeed, leaving aside questions of style and tone, the discussion to date has largely come down to the question of who is more capable of carrying out the current agenda: who can better take the war to the terrorists, who can better stay the course in Iraq, who can better terminate Iran’s and North
Korea’s nuclear ambitions, who can better lead America’s alliances and maintain our predominant military position in the world.
If the two candidates continue to follow their current scripts, the American public will be the big loser. For the nation badly needs a fuller and more honest debate about the lessons of the Bush era and the challenges and choices it has left us with. Given the enormity of these challenges, this is a debate that cannot be left until after the election or be defined by the current policy positions of the candidates themselves. The place to begin this debate is with the “war on terrorism,” which both campaigns have made the centerpiece of their foreign policy and national security strategy.
The ‘War on Terrorism’
The “war on terrorism” has always been a troubling concept, in part because it leaves to everyone’s political imagination just who the enemy is and in part because it provides a license to ignore the political background to terrorist activity and to overemphasize a military response. It is an even more troubling concept in light of the substantial damage the “war” has done to American interests in the world.
The Kerry campaign, which has recently begun to mount a more coherent critique of Bush’s failures, has been correct to criticize the war in Iraq as a diversion of resources from the fight against Al Qaeda, but it has been wrong to accept other aspects of the “war on terrorism” so uncritically. The Administration’s strategy has been to take the war to the terrorists, “to get them before they get us.” It has thus pursued a forward-based military offensive, albeit one supplemented by increased police and intelligence cooperation with other governments. It has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and has established new bases across the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. But this expansion of America’s footprint in the Islamic world has been disastrously counterproductive, transforming a limited terrorist threat into a wave of bin Laden-inspired Islamic radicalism that is beginning to ripple across the region.
The fact that Al Qaeda has metastasized from a loose, single organization into a mass movement with many local terrorist groups may have reduced the threat to the US homeland in the short term. But it has magnified the problem of radical Islam and has made the United States the central issue in a series of intensifying Islamic civil wars that threaten, to varying degrees, the stability of strategically critical and already unstable countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as well as previously stable US friends like Jordan and the Gulf sheikdoms.
Before September 11 and the launching of the “war on terrorism,” Osama bin Laden and his band of Islamic revolutionaries appeared to be a spent force with little or no popular support in most Arab societies. However, Bush’s “war on terrorism” in general and his war in Iraq in particular have given new life to bin Ladenism by fusing Islamic radicalism with anti-imperial nationalism and by giving Islamic radicalism the foreign imperial enemy it needs to succeed.