August 15, 2005

August 15, 2005 | Commentary on Middle East

Bush's War Score Card Has More Pluses than Minuses

Words matter, we all know that. When the U.S. president or his high Cabinet officials utter certain words, they get read as carefully as tea leaves. Anyone who has had a chance to follow the clearance process and the interagency fighting that go on before a major official speech will know just how much is at stake.

So when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers recently started dropping the phrase "global war on terror" (GWOT in the Pentagon's inimitable jargon) in favor of phrases like "the struggle against global extremism," it was noticed immediately.

It was widely assumed that this more euphemistic description meant that Rumsfeld wanted to steer the expectation away from the idea that militant Islam can be defeated by military means alone, that here was an indication of a shift toward a different kind of strategy.

It seems, unfortunately, that the internal debate over terminology had not included President Bush. On Aug. 3, speaking to the American Legislative Exchange Council in Grapevine, Texas, Bush hammered home that, as far as he is concerned, we are still at war.

No fewer than five times did the president use the words "war on terror."

"To win this war on terror," he said, "we will use all elements of national power. We will use our military. For those of you who have loved ones in the military, I want to thank you--tell them to thank--you thank them for me, on behalf of a grateful nation."

Bush then went on to list the diplomatic corps, the treasury, the intelligence agencies and the Homeland Security Department as instruments in the war on terror.

"See, this is a different kind of war. In the old days, you'd have armies that were funded by states. You knew who they were, you could trace them," he said.

"This war is against killers who hide, and then they show up and kill innocent life, and then they retreat. And so you got good intelligence in order to defeat them. We're working hard to coordinate law enforcement around the world. In other words, we're using all assets of this great nation in order to defeat this enemy."

OK, Mr. President, we are still at war.

A lot of us have had no trouble believing that all along, but with time, there is a danger that a deadly complacency will set in. The Sept. 11 attacks were almost four years ago, the reasons we went into Iraq and Afghanistan are more remote, and continued violence is increasing calls for our troops to be brought home.

So, where are we in the long war that the president, after Sept. 11, warned us could take decades to win?

Blows against terrorists

The score card is mixed, but it contains more pluses than minuses.

First of all, though it is almost inevitable that terrorists will eventually succeed in getting in another blow against the United States, as they keep trying, we have made huge advances against terrorist cells and their financing networks in the past four years in California, Oregon, Illinois, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida and elsewhere.

Worldwide, nearly $140 million in terrorist assets have been frozen. Intelligence services all over the world are cooperating to unravel terrorist cells.

But the measure of our success has to be negative.

No terrorist attacks have taken place in the United States over that period. That is in part thanks to the much-maligned Patriot Act, which will be in House-Senate conference for reauthorization after the August congressional recess. Terrorists knew when the Patriot Act was passed that it would mean trouble for them. It has helped with the sharing of intelligence among agencies and given law enforcement crucial tools to track suspicious Internet and cell phone use.

At the same time, spending on homeland security has tripled in the past four years, and the Department of Homeland Security, which is by no means perfect, is increasing coordination among the many government agencies that share responsibility for protecting American citizens. Pending immigration-reform legislation hopefully will do something to improve the situation along U.S. borders, which are an open invitation for illegal immigrants.

Unfortunately, our success means terrorists have sought other targets.

Allies at risk

European allies of the United States are at risk, as demonstrated by the Madrid bombings that caused Spain to pull out of the coalition in Iraq, and last month by the London bombings, which fortunately seem to have had the opposite effect on British Prime Minister Tony Blair. With the British taking a tougher line after the bombings, we may see Al Qaeda and its European operatives seek yet softer targets among other European allies of the United States, such as Italy or Denmark.

But of course, the primary focus of the U.S. national security strategy is to take the war to the enemy, specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq but elsewhere as well. This is where the importance of the word "war" comes in. U.S. strategy has to be forward-leaning if we want to avoid fighting the war on our own shores.

It is all too easy to get dispirited when looking at the difficulty of progress in Afghanistan and Iraq. This does not mean we can afford to lose heart as progress is indeed being made there.

Afghanistan has an elected leader, an important step toward democracy. Afghan women can again hold jobs, and girls can get an education. More than 200 schools have been built; 4.5 million children have been inoculated against childhood diseases; 700,000 cases of malaria have been treated. While the United States still does most of the fighting, 70 other nations, including France and Germany, are picking up reconstruction duties.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan today also has the world's most thriving crop of opium poppies and a burgeoning heroin production that supplies European and Asian markets.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the going has been tough.

January's elections were a wonderful high point, when 8 million Iraqis defied terrorist threats to their lives to go to the polls. Since then, insurgents in the Sunni Triangle, many of them imported from abroad, have taken a significant toll. More than 1,800 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives. Even more Iraqis have died, now frequent targets of suicide bombers.

Meanwhile, a lot of reconstruction has occurred that does not make the news in most of the U.S. media.

Progress in Iraq

Iraq is now pumping up to 2.5 million barrels of oil a day; as many or more children are attending school as did before the war; and infrastructure is being rebuilt to the tune of $32 billion. There is good news in that the new Iraqi constitution is being negotiated among elected political leaders. There is bad news in the pressure from religious leaders for any family law in the constitution to conform to Shariah, a cause of deep concern among Iraqi women's groups.

Perhaps the most promising recent development is that the war on terrorism now includes Islamic countries. There is an emerging realization among Muslim leaders, in Europe and in the United States, that the continued existence of a violent extremist threat from militant Islam will in the long run harm them most of all. Western societies can tolerate only so much violence and incitement to hatred before a push-back becomes inevitable.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom