The Global War on Error
In a rhetorical shift last week, the Bush administration unveiled a new name for its worldwide war against an abstraction. The old moniker "Global War on Terror" (or GWOT) has been exchanged for the new label, the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism" (or G-SAVE). The results for America and the world, sadly, will be the same.
This is not a case, as Shakespeare might have said, of a rose by any other name smelling as sweet. The United States is not engaged in a twilight struggle against a concept. The United States is fighting Al Qaeda, an organization with political and military goals, one that declared war on America in 1996 and attacked its homeland in 2001. Bin Laden's organization and its network of loosely affiliated cells and followers must be beaten back politically, diplomatically, ideologically - and militarily.
But almost from the moment the Twin Towers fell, President Bush has mischaracterized the enemy we face and failed to grasp the nature of the conflict we must fight and win. On September 20, 2001, only nine days after the Al Qaeda attacks in the U.S., President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and the nation. In his first and fullest articulation of the "Way of Life" thesis, Bush explained:
Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
This meaningless drumbeat from the White House hasn't stopped since. In June 2002, Bush stated that "we use all the tools at our disposal to deal with these nations that hate America and hate our freedoms." Dick Cheney put it simply last year, saying "the terrorists hate our country, they hate our freedom, they hate everything we stand for in the world."
The Pentagon's own Defense Science Board on Strategic Communications, however, sees the struggle - and our prospects for success - much differently. In a report whose release was squelched until after the 2004 presidential campaign, the panel stated, "Muslims do not hate our freedoms, but rather they hate our policies." Among those policies are what they see as "one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights" and long-standing support for what Muslims "collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf states." The report concluded:
"American direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of, and support for, radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single digits in some Arab societies. American efforts have not only failed...they may have achieved the opposite of what they intended."
For all its many shortcomings, Michael Scheuer's "Imperial Hubris" reached the same conclusion. He emphasizes the importance of taking Bin Laden at his word when it comes to why he fights:
- Western Control of Muslim Natural Resources. A key Al Qaeda grievance is the perception of Western, and especially American, control over the Middle East's oil resources and markets. In the near term, no American president, Democrat or Republican, can or should jeopardize American access to the oil that is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy. But a full national mobilization towards American energy independence should be a top strategic priority to free the U.S. from its security and economic vulnerability.
- American Forces in Saudi Arabia. Since the Gulf War, the presence of U.S. troops in the land of Mecca and Medina has inflamed opinion throughout the Muslim world. This is a central motivation for Al Qaeda. The sooner the U.S. can lessen its dependence on Middle East oil, the sooner we can end of military presence in the Gulf.
- The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. No American president should put Israel's security at risk. But the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its seemingly endless conflict with the Palestinians, all backed by the United States, is seen as an outrage shared across the Muslim world. Bringing some semblance of peace to the region through the realization of Palestinian national aspirations must be among our highest diplomatic priorities. Sadly, Presidenyt Bush, afraid to put his political capital at risk, has let the conflict fester for four and a half years.
- The American Presence in Iraq. The United States must not let Iraq become the next Somalia, or worse, Afghanistan. The U.S. must continue to fight bring stability, if not western-style democracy, to Iraq. And then we must go. Any hopes for a permanent network of U.S. bases in Iraq or de facto control of its oil industry virtually ensures ongoing conflict.
Victory against Al Qaeda will be achieved over years, even decades and at great cost in both blood and treasure. But it can be achieved by first understanding the nature of the enemy's grievances and where American policy changes are possible or impossible.
Defeating Al Qaeda will be difficult enough without, as John Quincy Adams famously said, going "in search of monsters to destroy." Russia's war with Chechen separatists is not our war. Abu Sayyef in the Philippines and Kashmiri militants are not a threat to the United States, at least not now. The Chinese assault on its Muslim Uighur population is not one we should condone. And critical though Israel's security may be as American foreign policy objective, its conflict with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine is not our conflict. Not all terrorisms are our terrorisms.
The sooner Americans come to grips with that, the better our prospects for beating back the Al Qaeda threat. Until then, the policy of the Bush administration should bear a more accurate name - Global Struggle for the Political Opportunity of Terrorism (G-SPOT).