In his speech defining American policy on Sept. 20, President George W. Bush explained what he meant by declaring “war on terror” and told the American people what it will mean to them. Overall, it was a strong presentation, with some parts exactly right, but it also contains errors that urgently require fixing.
Let’s start with five good points:
- The enemy’s goal: It’s “not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life.” That involves “remaking the world – and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.” The president shows no illusions that al-Qaida’s problem is American freedoms or U.S. policy in the Middle East but something far more ambitious – the very existence of the United States in its present form. As he put it, “In Afghanistan, we see al-Qaida’s vision for the world,” one which applies no less to New York than to Kabul.
- The enemy’s nature: It is the heir “of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century … they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism.” (What happened to communism, though? Omitted so as not to offend China?)
- The enemy’s method: Individuals from more than 60 countries are recruited, taken mainly to Afghanistan, trained, then sent to “hide in countries around the world to plot evil and destruction.”
- The enemy’s brutality: Its leadership “commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans, and make no distinction among military and civilians, including women and children.”
- Defining the problem: The airline hijackings on Sept. 11 constituted an “act of war.” They were not crimes but part of a concerted military effort by al-Qaida, “a radical network of terrorists,” and the governments supporting it.
But the president also got five matters wrong:
- The enemy’s identity: He avoids calling America’s opponent by its name – militant Islam – preferring euphemisms like “terrorist group[s] of global reach.” Two problems here: Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy; and not explicitly defining the enemy leads to confusion and dissension.
- The enemy’s location: The address dealt only with foreign threats (“drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest,” “pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism”), ignoring the more delicate but equally vital U.S. domestic angle. The new “Office of Homeland Defense” is not just to protect Americans from foreign attack but extirpate the enemy within U.S. borders.
- The enemy’s appeal: The president dismissed al-Qaida’s version of Islam as a repudiated “fringe form of Islamic extremism.” Hardly. Muslims on the streets of many places – Pakistan and Gaza in particular – are fervently rallying to the defense of al-Qaida’s vision of Islam. Likewise, the president’s calling the terrorists “traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam” implies that other Muslims see them as apostates, which is simply wrong. Al-Qaida enjoys wide popularity – the very best the U.S. government can hope for is a measure of Muslim neutrality and apathy.
- U.S. goals: These are inconsistent. “Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of al-Qaida who hide in your land” implies that were the Afghan authorities to hand over a few individuals, the war effort would end, with no further concern about militant Islam. Contrarily, saying that the war effort will continue until “every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” implies an ambitious effort against the forces of militant Islam. This contradiction contains the seeds of future problems. Bush needs to clarify that the latter is his real goal.
- U.S. foreign policy: “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” This unrealistic bifurcation will not work in the real world of messy and competing interests. Preventing terrorism may seem like the only priority this week but it’s not likely to maintain such total paramountcy for long, and making policy on this basis will lead to problems.
In short, while the president showed an excellent understanding of militant Islam – calling it totalitarian was especially important – he shied away from specifying it as the enemy and made unrealistic statements about the nature of the struggle ahead. These mistakes need urgently to be fixed, before they do damage.