On Memorial Day weekend, forty-four months after President George W. Bush told Americans that we are at war, The Washington Post reported that his administration is going to try figuring out who the enemy really is whose defeat would give Americans some benefit from the war. It seems that the U.S. government has finally realized that killing every last person associate with the organization that the U.S. government supposes carried out the 9/11 attackssomething that has largely happened alreadydoes little if anything to stop terrorist attacks on Americans. Readers of my "Victory Watch" series in The Claremont Review of Books (forthcoming as No Victory, No Peace from Rowman & Littlefield) did not have to wait so long for this insight.
As I reported in 2001, the Bush team accepted the view of CIA and the Clinton Administration that terrorist attacks on Americans were the work of "loose networks" of rogue individuals. Terrorism was largely a police problem to be solved with the help of Arab regimes. The practical problem, as the administration saw it, was that these rogue individuals were being protected by the Afghanistan's Taliban regime. Destroy that regime, hunt down al-Qaeda, support Arab causes to get the Arabs to help crack down on extremists, and the war would be over. But it took a lot of willful blindness to stick to that view. Immediately after 9/11 a wave of rejoicing swept the Arab world. For reasons secular as well as religious, semi-religious, and pseudo-religious, millions of people encouraged by their regimes' official voices and attitudes looked on Americans as ripe for the picking. The Bush team's approach of befriending causes inimical to America in order to get help against those who act on those causes' behalf made no sense to me.
Nor, it seems did it make sense entirely for President Bush. Somehow, he intuited that the existence of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime was key to anti-American terror. But his administration was divided on this, and the president just managed to orchestrate an invasion without thinking through what role it would play in the overall war. Pressed to make some sense of what he was doing, the president said that anti-American terror stemmed from the fact that the peoples of the Middle East do not live democratically. Give them freedom and democracy, and they will be at peace with us. Hence the purpose of the American occupation of Iraq and of U.S. activities in the region became getting people to vote.
But that made no sense either. Especially to the U.S. government. In practice, the U.S. government has ignored the express result of the January 2005 Iraqi electionsShi'ites and Kurds desire above all to rid their army and intelligence service of Ba'athist collaborators. The U.S. government's first priority is to keep them and get more of their un elected ilk into the government. Similarly, the U.S. government supports the secular Palestinian Authority's Fatah tampering with its elections because it fears that the religious Hamas will beat out Fatah. Meanwhile, neither in Lebanon and Syria, nor in Saudi Arabia does the Bush team actually pursue democracy, out of fear of instability.
Per se, none of the above suggests that the administration's cautions and concerns are mistaken. But surely, obviously, they spell out that the administration has no idea who it is fighting, how to defeat them, and what good it might do.
Hence we owe one cheer to the announcement that a new portfolio has been created in the National Security Council to study the basic strategic question. Its starting point is the opposite what President Bush adopted on September 12, 2001al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and similar chieftains are the problem. They are gone. That Saddam himself was the problem. Now he is gone. What is the problem? The problem, it seems now, is "violent extremism" itself. But, reports the Post, U.S. officials are perplexed by the fact that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, are part of regimes, and like regimes have political roles and followings.
The truly perplexing thing is that officials find it strange that one or more organized communities, possessing assets and leading people by a variety of political means should be making war and could be the target of our own war-making.
It seems that the Bush Administration has only just begun to think about the war we are in. Better late than never.