America’s War on Terrorism One Year On

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

September 12, 2002

One year on, how goes America’s war on terrorism? In many respects, much better than expected. At the outset, there was widespread fear that the Bush administration would lash out blindly and alone against America’s real and perceived enemies. That did not happen, at least initially. But in recent months the administration has begun to give substance to the critics’ fears, raising troubling questions about whether it can duplicate the early successes in the war on terrorism.

Bush’s initial rhetoric, dividing the world into good and evil, reinforced concern that the United States would use its overwhelming military might to strike at terrorist targets and the states that harbor them all around the globe, greatly curtail civil liberties, and deal with the symptoms that produced the terror rather than the underlying causes. Bush soon disappointed his critics—and the results have been significant.

Far from lashing out militarily, the U.S. moved with deliberation in the initial weeks after the attack. Its most immediate target was Afghanistan. But instead of striking without warning, Bush gave the Taliban a firm ultimatum—and a second chance to hand over Osama bin Laden and the rest of the Al Qaeda leadership in return for American forbearance.

The U.S. struck only when the Taliban rebuffed the offer. Within weeks, the regime had fallen from power and Afghanistan was freed of its terrorist embrace. A new government was inaugurated, and a political process aimed at reconciliation among long-warring factions commenced. Together with scores of its coalition partners, the United States led a major reconstruction effort in Afghanistan while military forces from over a dozen countries maintain security within the land. Afghanistan may not be paradise, but things are far better now than many expected when B-52 bombers began to drop their devastating payload last October.

American military engagement against global terrorism has been measured in other respects. Concern that Afghanistan would be followed by forced interventions in Somalia, Sudan, and other places where terrorists hide have not been borne out. Instead, Washington offered military assistance to a variety of countries, sending small troop contingents to the Philippines, Yemen, and Georgia to train and assist local security forces in their battles with terrorist groups. Their training completed, the Americans have since left.

The military successes have been duplicated in other areas. Washington has worked well with key allies to track and shut down terrorist cells, as critical arrests in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Pakistan, and elsewhere demonstrate. And cooperation in stemming the flow of terrorist finances has put more than $100 million out of reached and made many of terror’s potential financiers wary of continuing their trade. It is impossible to know the full impact of these actions, but there is no doubt that increased vigilance and cooperation has put a significant dent in the terrorist network.

As for fears that a U.S. government shocked by the magnitude of the Sept. 11 attacks would lash out at real or perceived enemies at home, the actual response has been far less threatening than some of the Bush administration’s own rhetoric suggests. To be sure, there have been disturbing developments—from an initial refusal to abide by the Geneva Conventions and the establishment of military courts to placing “enemy combatants” outside the legal system and secretly detaining illegal immigrants. But there has been no suspension of habeas corpus, no wholesale internment of designated minorities, no systematic attacks on Muslims or men of Middle East descent.

Finally, the administration has focused not just on the symptoms but also on some of the underlying causes of terrorism. In Afghanistan, it destroyed an evil regime and then committed to building a more secure and stable alternative. It recognized that poverty and despair, while no excuse, often offers fertile ground for terrorism to flourish. So it committed to increasing U.S. spending on foreign aid by 50 percent.

All in all, the U.S. fought its war on terrorism with more restraint and greater open-mindedness than many had thought likely a year ago. Yet, in recent months there are disturbing signs that its hard-line ideological predilections are once again becoming dominant. Iraq has replaced Al Qaeda as the dominant threat. Unquestioning support for the way Israel confronts its terrorism has replaced America’s traditional mediating role. And the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice trio has seemingly replaced the moderating influence of Colin Powell in the councils of state. None of this bodes well for the second year in America’s war on terrorism

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At the sixth-month mark in the war on terrorism, the Bush administration deserved high marks. It had destroyed Al Qaeda’s base of operations, ousted the repressive Taliban government, and forged unprecedented international cooperation on intelligence and law enforcement. These achievements came with few of the mistakes that the administration’s many critics had predicted.

Twelve months after September 11, however, the administration’s record looks less impressive. The war on terrorism has lost its clear focus, and the United States now runs the risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The first sign of trouble came in January when President Bush denounced Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” By insisting that these countries “pose a grave and growing danger,” the president implied—but never explicitly said—that the United States would use its military power to change their regimes. That would greatly expand the focus of the war on terrorism.

Political reality quickly forced the White House to rule out military attacks—at least as far as Iran and North Korea were concerned. But Iraq was a different matter. The Bush administration is right that Saddam Hussein’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction threatens the United States and his neighbors. But its objective and strategy for dealing with him are misguided.

Rather than setting its sights on forcing Saddam to accept UN weapons inspectors, the administration has made his overthrow the goal. However desirable that end might be—and few would lament Saddam’s demise—the reality is that few countries are prepared to support the United States in the endeavor. Yet, by raising the prospect that it will move unilaterally against Baghdad, Washington is further alienating its closest allies, many of which are already angry about its unilateral dismissal of the Kyoto treaty, the international criminal court, and the biological weapons protocol among other issues.

Perhaps President Bush will pull back from making war on Iraq. But even if he heeds allied advice to slow the march to war, two other aspects of his recent policies augur poorly for the future.

One is that administration’s engagement in the war on terrorism seems to have led to its disengagement from most other foreign policy issues. The United States has contributed little to resolving transnational problems such as global warming and the spread of infectious diseases. The effort to recast America’s historically difficult relationship with Mexico has stalled, while financial upheavals elsewhere in Latin America pass largely ignored. And America’s traditional role as Middle East mediator seems to have given way to unquestioned support for Israel.

Administration officials say they continue to work these and other issues quietly. But when the world’s lone superpower lets issues languish, the signal it sends to the rest of the world is that their problems don’t matter.

The other troubling development has been Bush’s reluctance to do more than talk about democracy’s role in winning the war on terrorism. Within days of September 11 the administration embraced autocrats around the globe as part of its strategy for defeating Al Qaeda. The decision was understandable. Washington needed help and couldn’t afford to quibble about how its new friends obtained power.

What is surprising is America’s embrace of autocrats remains tight. Bush dismissed complaints about General Musharraf’s recent extra-constitutional power grab, noting “he’s still tight with us in the war on terror, and that’s what I appreciate.” Washington turns a blind eye to dictatorial rule in Central Asia and Russian abuses in Chechnya. Nor can it bring itself to suggest, however meekly, that democratic rule would be good for Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well as for Iraq.

This inaction makes the United States look willing to trade in the freedom of others so it can enjoy liberty for itself. Worse yet, it increases future threats to the United States. It is no accident that the September 11 hijackers all came from countries where democratic debate has no place.

The Bush administration’s fixation with Iraq, its disengagement on many foreign policy issues, and its lip service to democracy are frittering away the good will that the United States enjoyed immediately after the terrorist attacks. In too many countries talk has shifted from how “We are all Americans” to complaints about America the selfish bully.

This complaint leaves many in the Bush administration unmoved. They insist that other countries recognize America’s essential goodness, and will rally to its side when needed.

Perhaps. But America’s friends and allies may also decide to follow the administration’s lead—worry about your own interests, ignore those of others. If so, the United States could find itself pursuing the war on terrorism with a diminishing set of followers.