Fighting the Right War

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 10, 2007

This week candidates in the 2008 presidential race will all reflect on the events of September 11, 2001 – and on the “war on terror” that we’ve been fighting ever since. Six years into this fight, are the United States and its allies better off than we were before it started? Sadly, I think the answer is no. While the U.S. homeland has not been attacked successfully since 9/11 – no small accomplishment – major terrorist attacks around the world have doubled compared to the six years prior to 9/11, Osama bin Laden remains at large, the United States is less popular than ever globally, we are bogged down in Iraq with no solution in sight, Iran has been emboldened, and the rest of the Middle East is dangerously unstable.

Some would argue that the administration’s strategy in the war on terror just needs more time. Others think it needs to be waged with more “energy, resources, and intensity” as Newt Gingrich puts it. But I think – as I argue in Winning the Right War – that the war on terror is failing because the administration is fighting the wrong war. It is fighting against an alleged single enemy, when the enemy is extremely diverse. It is putting its faith in tough talk and military power when ideology, intelligence, diplomacy, and defense are in fact more important. It is polarizing the public and alienating the world when national unity and international legitimacy are badly needed. It is focusing on a tactic, terrorism, when the real issue is how to address the political, diplomatic, social, and economic factors that lead people to use that tactic. And it is assuming there is a set number of terrorists who must be killed or captured when in fact the number of potential terrorists varies greatly, in part as a function of U.S. policy itself.

The next president should change course and adopt a strategy that consists of recognizing that, like the Cold War, the war on terror is not a traditional war that can be won by defeating the enemy militarily. As with the Cold War, we will win not on a battlefield, but only when the enemy’s ideology is defeated and our adversaries abandon it. That means focusing our efforts on containing the threat through better defense; preserving the values that we are trying to defend; providing hopes and dreams to those tempted by extremism; winning over the friends and allies we need; and choosing our battles carefully. A new president should express confidence that in the long run, Islamism will fail just like communism did – provided we do not inadvertently bolster it. If we are strong, smart, and patient, the right war on terror can be won.