Should There be a “War on Terror”?

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 24, 2007

Parts one and three of a four-part debate between Philip Gordon and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, about the war on terror.

Dear Reuel,

I hope you’ve had a chance to read my new book, Winning the Right War, which I sent you last month. As you’ll have seen, I argue that for six years now we’ve been waging the wrong “war on terror,” putting too much emphasis on military force, tough talk, and unilateral action, when instead we should be fighting a patient, long-term ideological battle–much in the way we successfully waged a war against Communism during the Cold War. The reason the Cold War is a better analogy than any other (and especially better than the World War II analogy now implied with all the recent talk of “World War III” or “World War IV”) is that it wasn’t really a war at all. Ultimately we won it not on the battlefield but in the hearts and minds of people all over the world–including our direct adversaries at the time.

I’m sure you’ll have plenty of quibbles, but I wonder if you would at least accept my starting point, which is that six years after the start of President Bush’s war on terror, the strategy is failing. Iraq is a terrorist recruitment center, Al Qaeda is reorganizing along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still at large, America’s standing in the world is at an all-time low, Hamas and Hezbollah are growing in strength, Iran is increasingly defiant, and democracy, far from being “on the march,” is in retreat. It’s true that the U.S. homeland has not been attacked since 2001, which is obviously an important accomplishment and good news–but terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world have been more than twice as numerous in the six years since 9/11 as in the six years preceding it. I think any objective observer would have to agree that the balance sheet for this war so far is pretty dismal.

There are no doubt lots of reasons for our current predicament, but if I had to pick one I would say we have failed to appreciate the central role of morality in the ideological struggle in which we are now engaged. The Bush administration, reacting to a shocking attack on the U.S. homeland, took the view that the wounds America suffered were so grievous and the threat it faced was so great that the United States had to set aside the norms that would otherwise guide its domestic and international actions. It concluded that the stakes were too high to allow our armed forces, intelligence agencies, military interrogators, and political leaders to be constrained in the way they went about dealing with a ruthless foe. In so doing, however, I believe they squandered our moral authority, for which we’ll be paying a price for many years to come. More than any other single mistake, this underestimation of the importance of our moral standing has made America less safe and less strong.

Having read your pieces on this issue in The Weekly Standard over the years, I know you’re skeptical. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to believe, like Vice President Cheney, that “terrorists only understand force,” and that issues like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons, detainee abuse, and other such blights on America’s moral standing have in fact had very little impact on our success in the fight against terrorism. Do I understand your position correctly? I wonder if you agree with John Yoo, the former Justice Department legal adviser, who minimizes the role of America’s global standing by asking “What president would put America’s image in the United Nations above the protection of innocent civilian lives?”

You see, Reuel, I think that “America’s image” is in many ways what this fight is all about. It is not a question of simply being liked by others, or even doing the right thing for our own peace of mind, but of pursing national self-interest by not providing fodder for those who are prepared to resort to violence because of America’s “image.” It is true that core Al Qaeda members can not be mollified by a U.S. commitment to implement the Geneva Conventions. But it is also true that in a political war of ideas, millions of people around the world are judging U.S. actions to determine whether they want to be on America’s side, fight against it, or sit on the fence. There is no doubt that Muslim anger over Iraq or the treatment of detainees is sometimes manufactured, manipulated, and exaggerated. But there is also no doubt that some U.S. actions have intensified genuine feelings of antipathy–even violent hatred–of the United States among a wide swath of the world’s Muslim population. When pictures and stories from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Iraq circulate on jihadist websites, they serve as gifts to al Qaeda recruiters who are fighting a propaganda war against the United States. We need to fight and win that war, too, not deny that it is taking place–or inadvertently work for the other side.

The case for treating prisoners humanely–and implicitly the case against the administration’s track record–is made persuasively in the U.S. Army counterinsurgency manual, drafted by General David Petraeus. The manual emphasizes that “any human rights abuses or legal violations committed by U.S. forces quickly become known throughout the local populace and eventually around the world,” and therefore that such abuses “undermine both long-term and short-term [counterinsurgency] efforts.” By making this point, Petraeus is echoing the lessons identified more than forty years ago in David Galula’s classic book Counterinsurgency Warfare, which drew on the author’s experience with the French army in Algeria. Galula argued that the most effective way to demoralize enemy forces was not through abuse or torture, but rather “by employing a policy of leniency toward prisoners.” Over the long run, he argued, lenient treatment saps the anger of the insurgents and makes it harder for them to bring in new recruits.

The question of America’s “image” is also important when it comes to winning allied support for the fight against terrorism. Allies like Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are severely undermined when they have to explain to their people why they should work closely with a country that has a documented reputation for abusing Muslim prisoners. Similarly, when parliaments in Britain, Spain, Italy, South Korea, or Japan vote on whether to send troops to Afghanistan, allow base access for U.S. forces, vote with the United States at the UN, or expand intelligence cooperation, they inevitably take into account their publics’ perceptions of America’s “image.” And it is indisputable that our moral authority is being questioned, even by our closest allies. When even The Economist is calling our policies “unworthy of a nation which has cherished the rule of law from its very birth” you know we’ve lost a serious amount of credibility among our most reliable supporters.

What can the United States do to restore its damaged moral authority? There are no quick fixes, but here are three steps a new administration should take. (And frankly, at this point, I think it’s better to wait for a new administration, because the Bush administration’s credibility is unrecoverable.)

One is simply to close the Guantanamo prison, and finally prosecute, transfer, deport, or release its remaining prisoners. Such a step would not be without risk, as the released prisoners might seek to commit terrorist acts, as some of them have reportedly threatened to do. But the advantages of removing this stain on America’s reputation outweigh the risks. After five years in isolation in a U.S. prison, the remaining detainees are unlikely to possess any significant intelligence value. Moreover, the most clearly dangerous among the prisoners can be tried by military commissions or even civilian courts and, if found guilty, sentenced to long and legitimate prison terms. Others could be sent back to their home countries and tracked by U.S. or other intelligence services. That tracking would doubtless be imperfect, but as some of the detainees reestablish old contacts it might also produce new intelligence leads (and creative leaks that they had “turned” while in prison could sow suspicions among their cohorts). While the idea of releasing even one person who might turn to terrorism is certainly abhorrent, the sad reality is that there seems to be no shortage of willing, angry, and resentful young Muslim men to serve as operatives for international extremist groups. Indeed, continuing to hold prisoners at Guantanamo probably creates more potential terrorists than would releasing those that remain.

A second essential step will be for the United States to revise its policies on the Geneva Conventions and torture. The next president should declare that the Geneva Conventions will be applied to all detainees and that no detained suspect will be held incommunicado without periodic visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. This policy would officially rescind George W. Bush’s December 2005 “signing statement” after the McCain Amendment, in which Bush effectively said that the as president he did not feel obliged to follow that amendment’s provisions, even though they were now the law of the land. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that whatever information we may be able to get out of people by mistreating them is reliable enough to compensate for the real costs of crossing that moral line.

Finally, a new administration must commit to a policy of greater transparency, to reassure Americans and non-Americans alike that the era of secret prisons, warrantless wiretaps, and secret financial monitoring programs is over. If it’s our policy not to torture, why maintain secret prisons abroad, whose sole purpose would seem to be to preserve the ability to do so? Transparency does not mean that the United States will cease to engage in covert or intelligence activities vital to the nation’s security, but simply that it acknowledges and publicly defends the need for those activities. The type of actions the United States is undertaking will be revealed, but the details will not be.

As you know, Reuel, in Winning the Right War I argue that one of the key lessons of the Cold War was that since we couldn’t win it on the battlefield at an acceptable cost, the only option was to win over hearts and minds, depriving the enemy of recruits until it ultimately collapsed. Don’t you think that lesson applies today? Our greatest weapons in this war are the values that distinguish us from our enemies. Given the mess we’re in, don’t you think it’s high time we deploy those weapons?



Part two, by Reuel Marc Gerecht

Dear Reuel,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. We have much to discuss.

Let me first reassure you that I’m not “galloping away” from the use of force in foreign affairs. To rule out the use of force and focus exclusively on “soft power” would be as foolish as to dismiss soft power as largely irrelevant–which is precisely what I fear we’ve been doing, at great cost, in practice if not by design. As I make clear in the book, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan was a necessary and legitimate response to 9/11 against a regime that was harboring those who carried out that atrocity. I even believe–unlike some of those German intellectuals and American pacifists you’re trying to lump me with–that there was a legitimate case for military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. I just feared that a U.S. invasion of that country could have all sorts of unpredictable costs and consequences and that the ensuing chaos in that country could prove to be more of a setback to the “war on terror” than an advance. Four years after the invasion, don’t you think those fears have proven well-founded, and that we should draw lessons from Iraq in thinking about how to move forward?

In rebutting my critique of the Bush administration (without, I notice, actually trying to defend its policies), you say that the United States needs to be “tough” and “considerably more aggressive” than what I am comfortable with. Can you spell out for me what that more aggressive approach means? Does it mean that you agree with your AEI colleague Newt Gingrich that we’re engaged in an “emerging World War III” and that we need to put more “energy, resources, and intensity” into the Bush approach? In World War II, of course, we mobilized 16 million men, spent nearly 40 percent of GDP on defense, operated the draft, and invaded and occupied a number of large countries in Europe and Asia. Is that what the World War III concept means today? If not, what does it mean? I’m all for using force when it can make us safer or improve people’s lives, but I worry that if we’re not careful it could lead us toward a massive and enduring conflagration or a “clash of civilizations” that will make everyone worse off. Don’t you?

I also gather from your letter that you think America needs to “get tough” not only to kill or capture the terrorists, but to deter them with the message that we’re not a “paper tiger.” President Bush and Vice President Cheney have also often made this argument, pointing to America’s failure to respond vigorously enough to incidents like the hostage crisis in Iran, the Marine barracks bombings in Lebanon, the first World Trade Center attacks, the killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the African embassy bombings, and the attack on the USS Cole. Bush says that the terrorists concluded that we “lacked the courage and character to defend ourselves” and that “the only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon the mission.” Cheney says America consistently failed to “hit back hard enough.”

I certainly don’t want America to be seen as a paper tiger or to let people believe they can attack us without paying a price, but I also want to avoid getting provoked into actions that would lead to more terrorism rather than less. Indeed, when Bush and Cheney ascribe blame for the 9/11 attacks on the failures of Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Clinton to respond vigorously enough to previous attacks, it is unclear what precisely they are suggesting should have been done in these cases. They do not say whether they believe Reagan should have ordered massive air strikes against Hezbollah targets–or if necessary invaded and occupied Lebanon–after the Marine barracks were bombed in 1983. Nor do they suggest which military targets would have been worth pounding in response to the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, or that they would have advocated sending an overwhelming number of troops to Somalia that same year. Indeed, the Somalia disaster took place because of a military operation to go after the warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid, presumably the sort of tough, retaliatory strategy that you, Bush, and Cheney have advocated. Advocates of force sometimes evoke the 1986 military strikes on Libya in retaliation for Muammar Qaddafi’s sponsorship of terrorism, again presumably the type of tough action you recommend to bolster our credibility. But reliance on that case conveniently overlooks the fact that the military strikes did not put an end to Libyan sponsorship of terrorism–including the bombing two years later of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people–and that Libya got out of the terrorism business only after a decade of broadly imposed UN sanctions.

I agree that credibility can be important in dealing with states or dictators who value their power and fear retaliation. Unfortunately, it seems less relevant to Islamic terrorists who have no power, are prepared to die, and see U.S. military retaliation as a recruitment tool. Clearly, Al Qaeda terrorists have not been cowed by the invasion of Iraq; if anything they have been inspired. In 2003, we presumably “hit them hard” enough, to use Cheney’s expression, but they don’t seem to have gone away. Instead, the invasion and occupation turned Iraq into a training and recruiting ground, which bin Laden has called a “golden opportunity” to start a “third world war” against “the crusader-Zionist coalition.” He has publicly said that his goal has been to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” throughout the Islamic world, to bankrupt it as the Soviet Union was bankrupted in Afghanistan. Reuel, I suspect you agree with Donald Rumsfeld’s saying that “weakness is provocative.” But it turns out that toughness can be provocative as well.

You ask me how I would respond to a specific case–a Khobar Towers II sponsored by the clerical regime in Tehran–and wonder if I would use force or “ignore it.” While much would depend on the details of the case–who exactly sponsored the attack, how certain we were about it, the scale, location, and context of the attack, what targets were available, etc.–I would say yes, I would in principle be prepared to use military force as part of a response. But the problem, Reuel, is that most terrorist attacks are simply not going to fit in the category of clearly identified, state-sponsored terrorism against which a military response might be advisable. Rather, as is the case for most of the attacks that have been carried out in Europe and elsewhere over the past few years, the attackers are more likely to be cells vaguely linked to Al Qaeda and individuals who may or may not have received training or financing in the uncontrolled regions of northwest Pakistan. In that more likely case, whom do we hit, and how? Would you advocate airstrikes in the Pakistani tribal areas? If that didn’t work, would you send in U.S. ground forces? If the ground forces provoked resistance on the ground or led Pakistanis elsewhere in the country to undertake further terrorism against American targets, what would you do then, use more force? You have, in other words, read me correctly. I do argue in Winning the Right War that our reaction to terrorist attacks can prove even more costly than the terrorist attacks themselves, and therefore there are indeed cases in which we should not respond militarily. I believe that at a minimum we need to think through military actions several steps in advance rather than lash out against whatever targets might be available for the sake of looking tough or feeling good. Do you have a different view?

Let me also respond to your comments about the relative size of the terrorist threat. By pointing out that Americans are more likely to die in traffic accidents or murdered on the streets than to die in a terrorist attack, I don’t mean to belittle the risk of terrorism, which is serious and requires a serious response. I do, however, want to caution Americans that attempting to eliminate this threat entirely is not only unrealistic but could be highly counterproductive. The threat of terrorism is so horrifying that it is easy to be frightened into the feeling that we must do “whatever it takes” to reduce that threat to zero. Two of your other AEI colleagues, David Frum and Richard Perle, have written that the choice comes down to “victory or holocaust.” Thinking in those terms is likely to lead the United States into a series of wars, abuses, and overreactions more likely to perpetuate the war on terror than to bring it to a successful end.

You associate yourself with John Yoo’s comments about our image in the United Nations being less important than the protection of innocent civilian lives and invite me to return to that point. What I meant to get at in my (admittedly poorly phrased) question to you was whether you agree that Yoo has accurately described the choice we face when we decide how to handle detainees. His point seemed to be that the consequences of our rejecting the Geneva Conventions or mistreating prisoners do not go beyond our “image in the United Nations” and that the benefits of doing so include the “protection of innocent civilian lives.” I think that formulation vastly understates the costs to the United States of losing its reputation as a land of values and the rule of law and overstates the degree to which torture–let’s call it that–helps protect civilian lives. In 2005 Senator John McCain eloquently made the case against torture and called on the United States to prohibit “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” of any detainee held by U.S. authorities. Vice President Cheney tried unsuccessfully to get the CIA exempted from this prohibition, and after the amendment was overwhelmingly approved by the Congress, President Bush issued a “signing statement” effectively saying that he reserved the right to ignore the law of the land. Don’t you think we pay a price for this? Don’t you think that winning this long-term ideological battle is the best way to protect innocent civilian lives?

Of course, Reuel, I do not think that Al Qaeda terrorists would come streaming down the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan to lay down their weapons if only we treated prisoners more humanely. I do, however, think that there are millions if not tens of millions of people out there deciding whether they want to be “with us, or with the terrorists,” to coin a phrase. I do not know exactly where the tipping point lies for many of them, but I do believe that our reputation and moral authority plays a role in their decision, and that it’s a lot more sensible to try to undercut the motivations for people to become or support terrorists than to kill or capture a growing number of terrorists. So no, I don’t think Jordan’s internal security service has a problem cooperating with us because of Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo, but I do think those services have a bigger problem on their hands because of those symbols of American misdeeds. And no, I don’t think that our negative “image” undercuts the willingness of European security agencies to cooperate with us, but I do believe that it costs us dearly in terms of our allies’ willingness to support our efforts with money and troops (in places like Afghanistan), to vote with us at the UN (on issues like Iran), to allow America basing or overflight rights (remember the close vote in the Turkish parliament in 2003), or sometimes even to elect and appoint leaders and officials sympathetic to the United States. Democracies are great, Reuel, but remember that in democracies leaders can only cooperate with us when their people agree.

And perhaps the issue of democracy is a good one on which to put the ball back in your court. You say that my book does not include enough criticism of the region’s kings and dictators, and that’s fair enough. I agree with you that repressive regimes, and our support for them, are part of the problem. I don’t think my focus on U.S. policy is as incongruous as you suggest, however, simply because we as Americans actually have some say over what our own government does, whereas it’s rather more difficult to positively influence the conduct of the Egyptian security services. So, yes, let’s press for more openness in those societies, let’s invest in efforts (like legal training, education, economic development, and empowerment of women) that make democracy more plausible, let’s end the hypocrisy of turning our backs when they torture prisoners, let’s get on the right side of promising democracy movements in places like Pakistan and Turkey, and let’s stand up for those calling for more freedom in the region. But let us also not pretend that there’s a simple fix to this problem, or that “democracy” would automatically make things better rather than worse. You will say my argument is too timid but I’m curious about what your alternative is–what do you propose we do about the lack of democracy in the greater Middle East?

Let me end with something I think we agree on–that modernity is “the cause and probably the cure for rabid Islamic militancy, and as it marches on one can hope that Muslims will develop (rediscover) the ethics and the political machinery that will allow them to extirpate holy warriors from their midst.” Indeed, as you know, the last chapter of my book is entitled “What Victory Will Look Like,” and I spell out an optimistic vision of the day when Muslims have decided they do not want to be associated with terrorism, when the Al Qaeda ideology has been discredited even in the eyes of its potential adherents, and when Islamist terrorism fades as a problem because it fails to achieve its intended goals. It is this faith in the power of modernization–and in the power of our values–that bolsters the case for a cautious and patient approach to this conflict, and provides an alternative to the radical, offensive measures that will only prolong it. So perhaps we agree on the endgame–we just have very different ideas about the best way to bring it about.

I look forward to your response–and remind me next time not to agree to give you the last word.



Part four, by Reuel Marc Gerecht