The “War on Terror” after Five Years

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

November 1, 2006

More than five years after declaring a “war on terror” in the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush does not have a lot to show for his efforts. It is true that the US homeland has not been attacked — but then again it wasn’t attacked in the five years prior to 9/11 either, so that may not be saying much.

There have, on the other hand, been considerably more terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world since 9/11 — including two major ones in Europe — than there had been in the previous five years. On top of that, in Iraq — the war’s “central front” according to the administration – tens of thousands of US and Iraqi soldiers and civilians have been killed and wounded, and 140,000 US troops are still struggling to prevent a civil war. In Iran, an Islamic fundamentalist regime is more secure in its power than ever, defiantly pursuing a nuclear programme and fomenting insecurity in Iraq. Palestine is now led by one terrorist group, Hamas, while another, Hezbollah, plays a major role in Lebanon after proclaiming victory in its war with Israel in August. Syria remains under an anti-American dictatorship, and the Arab-Israeli peace process is dead. Osama bin Laden remains at large, probably in the mountains of Pakistan, where the Taliban are making a comeback and destabilising Afghanistan. More broadly, US popularity and credibility in the Muslim world are at an all-time low, and polls show that long-time strategic allies like Turkey now feel closer to Iran than they do to the United States. Far from being “on the march”, democracy in the Middle East is in trouble, and where it has advanced in most cases it has produced unintended and mostly unwanted consequences. For a war that has now been going on for longer than American involvement in World War II, the balance sheet is pretty dismal.

The administration’s defenders argue that the challenge posed by radical Islamic terrorism is so enormous that critics should be more patient. Others argue that Bush is on the right track but simply failing to put sufficient resources and energy into the war effort. Newt Gingrich, a possible presidential candidate in 2008, argues that the struggle between the West and the forces of militant Islam should be considered an “emerging World War III” and that it can be won by mobilising more “energy, resources and intensity”.

It would be nice to believe that the main cause of America’s difficulties has been a lack of time or resources, but there are in fact few signs that things are moving in the right direction. Which probably explains why the White House strategy for the November 2006 Congressional elections has been based more on trying to frighten voters into voting Republican than on a defence of the Bush record. Indeed, after several years of giving speeches designed to persuade the public that the Iraq war was actually going well, Bush has given that up, and he and his aides now argue only that leaving Iraq precipitously would be a disaster (about which they happen to be right). “America is safer,” the President insists, “but it’s not safe yet,” (which is why you have to vote Republican).Vice President Cheney goes so far as to argue that even debating the Iraq war, as Democrats are wont to do, “encourages” the terrorists and “validates” their strategy. Apparently the administration likes democracy abroad more than it likes it at home.

Will Democrats cash in on Bush’s difficulties and come sweeping back to power? The White House strategy of relying on the Republicans’ longstanding advantage on national security issues worked pretty well in 2002 and 2004 and it just might work again in 2006. Moreover, the growing cost of campaigning and the ‘gerrymandering’ of Congressional districts to produce ‘safe seats’ have given so much power to incumbents that even a major shift in the direction of Democrats would only produce a minor gain in Congress. Still, with the Iraq war now so unpopular, and the Republican party increasingly tainted by scandal, Democrats may well take back one if not both houses of Congress. Whether that would be good for Democrats is another matter. If they want a shot at taking back the White House in 2008, their best bet might be leaving responsibility for the current mess in Republican hands, rather than sharing power during what will certainly be a very difficult two years.