Politics & Policy

Are We There Yet?

The elusive victory in the war on terrorism.

It has been five years since that brilliant day, slightly cool, under a cloudless deep blue sky, driving to work with the top down and noting to myself that mornings like that are rare. That was how it started anyway. You know the rest.

Now we are five years past it, engaged in a global war. World War II was over by now. Ft. Sumter had given way to Appomattox. Korea had wound down. World War I? We were only in that conflict a paltry 21 months. The Spanish-American War was 3.5 months of what we might call “major combat operations” in 1898 but the guerilla war that followed in the Philippines went on until 1902, maybe up to 1913. The Second Seminole War, one of my favorite forgotten counterinsurgencies (think the “oil spot” strategy is a revolutionary idea? Talk to Zachary Taylor), lasted from late December 1835 to August 1842. It cost the equivalent of half a billion dollars to suppress a few thousand Native Americans. Vietnam — well, depends on when you say it started. Maybe our involvement started in 1946. The Wall says 1959, but the earliest casualty on it dates back to 1956. U.S. offensive combat operations began in 1965. You can have the same discussion about the onset of the War on Terrorism. Was it 9/11? The Cole bombing in 2000? The 1993 World Trade Center bombing? The Barbary Pirates circa 1801?

Well, whenever it started, when will it end? Can we just declare victory and chalk it up as a win? No, we cannot, for two very important reasons.

One is political. Would you want to be the president who declared victory over terrorism? The terrorists would attack the next day if they had any sense at all. Even a small-scale incident would be enough to humiliate the administration. George Bush cannot do it. Nor can his successor. In the 2008 presidential race, neither side will say we should shift priorities and go back to the pre-war norm. Both sides will say they have a plan to fight the war better, smarter, whatever. It is too risky to do otherwise. Suppose you peg your candidacy on the idea the threat is not as dire as believed, and an attack comes a few weeks from the election? Suppose you are elected on the “we’ve won” platform, redirect resources, and then we get attacked? No, the war is here to stay. It will gradually fade out, like the war on drugs, technically still on but not in the limelight. Something else will take its place.

However, this leads to the second reason we cannot declare the war over, which is that the threat is still out there. We have had pointed reminders of this. Madrid, Mumbai, London 2005, and 2006. And have people already forgotten why we cannot take drinks or toothpaste on an aircraft? Imagine if last month’s plot to blow up transatlantic airliners had succeeded. Picture the devastation — physical, emotional, political. Our commemoration of 9/11 would be a very different affair. But it didn’t take place, nor have we suffered a major attack on our homeland since 9/11. It is ironic that the better we do at defeating the terrorists, the less people are convinced we are winning.

This is a potentially hazardous dynamic. The 9/11 Commission said the greatest failing on our part in the lead-up to the 2001 attacks was a failure of imagination. We were focused on the wrong threats. We did not take al Qaeda seriously. You could not make a career chasing down Muslim extremists. Sensible plans to take resolute action fell victim to weak leadership, deference to lawyers and a surfeit of political correctness.

Now the same group of politicians and policymakers who failed to appreciate the terrorist threat are threatening legal action over the depiction of their failure in a made for TV movie. One cannot help but note the irony of former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger saying the film distorts the historical record when, if he had his way, we would not know what the historical record is. I suggest ABC removes the scenes he objects to and puts in scenes showing Berger removing classified, highly sensitive documents from the 9/11 Commission reading room at the National Archives, stuffing them down his pants and socks, then cutting them up with scissors. For all we know the documents he destroyed attested to the accuracy of the ABC account. It is hard to believe that people of this caliber were in charge of our foreign policy, but on the other hand, it does make the growth of al Qaeda in the 1990s easier to comprehend.

9/11 is a time of release. The White House released a new National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. It is a refinement of the earlier strategies, more specific, a clearer guide to action for those government departments that choose to use it that way. Meanwhile the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report showing no pre-war ties between Iraq and al Qaeda, citing unbiased sources such as Saddam Hussein and his captive foreign minister Tariq Aziz. Apparently Saddam could never have worked with al Qaeda because he spoke ill of Osama in private counsels. What, FDR thought our wartime ally Joseph Stalin was the tops?

Finally, As Sahab Productions, al Qaeda’s in-house media distributor, released yet another tape from their seemingly limitless video vault. As expected, it got global airplay. There were no threats, no current information, just shots of Osama and his buddies from six years ago, two of whom were 9/11 hijackers. If nothing else the tape was a desperate plea for attention. Osama is telling his followers and us he is still relevant. Sure, the attacks since then have not been so spectacular, but he will recycle his greatest hit like any aging performer. Is there a terrorist equivalent of Branson or Vegas where he can go and relive the glory days eight performances a week? Maybe he can produce a one-man, off-Broadway show, “Infamy Becomes Me?”

It is an enduring embarrassment that we cannot seem to find bin Laden. Some say it would not make a difference if we did, at least operationally. That may be true; terrorist operatives do not need OBL to tell them what to do. Nevertheless, we need to find him. It would be a great strategic victory if we captured of killed the 9/11 mastermind. And it would satisfy our sense of justice.

It is puzzling that we cannot coordinate our government assets to complete this task. We have the resources. At the very least we should spread more money around. The ability to out-spend anyone is one of our most noteworthy advantages. Let’s raise the reward — if $25 million doesn’t work, how about $50 million? How about $100 million? At some level, the tribal leaders in Waziristan are going to see reason. If they do not, someone else will. Too rich for you just to have the satisfaction of getting Osama? Put it in perspective. The war in Iraq has cost us on average $10.3 million an hour. That is a quarter-billion dollars a day on Iraq. Would you trade a day of the Iraq war to have Osama bin Laden captured or killed? Sounds like a win-win to me. Maybe we can leave Iraq a day early and have more than one reason to celebrate.

 – James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.

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