by Robert Dreyfuss
In August, even before the official announcement that some two dozen would-be terrorists had been arrested in London, President Bush and his top advisers swung into action. Their goal was not to stop the terrorists, who were already safely behind bars, but to use the threat to justify the president’s seemingly endless “War on Terror.”
The problem is, almost everything that President Bush understands about his own war on terrorism is wrong. According to nearly a dozen former high-ranking officials who have been on the front lines of the administration’s counterterrorism effort, the president is not only fighting the wrong war — he is fighting it in a way that has actually made the threat worse. The war on terrorism, they say, has been mismanaged and misdirected almost from the start, in no small part because the president simply does not understand the nature of the enemy he is fighting.
“I hate the term ‘global war on terrorism,’ ” says John O. Brennan, a CIA veteran who served as the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the primary organization set up by Bush to analyze all intelligence about terrorism and coordinate strategic operational planning. “I hate the tough talk, you know, the ‘we’re gonna kill these guys’ stuff.”
Brennan is not alone. In a survey conducted this summer, more than 100 top foreign-policy experts — including former secretaries of state, CIA directors and high-ranking Pentagon officials — were asked if the president is “winning the War on Terror.” Eighty-four percent said no. Five years after the attacks of September 11th, the administration has failed to grasp the shifting realities of terrorism. If the United States is to have any chance at preventing another terrorist attack — as the British government apparently did in London last month — there are five essential lessons the president needs to learn:
1. AL QAEDA HAS BEEN VIRTUALLY ELIMINATED AS A THREAT
Although the administration continues to scare Americans with the specter of Al Qaeda, the organization that attacked the United States on 9/11 has been virtually wiped out. While Osama bin Laden and a number of Al Qaeda veterans are still at large, the force that assaulted New York and Washington has been effectively dismantled. “I personally don’t believe Al Qaeda exists as a robust organization anymore,” says Wayne White, a top intelligence official in the State Department who left the Bush administration last year.
2. WHAT WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT AL QAEDA CAN STILL HURT US
If the president had kept his focus on capturing bin Laden, top officials say, he might have been able to declare a swift victory. Instead, Bush shifted from going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to going after Saddam Hussein in Iraq — a decision with fateful consequences for U.S. security. “Iraq broke our back in the War on Terror,” says Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s Al Qaeda unit until 2004.
3. THE THREAT HAS GONE VIRAL
By failing to “smoke out” bin Laden as promised, the president has given hope to a new generation of freelance terrorist cells, Islamist copycats and Al Qaeda wanna-be’s. “We let them get away,” says a retired CIA station chief. “We took a relatively centralized organization and turned it into a generalized virus. Before Afghanistan, we were facing somewhat of a unified threat. We now have the equivalent of a phantom that we’re fighting.”
4. FIGHTING TERRORISM IS FOR COPS AND SPIES, NOT SOLDIERS
For President Bush, the way to stop terrorism is to wage a war. But isolated terrorists who conspire in the suburbs of London and coordinate their attacks on jihadist Web sites can’t be defeated by armies — they can only be stopped by a combination of patient, old-fashioned police work and good intelligence. Indeed, the success of the British police and Scotland Yard in halting the recent threat in London represents a textbook example of how terrorists can be thwarted.
5. TERRORISM CAN’T BE DEFEATED – EVER
Terrorism is not an enemy, but a method. As such, it can never be defeated — only contained and reduced. Even if the United States were to wipe out every terrorist cell in the world today, terrorism would be back tomorrow, because new grievances and new cries for revenge will continue to create new terrorists. In addition, there will always be violence-prone, armed insurgent groups that use terrorist methods in conflicts around the world, from Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon to rebel and dissident groups in Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Spain, Colombia, the Philippines and the Congo.
This post is based on an article that first appeared in Rolling Stone. To see the complete article, click here.