It's More Than a War; to Defeat Terrorism We Must Think beyond Bureaucratic Reform and Even beyond Military Force. What We Need Is a New Global Strategy

Newsweek, August 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

It's More Than a War; to Defeat Terrorism We Must Think beyond Bureaucratic Reform and Even beyond Military Force. What We Need Is a New Global Strategy


Byline: Fareed Zakaria

You know that the 9/11 Commission report has had a real impact because Congress has decided to meet in sweltering August to act on its recommendations. In fact, the report is fast achieving Biblical status. Both left and right cite its arguments to vindicate their claims. The Wall Street Journal editorial page believes that it confirms the Bush administration's version of events. Liberal columnists say it amply demonstrates Clinton's strong focus on Al Qaeda. This is in some part because the report is vast and detailed. If you search hard, you will find in it what you want.

But mostly the near-universal approval reflects the report's quality. It is that rare thing in Washington, a genuinely bipartisan product. It is thorough and fair, with a sense of history and of the breadth of its mandate. Because of extraordinary, almost unprecedented access to classified documents, it provides a unique bird's-eye view into decision making at the highest levels of government. It is also well written, rare for work that is the product of a committee. All of this makes for the most important report by an independent commission in decades.

And what does it say? The press has focused on its administrative recommendations: a new intelligence czar, new systems for congressional oversight of intelligence, homeland security and so on. Bureaucratic reforms are important. But all this attention on organization charts misses the big picture. What we need first and foremost is a grand strategy. The absence of such a comprehensive, long-term approach is the crucial gap in American policy. And it won't be solved by a better bureaucratic structure for intelligence.

The obsessive focus on bureaucratic reform is a product of a very American search for a simple solution. There's a problem; create a new government position to fix it. But what the 9/11 Commission report really does is take us back to basics, back to 9/12. The United States was attacked brutally by a new enemy, militant Islamic terror. How should we handle this threat? The commission puts forward a series of ideas and approaches in the first of two chapters of recommendations. This chapter ("What to Do?") precedes the one on organizational changes ("How to Do It"), which only makes sense. What the commission suggests doing is important, persuasive and a substantial departure from current policy.

The conclusion takes on the central organizing idea of the post-9/11 strategy--that we are at war--and is deeply skeptical of it. The report notes that the use of the metaphor of a war accurately describes the effort to kill terrorists in the field, as in Afghanistan. It also properly evokes the need for large-scale mobilization. But the report points out that after Afghanistan, the scope for military action is quite limited. "Long-term success," it concludes, "demands the use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense." Even when it speaks of preventive action it suggests "a preventive strategy that is as much, or more, political as it is military."

The report describes the struggle as "more than a war," but what the conclusions make plain is that it really means that it is different from war. Of the 27 recommendations in this chapter, only one can be seen as advocating the use of military force: attacking "terrorists and their organizations." And even that one, on closer inspection, is more complicated. The sanctuaries identified are in places like Pakistan, Thailand, and Nigeria and in Central and Eastern European cities with lax border controls. What are we to do, invade these countries? The only way that we will apprehend or kill suspected terrorists and disrupt their organizations is by cooperating with these governments.

It is increasingly clear that the conflict in Afghanistan falsely fed the idea that the war against terrorism was a real war. …

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