Bush Got the Basic Counterterrorism Strategy Right

Compile every reasoned criticism of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war against terrorism and one undisputable fact remains: In the five years since the catastrophe of 9/11, the United States has not been attacked again.
That’s a startling reality that no one thought likely or even possible in the ghastly wake of Sept. 11, 2001. When Americans awoke on that terrible September morning to the frightening vulnerability of their free and open society to terrorist mayhem, it was virtually a given that we would be hit again.

That it hasn’t happened in five long years is hardly a matter of luck. Nor, certainly, is it because of any forbearance by Osama bin Laden and the murderous fanatics of al-Qaeda. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte revealed Thursday that al-Qaeda had planned a series of follow-up attacks including a 2002 plot to crash hijacked airliners into buildings on the West Coast.

Plans for all of these attacks, including one involving the use of deadly anthrax as a biological weapon, were disrupted in time to prevent them.

Bin Laden and his cohorts still would like nothing better than to top 9/11 with something more horrendous yet; something that would kill not thousands of Americans but tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands. Those who know bin Laden and any who have studied his regularly repeated summons to jihad have no doubt that he would use a weapon of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical or biological – against the United States if he could.

That al-Qaeda and its allies among radical Islamists – and, yes, Islamic fascism is an apt description of their ideology of mass murder – have failed to strike the American homeland again obviously isn’t because they haven’t tried or don’t intend to. Count it as a given that al-Qaeda’s surviving operational commanders are constantly looking for opportunities to wreak new havoc on their paramount target.

They’ve failed, so far, for a multitude of reasons. Of those, one stands out as supremely important. While rescue parties were still digging through the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center towers, President Bush made a strategic decision that would define the war against terrorism.

The United States would wage a global offensive war against the terrorists. Because no perfect defense could ever be devised, preemptive attack would henceforth be the guiding doctrine of U.S. strategy. Find the terrorists, then kill or capture them before they could attack again.

This doctrine of preemption, always inherent in every nation’s right of self-defense, nonetheless seemed a startling departure for the United States. America’s traditional defense had relied on well-armed vigilance and deterrence. But deterrence doesn’t work against suicidal terrorists and conventional military power alone isn’t a reliable defense against the asymmetric warfare of terrorism.

Thus, Bush’s bold decision to launch an unrelenting offensive against an enemy that could not be deterred and with whom negotiations were pointless was the only feasible strategy for defeating the terrorists. America’s successes to date, and they are considerable, against al-Qaeda trace directly to Bush’s decision to go on the offensive.

A month after 9/11, a U.S.-led coalition attacked al-Qaeda’s nation-state base in Afghanistan. Within weeks, and at a remarkably slight cost in lives, al-Qaeda was routed and its state sponsor, Afghanistan’s repressive Taliban regime, was overthrown.

Since then, most of al-Qaeda’s original command structure has been neutralized or destroyed. As of last week, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 13 other top al-Qaeda operatives, many deeply involved in the 9/11 plot, were CIA captives at Guantanamo. Bin Laden remains the world’s most wanted fugitive, likely hounded from cave to cave just across the Pakistan border from Afghanistan. Beyond symbolism, his operational value to al-Qaeda now is almost certainly nil.

Much is made of the Bush administration’s supposed alienation of U.S. allies in prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda.

But, in fact, al-Qaeda cells around the world have been cracked open and eliminated with the active assistance of foreign intelligence agencies; among them those of Pakistan, the Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Jordan, Egypt, Germany, Britain, France and Italy.

In Afghanistan, active military operations against a Taliban resurgence include NATO troops from Britain, France, Canada and Germany fighting alongside U.S. and Afghan forces.

All this defies the pernicious myth perpetuated by Bush critics of a willfully unilateralist United States fighting the war on terror by itself.

The same critics indict Bush for a colossal strategic blunder in invading Iraq – a massive distraction, they insist, from the real imperative of wiping out al-Qaeda. Bush’s counter, just as ardently argued, is that Iraq is the central front in the larger war on terror. As partial proof, Bush notes the prominent role of al-Qaeda’s subsidiary, formally designated al-Qaeda in Iraq, in the Sunni-based insurgent terrorism that is convulsing Iraq.

Even if history’s final judgment faults the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s tyranny by force (and that remains an open question), the facts on the ground support Bush’s contention that Iraq has indeed become a major battle in the counterterrorism war. A premature American retreat would risk leaving Iraq a broken, failed state and a new base for al-Qaeda.

Viewed thus, staying in Iraq long enough to secure a functioning, and counterterrorist, Iraqi democracy is very much an integral part of the larger global war against Islamic extremism.

Bush and others in the administration are also right to describe this war against terror as preeminently an ideological struggle. It pits the liberal democracies of the West and the global rule of law and civilization they embody against the jihadist vision of an extremist Islamic revival pursued through nihilistic terror. The resulting struggle is fundamentally irreconcilable by negotiation or compromise.

Any tallying of the war on terror five years after 9/11 must, of course, concede the Bush administration’s mistakes, many of them serious.

Bush contributed to the dissolution of America’s post-9/11 domestic unity (though not without lots of help from his political opponents). His handling of Iraq and related issues drove fissures into the cohesion of the West and diminished America’s stock of moral authority around the world. His administration’s conduct of Iraq operations has been marred by blunders and misjudgments.

Yet, Bush still deserves credit for getting the basic counterterrorism strategy right, and for seeing this struggle as the epic clash it is.

Keeping America safe for the five years since 9/11 is an undeniable result.