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Clarity in Iraq: the war on terror

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Message Steve Denning
When you've got yourself into a goddamned mess and you're trying to figure out how to get yourself out of it, it usually isn't very helpful to spend your time trying to find someone else to blame. What makes more sense is to figure what intellectual errors led you there in the first place, so that you can find the right way forward. Nowhere is this truer in thinking about Iraq and the war on terror.

In the Democratic euphoria over the 2006 elections, it's easy for Democrats to forget that the majority of Democrats did their part in launching of the Iraq war by energetically supporting "the war on terror".

The idea of the "war on terror" emerged in President Bush's speech before Congress on September 20, 2001. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush identified the terrorist network, Al Qaeda, as the perpetrator of the attacks, and outlined the steps that would be taken to search out and destroy Al Qaeda.

If he had stopped there, we might not be in the mess we're in today. But at the end of that speech he also included several fateful sentences: "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." In the State of the Union address of January 2002, Bush extended the war on terror from terrorists to regimes: "we must prevent terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States."

Of all the various formulations of the US response to 9/11, the phrase "the war on terror' was the one that caught on. Both Republicans and Democrats embraced it. Although the Democrats put more emphasis on pursuing the war through diplomatic means and foreign assistance, there was no questioning as to whether it made sense to pursue a "war on terror". As a result, the possibility of an alternative to the attacks of 9/11 to pursuing a "war on terror" was for several years practically undiscussable in the public arena. This also short-circuited debate as to whether and to what extent the war in Iraq made any sense, and still gets in the way of figuring out what to do with the fact that the US is now there.

The argument goes: the US is fighting a war on terror. There are terrorists in Iraq. Therefore we must keep fighting for victory in Iraq in order to win the war on terror. Otherwise we will lose the war on terror. Which is unthinkable. Fight on! QED.

One problem with "the war on terror" is the notion of a war. As Nicholas Lemann pointed out in the New Yorker in September 2002, presidents have been declaring metaphoric war on non-traditional enemies at least since Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964. A "war" promises the public a dramatic effort to solve a terrible problem, and implicitly calls for the same bipartisan support that wars enjoy. "But" says Lemann, "wars are fought by military means and have definite endings. Terror like poverty and inflation and drugs will never sit at a desk and sign an unconditional surrender in front of television cameras." If we were clear in our thinking, we would see that terrorism is not something that can be fought principally by military means.

The other problem with "the war on terror" is that it is too open-ended. A full-fledged war on terror would commit the US to launch pre-emptive wars in a large number of countries and is utterly unrealistic.

As Lemann noted in September 2002, this insight came not from Democrats but from Republican "realists" who thought the US should have declared war on Al Qaeda, not on terrorism. They believed that anti-Americanism varied with the extent of visible, bellicose American behavior, and so they argued that fighting terrorism had to be combined reducing "the American footprint". Lemann quoted Stephen Everra of MIT: "Defining it as a broad war on terror was a tremendous mistake. It should have been a war on Al Qaeda.... A broad war on terror ... leads to a loss of focus. Al Qaeda escapes through the cracks. And you make enemies you need against Al Qaeda." The continuing use of military power would, according to the realists, "do more harm than good, by alienating governments whose cooperation American will need in eliminating Al Qaeda cells on their soil, and by creating the kind of instability in the region that has in the past provided Al Qaeda with its best opportunities to establish bases of operations."

The Republican realists did not prevail in the policy debate in the White House, or even get access to it. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq with exactly the consequences that the realists predicted.

In due course, the American electorate recognized that the war in Iraq was hopeless long before politicians, either Republican or Democrat, were willing to say so publicly, and emphatically delivered their verdict in the 2006 elections by removing the party that had launched the war from power in both the House and the Senate.

The current leadership challenge facing politicians is to recognize the unsoundness of idea they have been pursuing and to extricate the US from the mess it has created, as deftly and as quickly as possible, with minimal casualties while limiting the political embarrassment. After the election, the Democratic Party is now implicated in this effort, and pretending the issue doesn't exist or seeking to impeach the president isn't really a solution.

Extrication from a failed war can be long and costly affair, unless it is pursued with intellectual clarity and vigor. In Vietnam, most of the costs and the casualties of the war were incurred after 1968, when it was clear to both the government and the electorate that the war could not be won. Five years were spent in maneuvers aimed mainly at saving political face and arranging an illusory image of victory, during which time tens of thousand of US soldiers died.

The leadership challenge in Iraq now is to recognize the reality of what has happened, accept the consequences, and move to a more constructive modality of dealing with the real threat of terrorism. Regrettably much time and energy will be spent in political rather than leadership activity, as panicky politicians desperately try to manage their public relations campaigns to absolve themselves of responsibility for the mess, as pointed out by Michael Wolff, in his entertaining Vanity Fair article: "Survivor: The White House Edition" (Vanity Fair, December 2006, p.194). As evidence of this, one sees even the neoconservatives, who invented the war, are trying to defend themselves by saying that its implementation was so mismanaged as to make it hopeless. If Democrats devote all their energies to this blame game, they will find themselves tarred with the very brush they are endeavoring to use against others. As the old saying goes, when you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing at yourself.

Whether the recent elections turn out to be a momentary blip in political history or an enduring shift towards Democratic dominance will depend in large part on whether the Democrats can abstain from backward-looking finger-pointing and get clear on what ideas are reasonable to implement in respect of terrorism, pursue those ideas consistently and persuade the rest of the electorate why they make sense.
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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)
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