Since 2001, the phrase "War on Terror" has disrupted American political life by offering a false comparison. Defeating terrorism isn't the same as waging a war. Nothing could be further from a classic war like WW II, for example--now the British government has issued a directive not to refer to the conflict as a war. Insofar as the U.S. has tried to use the war model in Iraq, it has failed.
The war on terror was always an ill-fitting term for the following reasons:
--The enemy is stateless, confined mostly to local cells; the movement as a whole crosses national boundaries.
--Stateless terrorism is best fought as a police action, with vigilant policing on the local level.
--Anti-terrorism requires cooperation from every nation, not a limited number of political allies.
--We should not aim at total victory any more than we aim for total victory over crime.
--Keeping the threat down to a manageable danger should be our primary goal.
--Reducing public fear and anticipation of attacks should be a secondary goal.
The Bush administration either ignored or underplayed all of these, choosing maximum public fear, unilateral action, and the futile promise of total victory instead. Now that we are coming out of the fog or war--at least outside right-wing circles--we still need to ask if the fight against terrorism is being won or lost.
There are significant signs that it is being won, but not on the Iraqi front. The war galvanized militants who would otherwise have remained quiet. Invasion raised the specter of a Christian crusade, the most hated aspect of Muslim history. Young dissident males, largely unemployed and lower class, joined the jihadist cause while millions of sympathizers suddenly rethought the issue of al-Qaida. As with Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion, an extremist group like al-Qaida could clothe itself in patriotism and civil defense.
But al-Qaida is far from winning. The central leaders are in hiding, with 80% of their number killed or captured. Recent terrorist attacks have come from local splinter cells, not from al-Qaida leaders or their grandiose planning schemes. Last Wednesday their second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a video tape chastising both Hamas and Fatah for in-fighting; he stated that the main purpose of both parties should be a holy war against Israel. Yet the notion that jihadists are even an inch closer to bringing down Israel is a fanatic's fantasy. As with the short-term 'victory' of 9/11, extremism against Israel has led only to massive destruction of Muslim radicals and non-radicals alike. The fruit of terrorism is wholesale disaster to their cause.
International policing of terrorism is the brightest spot in our current policy. Despite its unilateral rhetoric, the administration has helped to thwart incipient terrorist plots and kept potential terror cells at bay around the world. The fact that the administration curbed civil rights to do this is shameful, as witness those countries where policing has been effective without such infringements.
Ultimately the reason terrorism is losing is that it is pointless. Al-Qaida has a negative vision. Short of creating fear, threatening the West, and hating Israel, terrorists offer no future, no productive solutions for the endemic problems across the Middle East. As we have experienced since 9/11, fear subsides, and the few attacks that succeed can be endured. Compared to all-out war, the number of casualties inflicted since 9/11, not counting the Iraq war (which we started voluntarily), has been minimal, and even including Iraq casualties of U.S. troops, the fatalities are meager compared to annual traffic deaths and random crime.
The real harm inflicted by al-Qaida is that it allowed our militarists and reactionaries to ply the American public with unwholesome fear and promises of victory that are illusory. We permitted ourselves to fall, not to al-Qaida's level, but lower than we have ever sunk in terms of torture, secret prisons, total disregard for prisoners' rights, and the unnecessary loss of civil rights and freedoms. Only in that sense can al-Qaida claim success. We didn't have to allow them even this pitiful achievement. Hopefully a reversal of course under a new President will steal it from them.