The Christmas Day attempted bombing, the Times Square car bomb and the nearly daily reports of threats from the Taliban make clear that we will continue to live in a very dangerous world for a long time. In such a world it is long past time for a less partisan approach to the issues associated with terrorism. Doing so, however, requires that we first exorcise the ghost of George Bush, which still haunts debate over this issue.
For many Democrats, this ghost translates into a wrongful refusal to acknowledge the successes of the Bush Administration in preventing attacks. These Democrats seem to operate on the principle that if the Bush Administration took an action or position then the Obama Administration must do something different.
For many Republicans, resentful over what they perceive to be the lack of credit given to the former President, the Bush ghost becomes an unwillingness to give the Obama Administration credit for anything. These Obama critics, at times seem to suffer a case of collective amnesia. They forget, for example, when they harshly criticize the Obama Administration over the use of the civilian criminal justice system that this is precisely what President Bush did with Richard Reid, the shoe bomber who tried to destroy an American Airlines plane, Zacarias Moussawi, the purported 20th 9/11 hijacker, and others.
Apart from this pure partisanship, certain critical mistakes of President Bush himself must be recognized and exorcised if we are to move forward. Central to these mistakes was his failure to recognize that given the inevitably open-ended nature of the war on terrorism he needed to unify America around a long term sustainable set of policies. Yet instead of using terrorism as a unifying force, he chose to use terrorism as a wedge issue to win elections. Then, in the aftermath of 9/11 he chose secrecy and approaches of dubious legality on such issues as electronic surveillance, when openly asking Congress for enhanced authority would have been justified and would have served him and the country better. Such an approach would have avoided later recriminations when the secrets were disclosed. And adding to the divisive circumstances surrounding the invasion of Iraq, he failed to hold his Secretary of Defense, or anyone sufficiently senior, accountable for the senseless brutality at Abu Ghraib. This failure helped stimulate a reaction against even sensible counter-terrorism policies, and undermined support both abroad and at home for long term anti-terrorist efforts.
If we can exorcise the ghost of President Bush a long term strategy needs to be premised on certain core principles.
First, we need to address the divisive question of how to deal with the 9/11 attack defendants. While the decision to use civilian courts was well intentioned, this one decision, fairly or unfairly, became a key symbol for the assertion that the Administration was not being sufficiently aggressive in fighting terrorism and, on the merits, should be reversed. Wholly apart from the enormous security issues associated with a civilian trial it also is simply too late to take people who have spent years in secret CIA prisons and then the military justice system and suddenly try to apply traditional criminal justice rules to their case. Also, since even if in the unlikely event of acquittals these defendants would inevitably then continue to be held as enemy combatants, the whole notion of a civilian trial becomes less meaningful. As to future cases, the Government should have the flexibility to use the civilian criminal justice or the military system, recognizing that the history of the last 15 years has shown that in many cases the civilian system works and can be an effective element in a broader anti-terrorism strategy.
Second, all, as I hope most do, must accept that there truly are groups and individuals out there who want to kill Americans and undermine our democratic society.
Third, without abandoning our democratic ideals, we need to realistically balance competing interests between more extreme positions, and avoid jumping back and forth between being too aggressive and not being aggressive enough depending on whether there has been a recent attack. This need for consistency and balance is particularly important in defining rules for those fighting this fight in the field. Such rules, as the Bush Administration ultimately recognized, need not include tactics such as water boarding. They must, however, allow sufficient flexibility in how agents confront real life situations as they, for example, interrogate suspected terrorists, where the use of various types of psychological and other pressures may be necessary. And, in the world of terrorism, Miranda warnings should rarely be necessary given that in most situations intelligence gathering will be far more important than ensuring the admissibility of statements (by the time Reid, as well as the Christmas Day and Times Square bombers were arrested the evidence available against them made use of confessions unnecessary).
Fourth, needed authorities should be openly sought, not secretly appropriated in order to ensure that there is long term support for doing what needs to be done.
And, fifth, we should continue to use all the tools in the anti-terrorism tool box - aggressive pursuit of terrorists overseas, electronic surveillance, gathering intelligence here and abroad, working with, not against, the Muslim community in the United States, enhancing physical security, and more.
I do not know whether our political leaders will be able to transcend the bitter partisanship that defines our politics and move towards a non-partisan consensus on fighting terrorism. I do know that if they fail to do so they will have failed the American people.