01/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

After Mumbai

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

After the attacks in Mumbai last week, should the United States bomb suspected terrorist cells in India? Send the Marines to Kashmir where one of the suspected groups behind the attacks -- Lashkar-e-Taiba -- originates? Or initiate regime change in Pakistan, which has provided support for several terrorist outfits operating in South Asia?

These are, of course, absurd options.

And yet the Bush administration, in its "global war on terror" (GWOT), pursued just such tactics against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and suspected terrorist hideouts in Pakistan. Fat lot of good it's done us. The Taliban is back in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, which didn't exist in Iraq before the invasion, has a foothold there now. And Pakistan, thanks to former dictator Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence agency, remains Terrorism Central.

This military approach to terrorism has generated ineffectual, counter-productive, and quite often surreal policies. Declaring a war on terror elevated al-Qaeda and its brethren to the status of warriors. It served as a great recruiting tool for Osama bin Laden and made the United States and its citizens a lightning rod for attacks. And other countries -- China, Russia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines -- have drawn inspiration from the United States for their own crackdowns on a range of purported terrorists.

This follow-the-leader effect may prove most horrific in the case of India. Believing neighboring Pakistan to be behind the Mumbai attacks, India is edging closer to its own war on terror. According to the Times of London, "The Indian government is now considering a range of responses, including suspending its five-year peace process with Pakistan, closing their border, stopping direct flights and sending troops to the frontier." It's one thing when the United States squares off against the rag-tag army of the Taliban. But with both India and Pakistan in possession of nuclear weapons, any "war on terror" between the two can go global at a moment's notice.

When a group of militants wages a ruthless campaign against civilians, a government certainly must respond. But the issue is: what kind of response? Instead of using the military, the British have largely used their heads, relying on police work to track down and neutralize terrorists. Both the United Nations and Interpol have useful lists of best practices that focus on shutting down the financing of terrorist networks and sharing information among police forces. Instead of fighting fire with fire, we should be thinking of dousing the flames with water. In this case, the most effective fire extinguisher is the rule of law.

In an essay in the forthcoming Institute for Policy Studies book Mandate for Change, I argue that the Obama administration must replace GWOT with GDOL: Global Defense of Law. This alternative counterterrorism approach prioritizes international and domestic law rather than the projection of military force beyond borders. Who better than a former law professor to launch such an initiative? President Obama should embed counterterrorism in the international laws governing institutions such as the International Criminal Court as well as the domestic laws that safeguard the civil liberties of those living in the United States.

"September 11" entered our vocabulary as both an epochal shift and the starting point for the GWOT. "Mumbai" should likewise enter our vocabulary as the end of the GWOT and the beginning of a more sensible approach to countering terrorism.

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