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Jewish World Review
August 25, 2008
/ 24 Menachem-Av 5768
A gentle reminder for the Dems: This is not a peacetime election for Al Qaeda
So for Democrats, the war on terrorism is over. Not the terrorism part, mind you. Just the war part.
In 2004, the party's platform used the phrase "war against terror" or its equivalent ("war against Al Qaeda"; "war against a global terrorist movement") 12 timesbeginning on page one, paragraph three. Typical language: "As Democrats and Americans, we yield to no one in our commitment to do everything necessary to win the war on terror." Foreign policy, led by "Defeating Terrorism," dominated the document.
The economy was relegated to a sheepish second place.
Four years ago, the war against terrorism was a war in the most literal sense, complete with combat operations, invocation of martial law against enemy combatants, and frequent reference to Congress's authorization of the use of military force. John Kerry accepted the Democratic presidential nomination by "reporting for duty" at the convention, with a salute.
Times change, and so do platforms. This year brings a peacetime election. For most Americans, the war on terror has become a figure of speech. Reflecting that new mentality, the 2008 draft Democratic platform, posted on TheAtlantic.com by Marc Ambinder on August 7, used the phrase "war on terror" only once. Which was exactly as many times as it used the phrase "war on science" (as in "Bush Administration's").
The Democrats take the problem of terrorism seriously; the draft platform makes that clear. Where security strategy is concerned, the 2004 and 2008 platforms are basically the same, except that today's Democrats promise a brisk withdrawal from Iraq and add emphasis on Pakistan. Four years ago, as again today, the platform called for improved international cooperation against terrorism; better public diplomacy; a redoubling of efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and to roust terrorist havens; stronger measures to prevent nuclear proliferation and keep nuclear materials out of mischief; nonmilitary democracy promotion; energy security; and better-focused homeland-security measures.
What has changed in four years is not the strategy but the conceptual framework around it. In 2004, the Democrats' proposals were presented as stratagems in a war against "a global terrorist movement of many groups, funded from different sources and with separate agendas, but all committed to assaulting the United States and free and open societies around the globe."
In 2008, by contrast, the Democrats present their security proposals as steps worth taking for a host of reasons, of which thwarting terrorism is just one. Terrorism, indeed, is nestled among threats that include weapons of mass destruction, rogue states, weak states, rising powers, addiction to oil, and global warming. The problem today is not an enemy axis but a threat matrixnot KAOS but chaos.
According to Athena Jones, a reporter for National Journal and NBC who has traveled extensively with Barack Obama's presidential campaign, the presumptive Democratic nominee sometimes mentions terrorism on the stump, but "I wouldn't say he talks about it all that frequently." Instead, he concentrates on the economy and related standard-of-living issues such as energy and health care.
Obama knows what he's doing; his choice of subjects reflects important political and strategic realities. Politically, the economy is what the public wants to hear about and what Democrats feel most confident talking about. Strategically, the fight against violent Islamism is a counterinsurgency war that will unfold over decades, not years. Weaving counter-terrorism policy into U.S. strategy on many levels, as Obama proposes to do, makes sensemore sense, in fact, than President Bush's self-defeating attempt to treat the conflict as a permanent military emergency.
Still, before Obama and the Democrats move on too quickly, a gentle reminder: This is not a peacetime election for Al Qaeda. In comments prepared for a discussion this month at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ted Gistaro, a senior terrorism analyst in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, noted, "Al Qaeda's intent to attack the U.S. homeland remains undiminished." The organization, he added, "is identifying, training, and positioning operatives for attacks in the West, likely including in the United States."
Today's peacetime mentality, although prevalent, is fragile. A big explosion or two would shatter it faster than you can say "Ayman al-Zawahiri." Obama has shown he cares about change, about the economy, about moving troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan. But what about terrorism? This is a candidate, remember, who has no military experience. This is a party whose base has at times managed to seem more alarmed and disgusted by President Bush's war than by Osama bin Laden's.
"When you think about Obama's vulnerabilities, and his need to capture wavering Democrats and swing voters, questions about whether he is strong enough and patriotic enough are definitely on the table," says Gil Troy, a historian at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist Washington think tank. "The challenge is showing the American people on a deep, deep level that terrorism is a core issue, and you're really passionate about this. Obama has to show, and the Democrats have to show, that they are passionately opposed to and disgusted by terrorism."
Troy, the author of a new book, Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, argues that Obama should give a detailed speech "about all the things Bush did right in the war on terrorism. After I had explained where I agree with him, then I would talk about where I disagree."
If Obama lacks the stomach to praise Bush, he might, at a minimum, explicitly distance himself from the element in his party that thinks the whole idea of a "war" against terrorism is a barbaric political ploy. So far, he has yet to either embrace or repudiate this group; instead, he is leaving open such questions as:
Does he think Bush administration officials who authorized rough interrogation methods should be put on trial for war crimes, as a growing chorus in his party is demanding? If not, why doesn't he renounce such talk? If so, does he want his own administration second-guessed in the same way? As president, could he live with the overcautiousness and fear that criminal sanctions would instill within the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House?
Assuming that he keeps his promise to close the Guantanamo prison camp, what does he propose to do with the detaineesand with others who will be picked up in the future? Some are hardened jihadists who can be neither released safely nor, because of evidentiary and other problems, tried in civilian courts. Does he propose to put them out on the street in America or abroad? Find a new way to lock them up? The next president will need to deal with this, so what is Obama's plan?
Does he intend to hold CIA interrogators to the kid-glove standards of the Army field manual? If so, that would likely preclude even such mild forms of intimidation as angry shouting. Or will he allow selective use of moderately harsh methods, short of torture, if his operatives reasonably believed that such tactics could elicit life-saving information?
Does he think that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Forcewhich bestowed Congress's blessing on lethal strikes against any person, country, or organization involved in the 9/11 attacksis still in effect? If so, how far beyond Qaeda targets does it allow him to reach? When he says (as he did in an August 2007 speech), "I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America," is he claiming the same kind of unilateral war-making powers that Bush asserted? If not, where are the limits?
Just now, when his campaign needs to add more steak to its sizzle, Obama could do himself a favor by clarifying his position on the war against terrorismthe "war" part as well as the "terrorism" part. He might heed the prominent politician who warned earlier this month: "Right now, our brave men and women in uniform are fighting two different wars while terrorists plot their next attack."
That salutary reminder came not from Bush or John McCain, but from Obama himself. It was just a single sentence in a long speech (on energy policy), startling because it was unusual for Obama. But it showed that his eyes are open. He still has time to demonstrate that he takes his own warning seriously, by using the campaign's remaining weeks to prepare the country, and himself, for a conflict that may be quiescent but isn't over.
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JWR contributor Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal. Comment by clicking here.
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