We can't win the "war on terror" because there's no such thing
The Strawman commenteth:
When asked “Can we win?” the war on terror, Bush said, “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the — those who use terror as a tool are — less acceptable in parts of the world.”
Now, this seems like a reasonable statement; though, imagine if it were Howard Dean or John Kerry who made that statement: The press would eat them alive. Not unlike when, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Dean said that America was not safer. The press had a field day; and, only months later, Najaf, Fullujah, Baghdad and the rest of Iraq lite up in violent anti-occupation clashes. Apparently, it seems, Iraq wasn't safer after Saddam's capture.
So Bush realizes that the War on Terror may be Unwinnable in the near term. Isn't that what everyone else has been saying for the last two years? And were or were they not being labeled unpatriotic for such a statement? Bush shows up to the party late and the media gives him a free ride. Wow.
I'd like to make an even stronger claim. We can't possibly win "the war on terror" because there is no such war. The "war on terror" is less of a war than Nixon's war on cancer or Johnson's war on poverty. The war on terror is warlike in the same sense as the war on drugs. Like the war on drugs, the war on terror is an excuse to start real wars and justify extraordinary new government powers. Like the war on drugs, the war on terror is absolutely unwinnable.
We can't win the war on terrorism because terrorism is a strategy, not an enemy. Philosophers would call terrorism a functional description. The logic of terrorism won't go away. We can't make weak factions forget that they can provoke and intimidate much stronger enemies through unconventional attacks on civilians. Free societies will always be vulnerable to terrorism. For that matter, even totalitarian societies like Russia and Saudi Arabia can't stamp out this scourge.
Obviously, we could be much better off. John Kerry could make inroads against Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic terrorist groups. He could reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attacks by improving civil defense and emergency preparedness. He will do more to track down fissionable materials and defend our critical infrastructure. Maybe a Kerry administration will can grapple with root causes of international terrorism like the Arab/Israeli crisis, and the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a former prosecutor, Kerry understands the importance of cracking down on stem cell bombers and other domestic terrorists.
Some people think winning the war on terror means discrediting Islamic fundamentalism. I agree that over the long term, secular liberal democracy will do well in the marketplace of ideas. I don't know if "winning" is the right metaphor, but we can hold our own and build market share in the years to come.
The war metaphor implies that we must take aggressive action to force the desired outcome Yet I haven't heard very many constructive suggestions for hastening the decline of fundamentalism. Military conquest is right out. Propaganda is slow and unreliable. Covert ops have two black eyes. If we turn out to be on the "winning" side, it will probably have more to do with the intrinsic reasonableness of certain core beliefs than anything we did to win hearts and minds.
Maybe someday the average global citizen will view alll forms of religious fundamentalism in the contempt it deserves. Maybe someday arguments for jihad, culture war, and divine exceptionalism will seem as quaint as the case for dialectical materialism or Socialism in One Country. Yet, even that far fetched outcome wouldn't be tantamount to winning the war on terror.
Honestly, I'm shocked that terrorism is such an important issue in this presidential campaign. It's equally shocking that it's big news when the President fleetingly articulates a trusim. Some of his apologists claim he couldn't possibly have understood what he was saying. If the American public were concerned about terrorism in proportion to the statistical threat, we'd be more concerned about prescription drug coverage than whether it might be possible to eliminate the threat of terrorist attacks.
Paradoxically, the more we work ourselves up about the threat of terrorism, the more attractive terrorism becomes. Our escalating fear increases the asymmetry that motivates asymmetrical warfare. Ironically, the most effective anti-terrorist strategy may be to cultivate pragmatic equanimity.