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The War America Fights

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Ten years ago, in the shadow of the crater at Ground Zero, the smoldering Pentagon and a field of honor in Pennsylvania, America found itself at war.

Today, a decade on, America is still at war.


Ten years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the time has come to assess the progress of America's war. But to assess its progress, we must first understand the war.

What war has the US been fighting since September 11?

President George W. Bush called the war the War on Terror. The War on Terror is a broad tactical campaign to prevent Islamic terrorists from targeting America.

The War on Terror has achieved some notable successes. These include Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan which denied al-Qaida free rein in Afghanistan by overthrowing the Taliban.

They also include the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his fascist regime in Iraq, which played a role - albeit far less significant than the Taliban regime and others - in supporting Islamic terrorism against the US.

Moreover, the US has successfully prevented multiple attempts by Islamic terrorists to carry out additional mass terror attacks on US territory.

This achievement, however, is at least partially a function of luck. On two occasions - the Shoe Bomber in 2001 and the Underwear Bomber in 2009 - Islamic terrorists with bombs were able to board airplanes en route to the US and attempt to detonate those bombs in mid-air. The fact that their attacks were foiled by their fellow passengers is a tribute to the passengers, not to the success of the US war effort.

The US's success in killing Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida members is another clear achievement of this war.

But 10 years on, the fact that Islamic terrorism directed against the US remains a salient threat to US national security shows that the War on Terror is far from won.


And this makes sense. Despite its significant successes, the War on Terror suffers from three inherent problems that make it impossible for the US to win.

The first problem is that the US has unevenly applied its tactic of denying terrorists free rein in territory of their choosing. In his historic speech before the Joint Houses of Congress on September 20, 2001, Bush pledged, "We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

And yet, while the US applied this principle in Afghanistan and Iraq, it applied it only partially in Pakistan, and failed to apply it all in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. By essentially ending its application of the counterterror tactic of denying terrorists free rein of territory and punishing regimes that provide them shelter, the options left to the US in fighting its war on terror have been reduced to catch-as-catch-can killing and capturing of terrorists, and reactive actions such as arresting or detaining terrorists when they are caught on US soil.

On the positive side, these limited tactics can keep terrorists off balance if they are applied consistently and over the long term. Taken together, the tactics of targeted killing and financial strangulation comprise a strategy of long-term containment not unlike the US's strategy in the Cold War. US containment then caused the Soviet Union to exhaust itself and collapse after 45 years of superpower competition.


UNFORTUNATELY, THE US's containment strategy in its War on Terror is undermined by the second and third problems inherent to its policies.

The second problem is that since September 11, 2001, the US has steadfastly refused to admit the identity of the enemy it seeks to defeat.

US leaders have called that enemy al-Qaida, they have called it extremism or extremists, fringe elements of Islam and radicals. But of course the enemy is jihadist Islam which seeks global leadership and the destruction of Western civilization. Al-Qaida is simply an organization that fights on the enemy's side. As long as the enemy is left unaddressed, organizations like al-Qaida will continue to proliferate.

It isn't that US authorities do not acknowledge among themselves whom the enemy is. They do track Islamic leaders, and in general prosecute jihadists when they can build cases against them.

But their refusal to acknowledge the nature of the enemy has paralyzed their ability to confront and defeat threats as they arise. For instance, US Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was not removed from service or investigated, despite his known support for jihad and his communication with leading jihadists. Rather, he was promoted and placed in a position where he was capable of massacring 12 soldiers and one civilian at Fort Hood, Texas.

Had the US not been in denial about the identity of its enemy, Hasan's victims would likely be alive today.

So too, the US's refusal to identify its enemy has made it impossible for US officials to understand and contend with the mounting threat from Turkey. Because the US refuses to recognize radical Islam as its enemy, it fails to connect Turkey's erratic and increasingly hostile behavior to the fact that the country is ruled by an Islamist government.


In the face of the rising political instability and uncertainty in the Arab world, the US's refusal to reckon with the fact that radical Islam is the enemy fighting it bodes ill for the future. Quite simply, America is willfully blinding itself to emerging dangers. These dangers are particularly acute in Egypt where the US has completely failed to recognize the threat the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes to its core regional interests and its national security.

The last problem intrinsic to the US's War on Terror is the persistent and powerful strain of appeasement that guides so much of US policy towards the Muslim world.

This appeasement is multifaceted and pervades nearly every aspect of the US's relations with the Islamic world.

The urge to appeasement caused the US to divorce the Islamic jihad against the US from the Islamic jihad against Israel from the outset.

Appeasement has been the chief motivating factor informing the US's intense support for Palestinian statehood and its refusal to reassess this policy in the face of Palestinian terrorism, jihadism and close ties with Iran.

Appeasement provoked the US to embrace radical Islamic religious leaders and terror operatives such as Sami Arian and Abdurahman Alamoudi as credible leaders in the US Muslim community. It stood behind the decisions of both the Bush and Obama administrations to embrace US affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood as legitimate leaders of the American Muslim community and to court the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to the detriment of US ally former president Hosni Mubarak.

Appeasement stood behind the US's bid to try to entice Iran to end its nuclear weapons programs with grand bargains.


It motivated US's decision not to confront Syria on its known support for al-Qaida and Hezbollah as well as Palestinian terror groups; its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; or its involvement in facilitating the insurgency in Iraq.

It is what has compelled the US not to seek the dismantlement of Hezbollah in Lebanon and indeed to fund and arm the Hezbollah-controlled government and army of Lebanon.

The urge to appease has motivated the US's decision to take no action to stem the advance of Iran and its terror allies and proxies in al-Qaida and Hezbollah in Latin America.

WHEN A nation engages in appeasement at the same time it wages war, its appeasement efforts always undermine its war efforts. This is particularly the case, however, in long-term wars of containment such as the one the US is fighting against Islamic terrorism.

The logic guiding a containment strategy is that an enemy force will eventually collapse if kept off balance for long enough. Given that militarily the forces of Islamic jihad are weaker than the US, it is reasonable to assume that if applied consistently for long enough, a policy of containment can indeed cause the forces of global jihad to collapse.

The chronic instability of the Iranian regime and the current unrest in Syria demonstrate the structural weakness of these regimes. The dependence of terror groups such as Hezbollah, al-Qaida and Hamas on the support of governments make clear that containment could potentially defeat them as well by drying out their support structure at its roots.

The problem is that the US's moves to appease its enemies empower them to keep fighting.


Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah are far stronger militarily today than they were on September 11, 2001. Hamas controls Gaza and would likely win any Palestinian elections.

Hezbollah controls Lebanon.

Iran is on the verge of nuclear weapons and is poised to become the predominant power in Iraq. Its Egyptian nemesis Hosni Mubarak is gone.

Ten years ago Iran and its terror allies and proxies could have only dreamed of having the presence on the Western Hemisphere they enjoy today.

In Europe the threat of domestic terrorism is more salient than ever because the jihadist forces and leaders on the continent have been appeased rather than combated by both the governments of Europe and the US.

The US was able to win the Cold War through its policy of containment because throughout the long conflict there was strong majority support in the US for continuing to pursue the war effort. Despite the widespread nature of Soviet efforts at political subversion, US public opinion remained firmly anti-Soviet until the Berlin Wall was finally destroyed.

The US government's moves to appease its Islamic enemies undermine the domestic consensus supporting the War on Terror. And without such domestic solidarity around the necessity of combating jihadist terrorists, there is little chance that the US will be able to continue to enact its containment strategy for long enough to facilitate victory.

Even as it has continued to prosecute the War on Terror, since it came to power in January 2009 the Obama administration has worked intensively to confuse the American people about its nature, necessity and goals. President Barack Obama dropped the name "War on Terror" for the nebulous "overseas contingency operation." He has rejected the term "terrorism," and expunged the term "jihad" from the official lexicon. In so doing, he made it impermissible for US government officials to hold coherent discussions about the war they are charged with waging. Meanwhile, the public has been invited to question whether the US has the right to fight at all.


Today the events of September 11 are still vivid enough in the American memory for America to continue the fight despite the administration's efforts to discredit the war in the national discourse and imagination. But how long will that memory be strong enough to serve as the primary legitimating force behind a war that even in its limited form is far from won?

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