Sometimes a slogan or turn of phrase acquires so much political weight that it endures well after its original meaning has been exhausted. Such was the career of Republican appeals, beginning in the late 1970s, to "small government" or "limited government." And that, too, is what has happened to the phrase "war on terror" that grew out of the Bush administration's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Ever since September 11, the administration has continued to make the "war on terror" the rhetorical centerpiece of its foreign policy. George W. Bush featured it in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns and Karl Rove has already intimated that it will play a major role in the 2006 elections. And the Democrats have followed suit by insisting they could wage this war more effectively.
My colleague Peter Beinart has made fighting the war on terror the focus of his new book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. And in an otherwise critical review of the book, American Prospect Editor Michael Tomasky declares "sound" its premise "that fighting terrorism must occupy a central place in the liberal schema." But what, exactly, five years after Al Qaeda's last attack on American soil, does waging the war on terror mean?
If you go back to the term's origins, it clearly applied to the war in the fall of 2001 against the Taliban in Afghanistan, which was sheltering Al Qaeda. That offensive largely succeeded. The Taliban was deposed, the terrorist camps destroyed, and Al Qaeda's leadership killed, captured, or driven into hiding. No other government has stepped forward to shelter Al Qaeda; and Osama bin Laden's organization of fighters has become a loose network that can't be engaged militarily, but that is also capable of concerted political action. This network is still very dangerous. It is capable of acts of terror, or of planning them--witness the latest arrests from north of the border--but it is not a concern for war planners, but for police and intelligence activity and homeland security officials.
There have been attempts to formulate a broader definition of the war against terror, which would be directed against any group that employs terrorist tactics, including Chechnyan rebels. But in spite of urgings by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Bush administration has been unwilling to target the mere tactic of terrorism. Rhetoric aside, the administration has never been at war with a tactic, but rather with a specific group and set of groups that target Americans and American allies. And that's how it should be. Terrorism has a long and varied history--from anti-Czarist Russians to Jewish groups in the war for independence down to the Tamal Tigers and Hezbollah.
What was once the war against terror should not be ignored, but it should be redefined as a police and intelligence operation. It still demands considerable resources, and vigilance, but it can no longer be seen as central to American foreign and military policy. And its rise and fall also depend greatly on how the United States handles other conflicts, particularly those in the Middle East that appear to pit the United States against Muslims. Of these, the most important is that precipitated by the Bush administration's disastrous decision to invade and occupy Iraq. That decision has imperiled the stability of the entire oil-rich region and has provided a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.
The United States faces a whole set of regional conflicts, none of which can simply be subsumed under the war on terror. These are outgrowths of the attempt of the great powers to divide up the world in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, which provoked revolution, secession, and partition. These include the half-century old clash between the Israelis and Palestinians, the cold war between India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, and North and South Korea, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Chechnyan and other secessionists, and even the continuing hostilities between the United States and Cuba. Most of these have global significance: They involve nuclear weapons on one or both sides. And those in the Middle East and around the Caspian Sea involve oil and pipelines.
There are also conflicts-in-waiting. Some Bush administration officials expect a contest between the United States and China over dominance of Asia and, perhaps eventually, over oil supplies from the Middle East. There are also controversies stirring between the United States and resource-rich Latin American countries and between the United States and Russia. Add to these disputes over trade and currency and over global pollution and global warming. What could conceivably be called the "war on terror" is only one among several challenges and not the, or even a, central one.
But there may be a difference, of course, between good policy and good politics. John F. Kennedy's invocation of a missile gap in the 1960 election and his insistence on a more militant anti-Communism helped defeat Richard Nixon, but it also eased the way to the Bay of Pigs, helped precipitate a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union (although Nikita Khrushchev's bluster was a prime factor here), and helped lay the basis for growing American involvement in Vietnam. By the time of his assassination, Kennedy had wisely turned against the foreign policy implications of his 1960 campaign appeals.
Beinart wants to argue that in the early twenty-first century, good politics will make good policy, and vice versa, but the experience of the Bush years suggest otherwise. Bush's evocation of the war on terror helped the Republicans win in 2002 and aided his own re-election in 2004, but it also blinded Americans, and perhaps Bush himself, to what was and wasn't really at stake in Iraq. And it led to a massive neglect of large parts of the globe, including Latin America. By promoting a Democratic version of the war on terror, Beinart and Tomasky may help some Democrats get elected in 2006 and 2008; but they won't help get the country out of the enormous hole in which the actual Bush foreign policies have plunged it.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.