July 5, 2004, 2:30 P.M.
As we near the date of the Democratic convention, a lot of attention is being focused on what foreign policy might look like under a Kerry administration. At the heart of this discussion is a fundamental difference between the current administration and others in government about the role of states in the sponsorship and proliferation of global terrorist activities. On one hand, the Bush administration sees states, governmental entities, as the focus of their attention. The Kerry camp sees a more modern, amorphous threat that exists in the shadows and caves, and that functions without the constraints of government or word scrutiny.
Just prior to the publication of Bob Woodward’s recent book, Plan Of Attack, I heard a reviewer, and I don’t recall his name, describe the book as “ kinder” to the Bush administration then expected. The implication, of course, is that one would expect any such book by anyone perceived as connected with the “Liberal Media” would not be a balanced and accurate account. I have not yet finished the book, but what I have read so far suggests to me that it is a pretty accurate explanation of the fundamental philosophy driving the administrations current approach to foreign policy.
Of course, Woodward’s book uses, among other things, the war in Iraq to explore the motivation for and philosophy behind the war. The difference between this approach and that of a future Kerry administration is well laid out in an interview between Josh Marshall and Senator Joseph Biden, the first half of which is reprinted at Marshall’s website, Talking Points Memo. This interview points up some fundamental philosophical differences and insights into how the approach to global terrorist threats might differ under a Kerry administration.
The focus of the Bush administration is now and has been since the election, on what Doug Feith defined as the fundamental insight of their strategy: the continuing centrality of states. The problem with this world view is that it does not account for the ability of a world wide network of terrorists to operate without state sponsorship or support. It does not and cannot account for the existence of an organization like al Qaeda, which can operate from anywhere without any sense of a need to protect people or territory the way traditional states do. They are technologically sophisticated, mobile and unconstrained by national politics so they don’t respond to, nor are they affected by, the threat of invasion or conquest.
As Senator Biden puts it, “the fundamental difference between John Kerry on the one hand, and the neoconservatives on the other is that they genuinely believe --- and put it in the negative sense --- they do not believe it is possible for a sophisticated international criminal network that will rain terror upon a country, that has the potential to kill 3,000 or more people in a country, can exist without the sponsorship of a nation-state.” It is in the accurate reporting of this true belief that Woodward was kind to the administration. They really, truly believe that if we topple the regimes in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, you could essentially “dry up the tentacles of terror” as the President suggested in his “Axis of Evil” speech.
This is fundamentally flawed reasoning. If we were to overthrow each and every one of those governments, as we did in Iraq, there the worldwide terrorist threat would be no less and it might be greater. The toppling of Saddam, although warranted and justified for other reasons, has served to build support for radical groups, and has proved to be a recruiting toll for future terrorists. The solution lies not in the conquest but in the aftermath. Our abandonment of any semblance of nation building in Afghanistan signals the wrong approach and leaves or current policy looking a lot like the arcade game Whack-A-Mole. In Bidens words, “… these guys believe in whack-a-mole. They believe, look, if these guys come back, if the Taliban comes back, we'll go back and crush them again.” Unfortunately, this is not only a flawed political approach; it is a military approach reminiscent of Vietnam.
The answer is to deal with terrorism from two angles. The first is the money. The sources of funding can be identified and targeted. This has been the Governments successful approach to the deconstruction of organized crime, and it has been far more effective than the head on approach of the first part of the last century. The second is the elimination of the motivation driving the terrorist threat. This means attempting to get a handle on that age old question; why do they hate us so much? And is the truly difficult aspect of this problem. It is mostly difficult because it undermines the current administration’s critical belief that the threat is from an enemy with clearly identifiable ties to the nations in the “axis of Evil”, and it begs a more nuanced approach than the current administration is capable of.
The problem is not simple and the solutions are not black and white. The President has said that he “does not do nuance”. It is time that we had a Government that does.