“Will the ‘war on terror’ continue once the Obama administration is in office?” asks the Washington Post this morning. Of course, the United States should continue to find, fight, capture, detain, and kill terrorists. We should step up efforts to take away their funding and ensure that governments provide no refuge to them. No one here, in fact, argues otherwise.
But should we make “the war on terror” the principal focus of America’s external relations? No. Terrorists can kill Americans, but, without the support of others, they do not pose an existential threat to either the United States or the international system we lead.
President Bush deserves credit for preventing terrorist incidents on American soil after September 11, yet he has allowed greater dangers to gather. He has, in prosecuting the “war on terror,” enlisted the support of nations that wish us ill, legitimized their authoritarian governments, helped them grow stronger, stayed silent as they banded together to undermine us, and allowed them to support states that pose grave threats to us and our allies. Mr. Bush even permitted one of these so-called allies in the terror war-China-to conduct attacks on American military assets without comment. In short, we have paid an exceedingly high price to promote the “war on terror.” The world, unfortunately, is far more dangerous for us than it was at the beginning of Mr. Bush’s first term.
These days, terrorists without weapons of mass destruction are essentially nuisances. Yet the Bush administration has allowed adversaries to support states that could arm terrorists with nuclear devices. Mr. Bush almost never raised his voice against Russia or China after September 11 and has allowed this pair to support North Korean and Iranian ambitions to acquire the ultimate weapons of warfare. For example, in 2003 he acceded to China on North Korea, with the result that Kim Jong Il detonated a nuclear device in October 2006 and spread the technology to Syria and Iran. Now, our president is allowing Moscow and Beijing to impede American efforts against the Iranian mullahs, who are about six months from acquiring all the technology needed to develop the bomb. He also permitted China to transfer to Iran technology and materials needed for nuclear weapons.
A nuclear North Korea is the result of the “war on terror,” and, in all probability, so will a nuclear Iran. We need, therefore, to rethink our assumptions and try something new. Should we fight terrorists? Yes. Should we make them the focus of our foreign policy? No. As a first priority, we need to oppose those adversaries that can do us the most harm. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made them our friends.