Giuliani's War on Terror
John McCain was the first to raise the question directly on the 2008 campaign trail -- does Rudy Giuliani's impressive performance on Sept. 11, 2001 and in the weeks following translate into expertise on fighting terrorism? The Post looks at this question in depth today, scrutinizing Giuliani's record on the issue as a prosecutor and mayor and tracing the evolution of his rhetoric on terrorism, from downplaying it in the 1990s to calling it the "worst crisis in our history" and criticizing President Clinton and the Democrats for having treated it as a matter of law enforcement instead of war.
But beyond the matter of how Giuliani arrived at his current position on terrorism, there is the broader question: is his position -- which is shared to large degree by the other GOP presidential front-runners -- a helpful one? There are no shortage of thinkers on Islamic extremism who believe that framing the battle against terrorism as a "war" is counter-productive. This camp -- which appears to include the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- argues that framing the struggle as a war rather than a fight against an unusually lethal and political kind of crime inflates the status of Islamic extremists in the eyes of the rest of the world, encourages scattered bands of would-be terrorists to believe that they are part of a larger cause and allows them to exalt whatever occasional terrorist attacks they do pull off as military "defeats" for the U.S. Not to mention, these thinkers argue, that the war framing fuels military response (Iraq) that many believe has only worsened the terror threat, and a hugely expensive homeland security response that, while providing some needed security upgrades, inevitably involves plenty of waste and inefficiency.
"It needs to be dealt with discreetly. When we call it a war we're playing exactly the game Osama wants," said Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist and author of the 2006 book "Trapped in the War on Terror."
Of course, there are plenty of others in the field who argue that it is undeniable that the U.S. is engaged in a war with Islamic extremism -- not a conventional war, to be sure, but a long-term conflict in the manner of the Cold War, a clash of ideologies with a clear enemy that will manifest itself in various smaller-scale shooting wars around the globe for years to come. Jim Guirard, a national security consultant based in Alexandria, Va., believes that the West does need to change some of its rhetoric in combating terrorists, by ceasing to use religiously-infused language like "jihadist" to describe the enemy, which he argues grants terrorist just the holy justification they claim. But he argues that dropping the "war" framing for the current conflict is going too far, and risks depriving the country of the sense of purpose it needs to protect itself.
"To deny that it's a war avoids a sense of reality. What we have here is a war, and it is such a war that it's going to go on for decades," said Guirard, who maintains a Web site on terror semantics at www.truespeak.org. "The enemy calls it a war. For us to call it a police action and engage in the language of law enforcement -- then what do we call them? Thugs? They're being told it's a war to end all wars. If we say it's not a war and this is something less serious, it'd be lying."
This semantic debate has spilled over onto the 2008 presidential campaign trail. While Giuliani accuses the Democratic candidates of regressing to a 1990s law-enforcement approach to terrorism, John Edwards accuses President Bush and the Republican candidates of concocting a "bumper-sticker war." In general, the Democratic candidates use the phrase "war on terror" less than their Republican counterparts. At the same time, their rhetoric serves in its own way to magnify the struggle against terrorism -- they have taken to criticizing the war in Iraq by charging that it is taking attention away from the broader struggle against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere -- a claim that, to be forceful, requires one to accept the premise of a major worldwide terror threat.
As the candidates each gauge the nature of the threat, Giuliani will understandably continue to make the argument that he has the truest insight into it thanks to his up-close observation of the attack on the World Trade Center. But Lustick, the U-Penn professor, wonders whether Giuliani's personal experience on 9/11 may in some ways actually distort his thinking on terrorism by making him overstate the threat, much the way that those who witness a shark attack on a beach are more likely to overstate the odds of a recurrence. "The ability to calibrate risk doesn't happen rationally," Lustick said. "There's this idea that he knows better than anyone, but he probably knows worse because he has difficulty putting it in perspective."
That said, Lustick does not believe that it is Giuliani's 9/11 memories alone that have led him to use such hawkish rhetoric on the campaign trail. Also likely at work, Lustick said, is a calculation that this language would go over well in a GOP primary. "I am very reluctant to attribute to psychological explanations when I've got a very solid political explanation," he said.
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