Refocusing U.S. policy on the war on terror

President Barack Obama walks away from the podium after speaking about security enhancements on Tuesday.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, worries that America is losing the war on terror and sees three central failings in U.S. policy. In his book, "Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam," published by Rowman & Littlefield, he describes the three as a failure to properly identify the enemy, and inability to dominate the battlefields, and an inability to calibrate counterterrorism strategies. Here Berman offers his view in light of the terror incident on Christmas Day.


The near-disaster that took place in the skies over Detroit on Christmas Day has refocused domestic attention on an issue that has dominated headlines for much of the past year. That issue is the state of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, and the picture isn't pretty.

Since taking office last January, Team Obama has focused extensively on the most obvious battlefields in what was once known as the "War on Terror." It has moved ahead with its pledge to draw down troops in Iraq, where stability is slowly but surely returning. And it has bolstered its commitment to Afghanistan through a significant troop surge and a new policy approach that takes a more holistic view of the causes and consequences of conflict there.

When it comes to the larger struggle against radical Islam, however, there's still a great deal to be desired. To be sure, President Obama has gone on record as saying the United States is at war with al-Qaeda. And so it is.

But the challenge facing the U.S. is substantially broader than just the Bin Laden network. It involves a resurgent Iran, the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, which is now within striking distance of possessing a nuclear capability. It also encompasses the undecided voters in the Muslim world - an enormous constituency of over a billion souls whose "hearts and minds" the West needs to win if it is to have any hope of persevering against Islamic radicalism.

For the moment, official Washington shows few signs of even understanding that these issues are interrelated - let alone formulating a comprehensive strategy to tackle each.

On the home front, we are faring even worse. That a 23-year-old Nigerian was able to take a plane to the United States without any luggage, with a ticket bought in cash, and was allowed to do so after authorities had already been warned about his radicalism (by his own father, no less), underscores the lapses that continue to plague our intelligence and homeland security apparatus more than eight years after 9/11.

More pernicious still, however, is the temptation to define the conflict itself out of existence. When the White House announced its decision this fall to bring 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others to New York to stand trial for the atrocities of September 11th, the administration argued that doing so would make justice for the accused more certain.

But by choosing to treat those terrorists like common criminals, with all of the rights and protections afforded by U.S. law, the Obama administration sent a very different message to the world - that it seems not to think we are in a war at all. And if we're not, it's easy for Americans to forget there are people out there who are in fact trying to kill us.

By Steven E. Levingston |  January 6, 2010; 1:45 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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