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9/11 -- and Counting
Four Years In, No Clear Plan

By Michael Hirsh
Sunday, September 11, 2005

On Dec. 9, 1941, two days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the American people in a fireside chat. In tone and manner, FDR's words were not very different from the rhetoric of George W. Bush three generations later, when Bush called the nation to action nine days after Sept. 11, 2001, and declared, "We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail." Roosevelt told his radio listeners: "The sources of international brutality, wherever they exist, must be absolutely and finally broken down. . . . We don't like it -- we didn't want to get in it -- but we are in it and we are going to fight it with everything we've got. . . . We are going to win the war, and we are going to win the peace that follows."

FDR was as good as his word. Over the next 3 1/2 years, he and then his successor, Harry Truman, transformed a depression-ravaged, isolationist nation -- one with virtually no army -- into the world's dominant power. They assiduously cultivated alliances that shared the fighting and dying, oversaw the defeat of two hegemonic threats (Japan and Germany), and began to rebuild these former enemies into peaceful democratic allies. At the same time the two presidents created many of the institutions that still define the global system, including the United Nations, planning for which began in 1944.

And they did it in less time than has now elapsed in the war on terrorism. Today marks the fourth anniversary of 9/11. It is a depressing milestone, made grimmer by the comparison to World War II. President Bush himself drew this analogy in a speech on Aug. 30, declaring that we face a "determined enemy who follows a ruthless ideology" just as we did 60 years earlier, and "once again we will not rest until victory is America's." What Bush failed to note was that it took FDR and Truman precisely 1,347 days, from Dec. 7, 1941, to the surrender of Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, to win WWII, pacify the enemy and largely secure the peace that followed. By comparison, 1,461 days have now passed since that terrible day in 2001. And even now there is no end in sight to the "global war on terror." What is perhaps more unsettling, there is no detailed strategy for winning this war.

Clearly, this is a very different kind of conflict from WWII. Then, we were fighting an easy-to-identify enemy in plainly delineated theaters of war. The same can't be said of the war on terrorism. Bush himself has said that it would be a long, open-ended conflict. And as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has put it umpteen times, al Qaeda is "not going to be signing some sort of a surrender aboard the battleship Missouri." But the novelty of the current foe only makes a lucid strategy more essential, and our planning failures more disheartening.

Bush can claim one triumph: We have suffered no further attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 (not counting the unsolved anthrax attacks later that fall). Casualties are far fewer, too, than in any other major war in U.S. history since the Revolution. "I do think there's been progress in some areas," says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the State Department's head of policy planning in Bush's first term. "In the last four years, for example, I think the world has become a tougher place for terrorists to operate in."

Yet Haass agrees that in other respects "history will be harsh in its judgments" of the Bush administration. The war on terror has become an Orwellian nightmare, an ill-defined conflict with a fractious group of terrorists that seems to be ever-escalating. At this stage in WWII, Hitler was dead. His top lieutenants, as well as their counterparts in Japan, were awaiting trial for war crimes. By contrast, the chief culprit of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, have escaped -- their trail is as cold as it's ever been -- to become mythic rallying figures for radical Islamists.

Moreover, an administration that had sought to reassert U.S. power now finds itself projecting weakness. An America that was at the top of its game internationally on Sept. 10, 2001 has squandered its prestige. Iraq is draining the most powerful Army in history, America's moral standing in the world is diminished, and our policies, according to the CIA's own analysis, may have only helped to foment the jihadi movement globally. We possess less leverage over the nuclear-minded states of Iran and North Korea. Lacking a bold initiative on energy, we are more beholden to the Arab world and Russia for desperately needed oil. And as our economy amasses record budget and trade deficits, we rely more than ever on the financial goodwill of China, Japan and Europe to keep us afloat.

Most disturbing of all, the man who once called himself a "war president" has not formulated a well-thought-out plan for winning this war, either in public or privately within his administration. In place of a strategy, Bush mainly repeats his vague pledge to spread democracy "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," as he put it in his second inaugural address. "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," Rumsfeld wrote in a now-famous memo that was leaked in October 2003. Administration sources tell me that no such "metrics" have yet been found.

A surprising number of strategists believe, in fact, that the United States is losing the war on terrorism as anti-Americanism and the Iraq occupation fuel an endless supply of new jihadis. "We're now spending more time thinking about a war with China, a war that is never going to happen, than we are thinking about a war we are currently losing that presents a clear and present danger," one exasperated senior military official at the Pentagon told me last month. "If this is a global battle for hearts and minds, we haven't even stood up an army yet. We have a general now: Karen Hughes [the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy]. But it's stuff they should have done four years ago." The White House and Pentagon have even begun arguing over whether what they are engaged in is a "war" at all.

What is the difference between these two approaches to global leadership 60 years apart? In a word: planning. FDR began planning for a postwar world even before Pearl Harbor, laying out the "four freedoms" in January 1941 and hashing out the Atlantic Charter with Winston Churchill months later.

The Bush approach, in contrast, has been scattershot and conceived "piece by piece," in the words of one European diplomat in Washington. There is no evidence that Bush ever held a grand strategy session with his principals in which all the variables were laid on the table: the costs of the global war on terrorism, the strategic goal, and the real costs, in dollars and lives, of an Iraq invasion. In February 2003, the administration released a "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism," but it was mainly a statement of aims, full of boilerplate, and it was drowned out by the Iraq war the following month. As former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft told me recently, the administration still needs to study "the roots of terrorism and not the manifestations of it."

Bush's all-embracing solution to terrorism -- spreading democracy -- seems to be based on an article of faith, not on a thorough look at the sources of terror. As F. Gregory Gause, a political scientist at the University of Vermont, writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, "the data available do not show a strong relationship between democracy and an absence of or reduction in terrorism." Some scholars argue that most terrorism actually occurs within democracies. Still, political progress in the Arab world could defuse frustration that fosters violence. But the administration, in its new campaign led by Hughes, has failed to emphasize what most experts say is the critical element in successful democratic development: economic progress and the creation of a middle class.

As the president has repeatedly said, this is a new kind of war. If anything, he and his top aides have indicated, it is more comparable to the long, ideological struggle of the Cold War than it is to WWII. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has likened herself to her Truman-era predecessor, Dean Acheson, who wrote that he was "present at the creation" of Cold War containment strategy.

But here too the comparison is not flattering. Containment doctrine evolved swiftly after WWII. It began with George Kennan's famous Long Telegram in February 1946, in which he described what he later called "the sources of Soviet conduct," and culminated in NSC-68 in the spring of 1950. NSC-68 was no boilerplate: This internal policy document included precise requests for defense spending and projections for how America could outspend the Soviet Union. In just about four years, America had developed a strategy that ultimately prevailed.

Truman's Republican successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also an obsessive planner, dating from his days as Allied supreme commander. Within six months of taking office, in June 1953, Eisenhower convened a top-secret "Project Solarium" (named after the room where Ike decided on the approach) to forge a Cold War strategy in five weeks. Even Kennan later remarked that Ike had shown his "intellectual ascendancy over every man in the room" by taking command of the final meeting, accurately summarizing the three main approaches, and opting for Truman-style containment.

In December of 2003, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz presided over a secret "Solarium II" meeting to develop a grand strategy. But Bush wasn't there and participants said Wolfowitz himself read unrelated briefing papers during presentations. Solarium II came to no hard conclusions, one participant said.

Bush, of course, hasn't been sitting on his hands. He created the Department of Homeland Security and reorganized the intelligence community. He has done much of this only reluctantly, however, under public and congressional pressure. And as the confused response to Hurricane Katrina has shown, the rhetoric and stagecraft of planning often seem to take the place of real planning.

Real planning requires real understanding of the enemy, and today we may be even further away from that than on 9/11. In recent months, Bush has contributed to that by lumping Iraqi insurgents together with the "terrorists" as though there were one static group of global bad guys whom we would be fighting in our own streets if we weren't dealing with them in Iraq. But Bush's own generals have contradicted this view. Although the Iraq war has attracted foreign jihadists, U.S. generals say that the Iraqi insurgency is mainly composed of Iraqis, few of whom are members of al Qaeda and very few of whom would be attacking us in the streets of New York and Washington if we weren't in Iraq.

Some military thinkers believe that the international terrorist threat should be viewed as a kind of global insurgency that could last a decade or more. But if so, Pentagon planners say they have not agreed on any single counterinsurgency approach.

What would a true national strategy in the war on terrorism look like? At the very least, critics say, one thing was clear after 9/11: America's economy and security depended, because of oil, on a region that was far more unstable than we'd realized. So one effort at national mobilization should have been an energy policy that would slash our dependence on oil and unreliable Arab producers. Yet Bush's recent energy legislation, four years in the making, barely provided incentives for conservation or hybrid technologies while pouring billions in tax breaks into the search for new oil.

Compare this with FDR's national mobilization of U.S. industry in the early months of WWII, or the Cold War-era mobilization that led to the blossoming of U.S. science education, the space program and the Internet, and the differences are dramatic.

Four years into the war on terrorism, it's awfully late to begin devising a broad-based, detailed strategy for the complete destruction of terrorist groups like al Qaeda. Let's hope it's not too late. But the first step is to acknowledge that we haven't yet done it.

Author's e-mail:

michael.hirsh@newsweek.com

Michael Hirsh covers foreign affairs for Newsweek and is author of "At War With Ourselves" (Oxford University).

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