Is It War?

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

FOR SIX years President Bush has told Americans they face a "long war" against a global Islamic terrorist movement that, like the Cold War, will challenge a generation. A crucial if so far understated issue of the presidential campaign is whether that sweeping vision of U.S. national security will survive past January 2009. For the most part, the Republican candidates agree with Mr. Bush about the dimensions and centrality of the Islamic extremist threat. Most of the Democrats do not. From that ideological difference flow contrasting practical approaches to Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as differences in the weight the next president may give to other foreign policy challenges.

It's not true that the Democrats view al-Qaeda as a threat best managed by law enforcement. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama unambiguously define the fight against terrorist networks as a global war, and even John Edwards, who has condemned the phrase "war on terror" as a "bumper-sticker slogan," adds that "there is no question that we must confront terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda with the full force of our military might." The Democrats, however, downplay Islamic extremism, as opposed to terrorist networks, as a threat. Ms. Clinton even omits the word "Islam" from her discussion of terrorism.

In contrast, Rudolph W. Giuliani talks of "radical Islamic fascism," while Mike Huckabee has said flatly, "It's a theological war." Such terminology strikes us as misguided and harmful. It greatly overstates the ideological appeal of groups such as al-Qaeda in the Muslim world and leads to their conflation with movements that pose little threat to the United States -- such as nonviolent Islamic fundamentalists -- and even mainstream Islam. It suggests to Muslims around the world that the United States is engaged in the very religious war Osama bin Laden says he wants to provoke.

Republicans basically accept Mr. Bush's vision of himself as a latter-day Harry S. Truman who has reorganized U.S. policy to meet this all-encompassing global threat. Like Mr. Bush they see the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the larger conflict with Islamic extremism, and Iran and its clients in the Middle East as yet another front. Democrats disaggregate these problems and balance them against challenges that have received too little attention from the Bush administration: the rise of China; the return of an autocratic and relatively hostile Russia; the danger of unsecured nuclear materials in unstable parts of the world; and global warming, among others. Ms. Clinton's definition of the world the next president will inherit in a recent Foreign Affairs magazine essay fills a fat, 140-word paragraph and speaks of "an unprecedented array of challenges." In contrast, Mr. Giuliani begins with a single sentence: "We are all members of the 9/11 generation."

Ms. Clinton's view strikes us as more realistic. Al-Qaeda remains a grave threat, and the United States has a vital interest in supporting moderate Muslims against the extremist minority. But threats such as Shiite Iran should be understood and addressed differently than Sunni jihadist movements; and the rest of the world does not fit neatly into a bipolar struggle between two camps. The next president needs to be prepared to check aggression from China or Russia, or combat a pandemic.

The common blind spot among the Democrats is Iraq. Eager to please a constituency that despises the war, the candidates commonly promise to "end" it, ignoring the reality that Iraq is still an active battlefield for al-Qaeda. Mr. Obama rails against the failure to destroy al-Qaeda's camps in eastern Pakistan, where no American troops operate, yet proposes to control al-Qaeda in Iraq with a "minimal over-the-horizon military force" -- a plan that would duplicate the Pakistan problem. Ms. Clinton says that "we cannot succeed" against al-Qaeda "unless we design a strategy that treats the entire region as an interconnected whole, where crises overlap with one another and the danger of a chain reaction of disasters is real." Yet she would effectively exclude Iraq from that strategy.

Among all the candidates only John McCain has been honest about the painful fact that the course of the war in Iraq will do more than anything else to determine whether al-Qaeda is defeated by the next president. "The war in Iraq cannot be wished away," he wrote in Foreign Affairs. "This is an American war, and its outcome will touch every one of our citizens for years to come." Neither rhetoric about a new Cold War against Islamic fascism nor promises to unilaterally "end" the fighting in Iraq will change that stubborn reality.

For more editorials in this series, click here.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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