Mr. Obama's War

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

WILL THE "war on terror" continue once the Obama administration is in office? In one sense the answer is easy: Barack Obama made clear during the election campaign that he takes the threat of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups seriously. He's been hawkish in proposing more troops for Afghanistan as well as unilateral strikes targeting al-Qaeda in Pakistan. He's promised to dedicate more resources to preventing the worst-case scenario of terrorists obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

Still, there are many indications that the campaign launched by George W. Bush after Sept. 11, 2001 -- an effort that for all its faults has prevented another attack on the U.S. homeland -- is losing momentum. Just 5 percent of voters in a pre-election Washington Post-ABC poll cited terrorism as their biggest concern. Last Sunday, The Post's Craig Whitlock reported that the global system for blacklisting financiers of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups was "at risk of collapse" because of court challenges and faltering commitment by governments -- including some in Europe. European leaders are also loath to commit more troops to Afghanistan.

Among Democrats in Congress, there is a pent-up demand to reverse some of Mr. Bush's anti-terrorism measures, starting with the detention of foreign prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. While that's a step we support, it leaves open the questions of what to do with more than 250 accused "enemy combatants" still there -- many of them senior al-Qaeda leaders or dangerous militants -- and how and where to hold al-Qaeda operatives who are captured abroad in the future. Some who have advised Mr. Obama, such as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, question the premises of a "war on terror." All this means that Mr. Obama will face a challenge, early on, in defining what the fight against terrorism means for his administration and how it will be waged. Whether or not he adopts the term "war on terror," he will have to convince Americans, his party and U.S. allies that the threat remains real and urgent -- because, as anyone following events in Afghanistan and Pakistan knows, it does. But he will also have to distinguish his own campaign from that of Mr. Bush, eliminating the excesses of the latter without lessening the pressure on al-Qaeda.

In political terms, the toughest part of this may not lie in Afghanistan or Pakistan but at Guantanamo. Mr. Bush will leave behind a broken system for detaining and trying the "enemy combatants" there; its military review panels and commission trials have little international credibility and were crippled by a Supreme Court decision in June allowing prisoners to challenge their detentions in federal court. But the U.S. legal system does not provide enough flexibility to detain suspects who may not be guilty of a crime but pose a serious security threat.

The reasonable solution is new legislation that would allow the detention of al-Qaeda militants in either the United States or prisons it controls abroad, while banning abusive treatment and providing for regular and full review by independent judges. An early proposal of such a regime by Mr. Obama to Congress, coupled with the announcement of Guantanamo's closing, would signal that he will be serious about fighting al-Qaeda -- and also that he will avoid Mr. Bush's mistakes.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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