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Outside View: A nation not at war

Barack Obama portrays al-Qaida as the prime enemy. But his strategy in Afghanistan is based on defeating the Taliban and in Iraq imposing some measure of order on chaos wrought by Iraq's domestic politics. Is either conflict "war" or simply widespread violence that is mischaracterized or misapplied as a surrogate for war?
by Harlan Ullman
Washington (UPI) Dec 1, 2010
The United States is many things, great and good. But, despite last week's teapot-sized tempest over full-body scanners and intrusive patdowns by the Transportation Security Agency to neuter terrorist airline bombing threats and zealous rhetoric to the contrary, America isn't a nation at war! Parts of the nation however are engaged in what to them is surely the real thing.

The Pentagon is certainly at war with at least 150,000 U.S. service personnel fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and that region. The intelligence, State Department, law enforcement and other agencies are selectively at war as are civilians serving in non-governmental organizations or contractors in these most dangerous parts of the world. Journalists still "embed" with troops in the field although with the drawdown in Iraq, less frequently.

Thus far, no sightings of victory gardens or war bond drives have been reported unless you count the actions of the Federal Reserve in quantitative easing as the modern equivalent of lending money on behalf of the government in time of crisis. And the only references to rationing arose in the context of healthcare and fear mongering tactics by the more extreme opponents of the bill who falsely and premeditatively asserted that is what would happen if the bill became law.

War doesn't require a formal declaration passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. Korea and Vietnam demonstrated that. But wars usually require a real and well-defined enemy. Unfortunately, misnamed wars on drugs, crime, poverty, AIDs and especially terror have diluted the impact of the word -- a malaise we suffer from today.

So who is it we are fighting in this mal-defined war; do we understand our enemy that all competent commentators since Sun Tzu have agreed is priority one; are we winning or losing; and how will we know?

George W. Bush saw the enemy as Islamist extremism, quickly recast in more politically acceptable terms of "violent extremism" and an axis of evil of anti-democracy dictatorships. The first was to be defeated by the war on terror; the second by the freedom agenda.

Barack Obama portrays al-Qaida as the prime enemy. But his strategy in Afghanistan is based on defeating the Taliban and in Iraq imposing some measure of order on chaos wrought by Iraq's domestic politics. Is either conflict "war" or simply widespread violence that is mischaracterized or misapplied as a surrogate for war?

As the starting point, assume the enemy is al-Qaida. After all these years, does America and its public really possess adequate understanding of what al-Qaida is and is not or are we embarked on our own form of Anglo-Saxon-Judaic jihad to avenge September 11th? Do we really comprehend what motivates and energizes al-Qaida and, if so, have we identified effective antidotes and counter measures beyond so-called kinetic options including drone attacks and targeted killings and snatches? Most significantly, we have missed or denied ourselves use of the single most effective tool at our disposal -- winning the war of ideas.

This failure was recorded by the Pentagon's Defense Science Board Report of September 2004 to the Secretary of Defense on strategic communications. The then chairman of the DSB noted that America cannot win the global war on terror without winning the battle of ideas. The report showed why we were losing that fight and how to turn the tide.

Six years later, the authors would be saddened but not surprised by our continuing failure to contest the battle of ideas with al-Qaida. Why have we not pulverized Osama bin Laden's self-awarded legitimacy and the right to issue fatwas or religious dictates as he lacked the education and certification required by Islam for that privilege? Why have large numbers of clerics of all faiths but essentially Islamic not come forward to condemn bin Laden with the vigor Osama has used to attack the west?

And, why have we not encouraged a Muslim awakening of many potential Martin Luther's to combat bin Laden's perversion of Islam?

An intellectually rigorous and politically sophisticated approach to winning this battle of ideas has never been needed more. This isn't clever PR although clever PR is important. That we have given mere lip service and little more to engaging on this crucial battlefield in the war of ideas is perhaps the clearest evidence we aren't a nation at war. Asked another way, are we serious in taking on this adversary?

As we draw down in Iraq and turn security responsibilities over to Afghans, instead of doing a review of Afghanistan strategy this month, the White House would be best advised to reread the DSB report, determine why are we still losing that fight and take remedial action? Otherwise, we aren't a state at war.

(Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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