Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

The Sorry Shape of the War On Terror

By
Jed Babbin

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush said we would take every action necessary to defeat what he called the “global terror network.” This phrase instantly gave birth to the idea that we were embarked on a “global war on terror” to stamp out its menace permanently. Yet, in his most recent State of the Union speech, President Obama seemed to declare that President Bush’s “global war on terror” is over.

In the intervening thirteen years, we’ve gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, sent special forces into nations including Pakistan, Somalia and Uganda and flown drone strikes that have killed many terrorists, including American citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki. President Obama, however, has indicated that we are no longer going to be on what he called a “permanent war footing”—a statement that seems to indicate that he believes the conflict should no longer be a national security concern. Yet, as we see by their attacks in many nations almost every day, the terrorists don’t agree. The war is a long way from being over.

We are now within a few months of the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. An honest assessment of how the war is going, what mistakes we have made since it started and how, if at all, we can win is long overdue.

A history of anti-American aggression

The first question is whether we really believe this conflict is a war. That question is as old as our nation.

When President Bush spoke about the global terror network, he wasn’t talking about the Irish Republican Army or the FARC narco-terrorists of Colombia. He was speaking about the global network of Muslim terrorists and nations that have been conducting acts of war against us since we became the United States.

In his June 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama said that Islam had always been a part of America’s story, citing the Treaty of Tripoli of 1796. That treaty, of course, was born of the first jihad that America encountered: the piracy of Barbary nations. The Pasha of Tripoli violated the 1796 treaty when he—renewing previously abandoned demands—required ransom for American captives and tribute payments to protect future shipping. Thomas Jefferson thus began the First Barbary War, in which he sent our Navy and Marines to chastise the Islamic Barbary pirates.

President Obama was correct in saying that Islam has always been a part of America’s history. What he left out was that Islamic nations were always adversaries—that is, until the post-World War II era when we became reliant on the Arab nations for oil.

Ever since the Barbary Wars, America has responded to terrorist violence with indecision and confusion. There were few violent encounters between American interests and Islamic nations in the years between 1815 and 1979, when Iranians took sixty Americans hostage in our embassy in Tehran and held them for 444 days. When Jimmy Carter’s April 1980 rescue mission failed, that debacle again blunted our willingness to retaliate.

Even the best of presidents was inconsistent. Ronald Reagan took no military action in response to terrorist attacks including the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines, soldiers and sailors or the killing of American Leon Klinghoffer by PLO terrorists during a cruise ship hijacking in 1985. Yet he ordered a 1986 air strike on Libya in response to the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed three people.

The general failure to respond continued through the March 3, 1993, al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center. Six people were killed then by a truck bomb driven into the garage under the structure by a terrorist named Ramzi Yousef. (Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who would go on to become the mastermind of 9/11, had funded the attack.) We also took no military action in response to the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed over 200 or the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors. Both attacks were perpetrated by al-Qaeda.

Terrorists became used to the fact that American lives could be taken without the risk of reprisal.

Why, time and again, did we fail to retaliate for attacks that took American lives? It cannot be that terrorists were too hard to find, because in the pre-9/11 world many operated from places that were well known to our intelligence community. It wasn’t a matter of restraint, either, as Reagan proved with the Libya raid. Rather, the answer lies in America’s historical confusion on how to deal with terrorism. We never treated those attacks as the acts of war they were. The resulting muddled policy on terrorism must be reformed if we are to have any chance of surviving with our constitution and way of life intact.

False start

In President George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001, speech we heard, for the first time, all of our contradictory policies stated together. Bush attempted to weave a path around that muddle, but couldn’t. His actions after the speech only institutionalized the problems.

Bush said that “on September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.” Bush’s speech split his attention between two audiences: the American people, who had just been attacked by Muslim terrorists, and the world’s Muslim community. To them, he said that America respects Islam and that Islam’s teachings are “good and peaceful” but that some “who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.” He likewise said that the terrorists are “traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

His most resolute statement was, “And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” He gave the Taliban government of Afghanistan a choice, to either surrender the terrorists or share their fate.

Yet, after eight years of Bush and four years of Obama, we are left to wonder whether the “global war on terror” is really a war, who the enemy is, and whether we can ever win it.

If the “GWOT” were a war, we would have prosecuted it just as Bush said we would that night. We would have attacked Islamist terror networks wherever they could be found, we would have forced nations to choose whether they were with us or with the terrorists and punished those who made the wrong choice economically, militarily or, in some cases, both ways. And we would have studied the enemy closely enough to understand that we should not be at war with Islam, but with much of the Islamist ideology and those who adhere most closely to it. Neither Bush nor Obama has prosecuted such a war.

Of the many nations that haven’t been forced to choose between us and the terrorists, Saudi Arabia stands out. The worst-kept secret in America is that Saudi Arabia has been, from the time that al-Qaeda was just a gleam in Osama bin Laden’s eye, a principal sponsor of the terror network.

In a December 2009 secret U.S. State Department cable to all embassies, divulged by Wikileaks, the State Department wrote:

(S/NF) While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority. Due in part to intense focus by the USG over the last several years, Saudi Arabia has begun to make important progress on this front and has responded to terrorist financing concerns raised by the United States through proactively investigating and detaining financial facilitators of concern. Still, donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide…

(S/NF) The USG engages regularly with the Saudi Government on terrorist financing. The establishment in 2008 of a Treasury attaché office presence in Riyadh contributes to robust interaction and information sharing on the issue. Despite this presence, however, more needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT, and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources, often during Hajj and Ramadan. In contrast to its increasingly aggressive efforts to disrupt al-Qa’ida’s access to funding from Saudi sources, Riyadh has taken only limited action to disrupt fundraising for the UN 1267-listed Taliban and LeT groups that are also aligned with al-Qa’ida and focused on undermining stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.(1) [Emphasis added]

That was 2009, eight years after the United States had been attacked and gone to war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It was nearly eight years after America undertook to disrupt terrorist funding. And it was a year after the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that were perpetrated by Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT) which took 164 lives, including those of four Americans.

Saudi Arabia has never been forced to choose between us and the terrorists: it has chosen to sell us oil and use some of the proceeds to fund al-Qaeda. Consider that in the context of the “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” requested by Bush and passed by Congress on September 14, 2001. The AUMF said, “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”(2)

The AUMF thus encompasses al-Qaeda and those who aided it before 9/11, but not after. That includes, for example, Saudi Arabia more clearly than Iraq. It probably excludes Iran entirely, and though the al-Qaeda connection to Syria is murky, it is certainly clearer than that of Somalia or Sudan, where our military has made limited strikes.

What that means is that there never was intended to be a “global” war on terror, despite President Bush’s rhetoric. That is more and more evident as the Obama administration withdraws from the “war” and our military takes a more lawyerly view of the AUMF.

Two February reports in the Washington Post indicate clearly that the older the AUMF gets, the more need there is for it to be amended. One said, “According to recently declassified testimony of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the House Armed Services Committee in October, the U.S. military regards itself as legally barred from going after the perpetrators of the Benghazi attacks (and, presumably, others who attack Americans) unless they are affiliated with al-Qaida. The Obama administration’s parsing of words to deny al-Qaida’s direct involvement effectively precludes a military response in these situations.”(3) Did this bar a military response to the 9-11-2012 attacks in Benghazi?

Another report indicated that because the Syrian al-Qaeda group, ISIS, had been expelled from al-Qaeda, Obama administration officials were now arguing over whether it was now outside the AUMF—and if our military had authority to attack them at all.(4)

In a saner time, Congress would simply amend the AUMF to convert it to a declaration of war against all the terrorist groups who have, according to their own dogmas, the objective of harming America and overthrowing our constitutional government. The nations that support those terrorist groups—providing fighters, safe harbor, funding or arms—would be given the choice of either forsaking their support for terrorism or being included in that declaration.

The use of kinetic weapons, however, is only half the war. Every war America has fought since we became a nation has really been two wars: a kinetic battle fought with bullets and bombs and a war of ideologies, a fight to the death over ideas and ideals. The kinetic war on terrorism is the only one we have fought so far. We’ve surrendered the ideological battle to the enemy by refusing to fight it. As a result, we are faring little better in the kinetic war.

It’s the ideology, stupid

In 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, in London to negotiate peace with Tripoli, inquired why Tripoli warred against the United States, which had done it no harm. Historians record the Tripolitan ambassador’s reply as saying that under the Koran all nations that had not embraced Islam were sinners, and that it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave them.(5)

This is the same Islamist/piratical/terrorist ideology that Osama bin Laden gave voice to in his 1996 and 1998 fatwas calling on all Muslims to wage war against the United States. It is the same ideology that Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, uses to insist that the “Death to America” chant demanded of Iranians is as important a religious obligation as their daily prayers. It is the same ideology that propels the attacks by the terrorist networks. It is not, in the minds of the terrorists and others who follow that ideology, the “blasphemy” that George Bush labeled it in 2001.

We have not fought the ideological war because political correctness, propelled by a national weakness and a media tidal wave, have combined to make even the idea of speaking out against Islamist ideology akin to an Orwellian thought crime. The political left is entirely comfortable in using their worst accusations—of bigotry, racism and such—to prevent honest debate on the subject. In the process, they have become the modern version of what Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin called “useful idiots.” And they have almost succeeded in making any such discussion a hate crime.

To be fair, there are people who understood that an ideological war had to be fought, and tried to fight it. A source close to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told me that early in the war, Rumsfeld held a dinner at his St. Michaels, Maryland, home for several relevant agency heads to try to convince them that they should join him in engaging in the needed ideological war. Unfortunately, he had no takers.

When he became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine General Peter Pace wrote his “chairman’s guidance” to the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces in which he outlined that what we said and wrote was as important as how well we shoot. But Pace, too, failed to gain support. The reason was a lack of support at the top.

To fight the ideological war, then, is an essential predicate to winning the kinetic one. To do so, we should not condemn all of Islam and its adherents. We should not proclaim that we are at war with Islam, because we are not. But it is necessary to answer all of those who say there is “only one Islam” with President Bush’s admonition: either you are allied with the terrorists or you are allied with us. As the Sunni-Shiite split proves, there is no “one Islam.” We need to be saying so often, and exerting relentless pressure on moderate Muslims to choose between the barbarity of terrorism and the civilization of freedom on which our nation stands.

That is a constant message that every American politician, military member and journalist needs to repeat to all who will listen. Ronald Reagan, who once condemned the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” understood how to conduct an ideological war. We need to remember the lessons he taught.

But this will not happen under the current administration, which has banned the use of terms such as “Islamic extremism” and “jihad” from our national security strategy documents. And because of that mindset, there will not be an ideological contest between terrorists and America’s constitutional freedoms during this president’s term of office

What we’re left with

The necessary effect of our failure to fight the ideological war is that, though our military has fought with skill and bravery for more than a decade, we haven’t won the kinetic war and we are not about to. The state of the terrorist threat should hammer home this point.

The Obama administration continues to talk about al-Qaeda in terms of a “core” group and its affiliates. It is unclear now what the “core” group is. Some al-Qaeda affiliates, such as the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (Syria), are on the outs with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for disobeying his order to withdraw from Syria. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is operating, probably with Saudi support and Yemeni complicity, in the Peninsula. Both may be capable of attacking the U.S. homeland.

Though al-Qaeda lost its most charismatic leader when bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011, its funding has been constant, as is its ideological fight against Western civilization. Back in February, National Intelligence Director James Clapper admitted as much when he stated that the group can neither be considered on the run nor on a path to defeat.(6) In fact, the DNI’s threat assessment of January 29, 2014, indicates that at least one al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has tried to mount several attacks against America.(7)

Other large and powerful terrorist networks, such as the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah militia in Lebanon (and beyond) has benefited greatly in the past ten years from American inattention and our lack of interference with Iranian proxies. Its missiles now threaten all of Israel.

There are too many other terrorist groups to chart the progress of each here. Suffice it to say that, in general, many are larger and stronger than they were on 9/11. One of the principal reasons for this is that their ideology has been unchallenged since that day.

America’s military efforts, meanwhile, have proven costly in blood and treasure. For a decade, we listened to a series of American generals tell us that our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan were “fragile and reversible.” Our nation-building strategy made that a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Iraq, what was fragile and reversible has been broken and reversed. In Afghanistan, it is about to be.

Iraq is now a de facto satellite of Iran. Its ruler, Nouri al-Maliki, is a Shi’ite closely tied to Iran (as is his government) who has reignited the Sunni-Shi’a split in Iraq that Gen. David Petraeus tried to mend without success. The government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has turned out to be corrupt to the core—and is actively seeking a modus vivendi with the Taliban that will inevitably return the country to its pre/9-11 status as a safe haven for terrorists.

In sum, the outlook for the war is very bleak—and getting bleaker. Conflicts fester in Syria and Yemen while the ideological sources behind them—be they Sunni Saudi Arabia or Shi’ite Iran—remain unaddressed by an America that is actively seeking to lower its profile in the region.

Without a serious reexamination of the purposes and direction of the GWOT, neither the Obama administration nor any likely successor can be expected to succeed against the existential threat to America that is 21st-century Islamist terrorism.

To be sure, there may yet be a future American leader who will direct the fights in the ideological and kinetic wars. But time is working against the United States, and in favor of its enemies. The longer it takes for such a leader to arise, the less chance he will have to succeed.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow for the London Center for Policy Research and both a contributing editor for The American Spectator and a columnist for The Washington Examiner.


1.    “US Embassy Cables: Hillary Clinton Says Saudi Arabia ‘a Critical Source of Terrorist Funding,’” Guardian (London), December 5, 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/242073. (S/NF) means “secret, no dissemination to foreign persons or governments.”

2.    “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” S.J. Res. 23, 107th Congress, 2001-2002, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/107/sjres23/text.

3.    Katherine Zimmerman, “A New Definition for al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, January 31, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-new-definition-for-al-qaeda/201....

4.    Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller, “Al-Qaeda’s Expulsion of Islamist Group in Syria Prompts U.S. Debate,” Washington Post, February 10, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/al-qaedas-excommun....

5.    The Atlantic Monthly, Making of America Project (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872), 413. http://books.google.com/books?id=nWQCAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA413#v=onepage&q&f=false.

6.    Stephanie Condon, “Al Qaeda is ‘Morphing,’ not on the Run, Intel Chiefs Say,” CBS News, February 11, 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/al-qaeda-is-morphing-not-on-the-run-intel-ch....

7.    James R. Clapper, Statement for the Record before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, January 29, 2014, http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Intelligence%20Reports/2014%20WWTA%20....