In today’s Washington Post, PSA board member, John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, wrote a useful analysis of how, despite several successes in the war against jihadists, we must recognize that new thinking is needed in order to deal with the many challenges ahead of us.
I strongly agree with Lehman that the first thing that we need to change is the way that we talk about the so called “war on terror”. Although many may say that modifying the language we use is trivial compared to the actual problems we are facing, I would argue that our language greatly contributes to the situation that we find outselves in now. It was the language of a “war on terror” that led us down the path of military action in places like Iraq. This “war on terror” frame both gives our government broad authority to ignore civil liberties and it also eliminates the possibilities for political solutions. This overemphasis on a military approach has left the Israeli army the loser and Hezbollah the winner in the recent Lebanon conflict. We now see in the run up to the November elections that the Bush administration continues to integrate Iraq into its overall war on terror theme. According to recent polling, it seems that the American people are now seeing through this charade. This approach, however, was incredibly useful in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Time will tell whether or not it continues to be so this year. However, the unfortunate consequence is that the language we use, although powerful in a political sense, often leads us to poor policy choices.
I agree with many of Lehman’s points on the need to reform intelligence and to focus on preventive intelligence. These make sense.
However, one area where I would disagree with Lehman is in our country’s commitment to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. Yes, supposedly our Iraq fiasco was an attempt to do so. That, of course, has proven to be red herring. We now talk about Iran as the next country that has the potential to arm terrorists. While this may be a valid concern, we are still not focusing our efforts sufficiently on the source of nuclear materials that clearly exists today – those in the former Soviet Union. Yes, progress is being made. And for that, some credit is due. However, the resources being devoted to this effort are still dwarfed by the magnitude of the threat. In December 2005, the 9/11 Commission designated a “D” grade for our government’s efforts in this area. And this is not just a failure of the Bush administration. Despite the efforts by Senators Obama and Lugar, Congress must also take some of the blame, both Democrats and Republicans. Brian Finlay and Andrew Grotto wrote an excellent report about a year ago that detailed how far behind we are in this effort. The Partnership for a Secure America released a statement back in January at the time of the State of the Union address highlighting some of the important steps we must take in order to secure these materials.