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ROSA BROOKS

So you feel safer now?

September 08, 2006|ROSA BROOKS

FIVE YEARS after 9/11, the Bush administration has run out of troops, ideas and political capital. But there's still plenty of Kool-Aid in the White House fridge.

That's why President Bush was able to assure us this week that "America is safer" after five years of the war on terror.

Safer? Do you feel safer?

Right after 9/11, America had the world's sympathy. Since then, anti-U.S. sentiment has increased sharply. Militant Islam used to be a "niche ideology," as Brookings Institution fellow Ivo Daalder put it. But today, thanks to the invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration's nasty little habit of torturing detainees, militant Islam is an ideology with millions of adherents. That doesn't make me feel safer.

Right after 9/11, we had the world's strongest military. But the administration sidelined our military leaders whenever their advice was politically inconvenient, and we now have lost more Americans in Iraq than we lost on 9/11: at least 2,662 troops and 136 U.S. government contractors. We're forcing exhausted reservists into back-to-back tours of duty, and military recruiters are struggling to meet their quotas. That doesn't make me feel safer.

If anything, the war on terror seems to have been perversely designed to drive more recruits into Al Qaeda's waiting arms. On Wednesday, Bush defended what he euphemistically referred to as an "alternative set of procedures" for detainees who remain "defiant" in the face of ordinary interrogation methods. These "alternative" techniques have included mock executions, "water-boarding" (simulated drowning) and induced hypothermia. Do we think this is going to win any hearts and minds in the Islamic world?

The Bush administration doesn't even seem capable of heeding its own advice on how to fight terrorism. Since 9/11, the administration has insisted that the war on terror is "a new kind of war." In an earlier era, the classic war was between two or more states with clear governance structures, defined territories and armies under hierarchical command. The goals were clear: You sought to take over the enemy state's territory, destroy its military and, if necessary, oust its leadership. Once that was done, the enemy's surrender was more or less inevitable, the war was over and the victor could head home.

But Bush has insisted, in countless speeches, that fighting terrorism requires "new ways of thinking" because "doctrines designed to contain empires, deter aggressive states and defeat massed armies" aren't appropriate for combating global terrorist networks. It's an excellent point -- and our anti-terror efforts are backfiring in part because the administration keeps ignoring it.

In Afghanistan, for instance, our goal was to eliminate Al Qaeda. But with the rout of the Taliban, Afghanistan's de facto government, Bush administration officials apparently decided that the important part of the war was over.

They were wrong; that was just the easy part. But administration hawks were eager to move on and invade another state, so they diverted troops and resources to Iraq. Osama bin Laden slipped away, and we never followed through on our pledge to bring stability and human rights to the Afghan people either.

The predictable result? Afghanistan is again deteriorating into violence and instability. The Taliban is back, suicide bombings are on the increase and U.S. troops are dying in Afghanistan at a faster rate than before. That doesn't make me feel safer either.

Then there's Iraq. Why did we go to war in Iraq, a state that had nothing to do with 9/11? Well, when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Despite all the rhetoric about "new ways of thinking," the administration seems unable to break old state-centric habits. We went to war in Iraq because Iraq, like Mt. Everest, was there. And we approached the Iraq war as if it were 1941, not 2003. We had a fine plan for pummeling the Republican Guard, taking Baghdad and ousting Saddam Hussein -- but no plan for preventing postwar Iraq from deteriorating into civil war or becoming a terrorist training ground.

No, Mr. President, I'm not feeling safer. The administration's war planners are yesterday's men: They talk tough, but they never learned the lessons of Vietnam, much less the lessons of 9/11.

Effective counter-terrorism means more than just beating the war drums. If we really want to make this nation safer, we need to get serious about human intelligence -- gained not through torturing the people we capture but through investing in the linguistic and cultural skills we'll need to understand the Islamic world. And we need to address the political grievances that drive ordinary people to support terror in the first place.

Not interested? Fine, have some more Kool-Aid. Just don't try to make the rest of us drink it too.

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rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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