9/11 2006: Bush Jnr stays with tactics which back torture and alienate allies Print E-mail

Sunday, September 10, 2006; Page B06


The Fifth Anniversary


Mr. Bush has refined his theory and conduct of the war against terrorism -- but not in the right way.

AS THE fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, President Bush has offered the country a partisan but sometimes revealing review of the war that began with the attacks on New York and Washington. For the most part, he has belligerently defended his strategy and methods; he has demanded that Congress immediately approve his controversial schemes for the detention and trial of foreign terrorists, once again using vital questions of national security as a campaign wedge issue. But the president has also signaled subtle shifts of course in the way his administration understands the war and in the way it proposes to fight it.

Mr. Bush has refined his description of the enemy: Now he says "the war on terror" is "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century," pitting free nations against a "totalitarian" version of Islam. Tacitly acknowledging that some of the ad hoc measures he adopted in secret after Sept. 11 are unsustainable, he has also sought to reshape them and put them on a more solid legal footing. With little more than two years left in office, aides say, Mr. Bush is trying to lay the foundation for a long struggle that he believes is "only in its opening stages."

We think Mr. Bush is mostly right about the stakes of the threat posed by Islamic extremism, and we've welcomed some of his adjustments, such as his steps to bring all U.S. military operations back into conformance with the Geneva Conventions. But two major aspects of the president's speeches are troubling: his characterization of the Islamic threat as "a single movement" including both al-Qaeda and Iran; and his insistence that the United States reserve the right to violate international humanitarian laws.

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 Mr. Bush's declared enemy was al-Qaeda and the allied Taliban regime in Afghanistan; later he defined an "axis of evil" that lumped together Communist North Korea, Iran and the secular Iraqi dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Now he perceives both al-Qaeda and Iran, as well as affiliates like the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, as collectively making up "a worldwide network of radicals that use terror."

One problem with this view is that it acknowledges but skates over the enormous differences between Sunni terrorist networks and Iran. In Iraq, al-Qaeda is literally at war with proxies of Iran, which in turn is a sworn enemy of the Taliban. Mr. Bush asserts that "the Shia and Sunni extremists represent different faces of the same threat"; in fact the Iranian regime does not threaten, as does al-Qaeda, to launch devastating attacks on the American homeland. Its interests are more nationalist and regional than ideological and global. There is a wide gap inside the regime between extremists like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and moderates like former president Mohammed Khatami, who on Thursday delivered a speech at Washington National Cathedral calling for dialogue between the West and the Islamic world.

The danger is that Mr. Bush's flawed definitions will lead to flawed strategy. While the threat that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons must be confronted -- as should the nuclear threat from North Korea -- Tehran's Islamic doctrine has not proved a major danger to the world, or even the region, over the last quarter-century. Mr. Bush rightly said that "it is foolish to think that you can negotiate with" al-Qaeda. But as the State Department's recent diplomacy reflects, negotiation -- or long-term containment -- may be the best option for Iran.

Mr. Bush seems to understand better than he did five years ago that diplomacy and the promotion of democratic values are as important to winning the war as military action. But in insisting on maintaining the CIA's secret prisons and in asking Congress to cancel some of the protections from abuse granted prisoners by the Geneva Conventions, he risks perpetuating and compounding one of his greatest errors. As senior U.S. generals now state publicly, abusive interrogation techniques are ineffective and counterproductive; they do not produce reliable intelligence. At the same time, they make it impossible for the United States to obtain full cooperation from key allies in Europe and elsewhere, damage its reputation around the world, and make it more likely that captured Americans will be tortured.

Mr. Bush could do the country a great service by using the remainder of his term to put the war against terrorism on a sustainable long-term course. But lumping disparate threats together, insisting on tactics that alienate allies and violate fundamental American values, and using the war as a partisan bludgeon makes for an unpromising start.