The most significant moment in last week's Democratic presidential candidate debate came during the evening's most simplistic question. Moderator Brian Williams asked for a show of hands on whether the candidates "believe" there is a Global War on Terror, yielding a four-to-four split. It was a silly choice, since Williams was technically asking if the candidates believe that Bush's foreign policy exists, but it could still spark an important discussion. John Edwards was the only one of the "top three" candidates to vote no, which swiftly brought him praise, scorn and ridicule. After saying the U.S. must strongly deal with "dangerous leaders in the world," Edwards emphasized the need to use all the tools of foreign policy, not simply hard military power. His argument was not really a denial of the existence of Bush's Global War on Terrorism, but a nod towards an alternative.
There is really no denying that President Bush has organized U.S. foreign policy around an endless Global War on Terrorism (or "GWOT" in government circles). As he declared in his historic address to a joint session of Congress after 9/11, even if Al-Qaeda is destroyed, Bush envisions a war that "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." He means that literally. It is a war that targets a tactic instead of an enemy; like declaring war on war, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has noted. Without a defined enemy, of course, it is a war that can creep far from our vital security interests. In 2002, administration officials claimed Bush could invade Iraq without any congressional authorization at all, based on GWOT, and Condi Rice made the same claim about Syria in 2005. The administration invokes the same endless war to justify imprisoning American citizens without trial; suspending habeas corpus; illegally spying on American citizens; and detaining hundreds of people for years without charges in the lawless Gitmo prison. The policy is built on the twin fallacies that the best defense is a reckless offense, and the world wants (and hates) our freedom. In the name of fighting terror, President Bush aims to advance democracy abroad while restricting it at home, treating Congress and the Courts as barriers to national security. The 2005 National Defense Strategy report even argues American "judicial processes" can be a weapon of choice for our enemies.
Yet as everyone knows, GWOT has resulted in a total security failure. A new State Department report shows terrorism is up 29 percent; Bin Laden remains at large; Iraq is in a civil war, draining resources from counterterrorism and Afghanistan; and Gitmo, which has generated no major terrorist convictions, is such a failure that Defense Secretary Robert Gates made shutting it down one of his first priorities in office. Meanwhile, it is only through congressional and judicial oversight, which Bush derides as counterproductive to his endless global war, that the public has learned about critical vulnerabilities exploited by the 9/11 hijackers; false intelligence regarding WMDs; wasteful defense spending; and the failed detention system at Gitmo, to name a few items.
The question is not whether people "believe" these facts. The question is what the U.S. can do to change them.
Any credible presidential aspirant must present a detailed alternative to Bush's Global War on Terrorism. On the merits, it's hard to understand why candidates (in either party) would try to attach themselves to such a discredited policy from a very unpopular president. For too long, the Global War on Terrorism has been presented as little more than a tough slogan that all mainstream figures must support. By daring the candidates to doubt its existence in a show of hands, Brian Williams cracked the door just wide enough for simplistic protest. Now it's up to the candidates to elaborate on their proposed alternatives. And it's up to activists and voters to make sure this consequential issue stays on the agenda.
To that end, some Democratic bloggers are cheering Edwards and pressing other candidates to challenge the GWOT. MyDD's Matt Stoller writes that Edwards' opposition was a welcome "departure from the bipartisan consensus" backing GWOT. Writing on the same blog in 2004, Chris Bowers called on Democrats to abandon the war on terror frame. This argument is not confined to bloggers or liberal critics, either. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, an influential foreign policy adviser to Democrats across the political spectrum, argued in 2005 that while GWOT had "entered the English language" as the "way our highest national priority is described by almost everyone," it was simply "not an accurate description of America's enemy or of what we are engaged in." He called for jettisoning GWOT and adopting a more focused attack on Al Qaeda.
The public should demand leadership and bold policies from these candidates who would be president. So how about a show of hands of voters who believe in this position: Any candidate who cannot outline an effective alternative to Bush's failed Global War on Terrorism does not deserve to be president.
NOTES AND FURTHER READING
Zbigniew Brzezinski repeated his opposition to GWOT in an essay this weekend.
I elaborated on GWOT in this op-ed about the President's authority under the 2001 authorization of force, coauthored with Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and these remarks at last year's YearlyKos convention.
It's also worth noting that even the Bush Administration has conceded flaws in the GWOT framework, and it briefly experimented with a different concept in 2005. The Christian Science Monitor summarized responses to that effort at the time, and Democracy Arsenal's Suzanne Nossel proposed several alternative priorities.
Brian Williams felt that the NBC organizers were too restrictive with the debate time limits, which forced him to "suppress" his "instincts to challenge candidates on unanswered questions" almost a dozen times.
For a thorough analysis of whether GWOT is a sustainable foreign policy, check out this 2003 report by Dr. Jeffrey Record of the U.S. Army War College.