A substantive debate

One of the underlying criticisms of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the War on Terror has been that it came into office with a realpolitik mindset and that — even after 9/11 — it has focused too much on states rather than non-state actors (i.e., Al Qaeda) in its anti-terrorism policy. Spencer Ackerman identifies this ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

One of the underlying criticisms of the Bush administration's prosecution of the War on Terror has been that it came into office with a realpolitik mindset and that -- even after 9/11 -- it has focused too much on states rather than non-state actors (i.e., Al Qaeda) in its anti-terrorism policy. Spencer Ackerman identifies this key fissure in his latest TNR article. The political ramifications for the Bush administration could be problematic. The crux of the article:

One of the underlying criticisms of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the War on Terror has been that it came into office with a realpolitik mindset and that — even after 9/11 — it has focused too much on states rather than non-state actors (i.e., Al Qaeda) in its anti-terrorism policy. Spencer Ackerman identifies this key fissure in his latest TNR article. The political ramifications for the Bush administration could be problematic. The crux of the article:

Republican James Thompson–who led the offensive against Clarke at the last round of hearings–questioned whether the White House even understands twenty-first century terrorism: “You referenced … all these state-sponsored terrorist activities,” he said to Rice, “when we know today that the real threat is from either rogue states–Iran, North Korea–or from stateless terrorist organizations–Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas. Does the Bush administration get this difference?” Rice, apparently caught off guard, countered that when terrorists “can get states to cooperate with them or when they can get states to acquiesce in their being on their territory, they’re much more effective.” But reconfiguring the terrorist threat to focus mainly on state sponsorship is problematic: It treats the terrorists themselves as a subsidiary concern. And, as the Bush administration has demonstrated in Afghanistan, this strategy can lull the U.S. government into ignoring the ongoing presence of terrorists in a country even after their state sponsors have been defeated. Rice’s answer to Thompson’s question–“Does the Bush administration get this difference?”–seemed to be: No. Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey went even further. “We underestimate that this war on terrorism is really a war against radical Islam,” he said. “Terrorism is a tactic. It’s not a war itself.” Kerrey, a liberal advocate of the Iraq war, argued that the administration’s current fecklessness in Iraq was undermining U.S. interests. “I don’t think we understand how the Muslim world views us, and I’m terribly worried that the military tactics in Iraq are going to do a number of things, and they’re all bad,” he said. All of this points to the real political damage the 9/11 Commission could inflict on President Bush. Ever since Clarke issued his account of a Bush administration asleep at the switch in 2001, the president’s allies have urged him to reframe the debate toward his post-9/11 posture. But yesterday’s hearings indicate that the 9/11 Commission might issue recommendations that imply the Bush administration still doesn’t know how to combat Islamist terrorism three years after the attacks–thereby robbing Bush of what is perhaps his cardinal political asset. And if that’s what the Commission does, neither Rice nor any of her colleagues will be able to claim they only had 233 days to understand the problem.

Ackerman does miss one important detail in his argument, which is that in world politics, powerful states do much better at influencing the actions of other states than influencing the activities of non-state actors. Which raises a question — is it better to pursue an anti-terror strategy with productive strategies that only indirectly affect the terrorists themselves, or to pursue an anti-terror strategy with less productive strategies that directly affect the terrorists themselves?

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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