Bob Herbert: The Wreckage in the China Shop

The Wreckage in the China Shop
Published: June 29, 2006

After all the sound and fury of the past few years, how is the U.S. doing in its fight against terrorism?

Not too well, according to a recent survey of more than 100 highly respected foreign policy and national security experts. The survey, dubbed the “Terrorism Index,” was conducted by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine. The respondents included Republicans and Democrats, moderates, liberals and conservatives.

The survey’s findings were striking. A strong, bipartisan consensus emerged on two crucial points: 84 percent of the respondents said the United States was not winning the war on terror, and 86 percent said the world was becoming more — not less — dangerous for Americans.

The sound and fury since Sept. 11, 2001 — the chest-thumping and muscle-flexing, the freedom fries, the Patriot Act, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the breathtaking expansion of presidential power, Guantánamo, rendition, the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars — seems to have signified very little.

An article on the survey, in the July/August edition of Foreign Policy, said of the respondents, “They see a national security apparatus in disrepair and a government that is failing to protect the public from the next attack.” More than 8 in 10 of the respondents said they believed an attack in the U.S. on the scale of Sept. 11 was likely within the next five years.

Many of the respondents played important national security roles in the government over the past few decades. They included Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state under George H. W. Bush; Anthony Lake, a national security adviser to Bill Clinton; James Woolsey, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Richard Clarke, who served as counterterrorism czar in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and was in that post on Sept. 11th; and Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan.

Noted academics and writers who specialized in foreign policy and national security matters also participated in the survey.

“Respondents,” according to a report that accompanied the survey, “sharply criticized U.S. efforts in a number of key areas of national security, including public diplomacy, intelligence and homeland security. Nearly all of the departments and agencies responsible for fighting the war on terror received poor marks.

“The experts also said that recent reforms of the national security apparatus have done little to make Americans safer. Asked about recent efforts to reform America’s intelligence community, for instance, more than half of the index’s experts said that creating the office of the director of national intelligence has had no positive impact in the war against terror.”

The respondents seemed, essentially, to be saying that the U.S. needs to be smarter (less like a bull in a china shop) in its efforts to combat terrorism. “Foreign policy experts have never been in so much agreement about an administration’s performance abroad,” said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a participant in the survey. “The reason is that it’s clear to nearly all that Bush and his team have had a totally unrealistic view of what they can accomplish with military force and threats of force.”

The respondents stressed the importance of ending America’s dependence on foreign oil, saying that could prove to be “the single most pressing priority in winning the war on terror.” Eighty-two percent of the respondents said that ending the dependence on foreign oil should have a higher priority, and nearly two-thirds said the country’s current energy policies were making matters worse, not better.

“We borrow a billion dollars every working day to import oil, an increasing share of it coming from the Middle East,” said Mr. Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director.

The respondents also said it was crucially important for the U.S. to engage in a battle of ideas as part of a sustained effort to bring about a rejection of radical ideologies in the Islamic world. That kind of battle requires more of a reliance on diplomacy and other nonmilitary tools.

If the respondents to this survey are correct, the U.S. needs to be moving in an entirely different direction. The war against terror cannot be won by bombing the enemy into submission. The bull in the china shop may be frightening at first, but after a while it’s just enraging. We need a better, smarter way.

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