On 9/11, 2001, the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda. They operated from Afghanistan, protected by a similar movement, the Taliban. The real war has always been with Al Quaeda. The Taliban made themselves a target by getting between us and Al Qaeda. Barack Obama said as a candidate that the real war was with Al Qaeda. President Obama has kept that focus. I believe he is completely correct in that focus. It will be a hard war, especially as it spills over more and more into Pakistan. Many Americans, left and right, will get tired of this war long before it is over. But as the President said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, this is one of those cases where lasting peace requires war against an enemy that does not want peace.
After 9/11 the world supported the United States as it never has before, and is not likely to again. If we had asked the world to help us fight Al Quaeda, we would have had an enormous coalition, including Russia and many moderate Muslim states. We might even have been able to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the top Al Qaeda leadership. I think the Taliban regime would have fought the coalition, and they would have been removed. That war could have been over years ago.
Alas, the Bush administration used the crisis of 9/11 to invade a different country, one that had nothing to do with 9/11. That ended world support, increased Muslim opposition, and undermined the real war against Al Qaeda. Worse, the Iraq war helped Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda's stated objective in attacking the United States, which it did several times around the world since the start of the first war in Iraq, was to get U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia. After 9/11, the Bush administration complied with Al Qaeda's demand. Another objective of Al Quaeda was to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. The Bush administration did that, as well. The Iraq war recruited angry young men from all over the Muslim world to join the fight against the Western invaders.
Worse still, the way we fought the war corrupted the United States. We became open torturers, jailed anyone we didn't like, including U.S. citizens, without charges or trial, created prisons far removed from law, used secret foreign prisons that were even worse, and openly flouted the whole system of decent conduct that the United States used to champion. The government declared a right to spy on anyone, including U.S. citizens. We had a system in place to allow quick authorizations of justified wiretaps, but the Bush administration simply ignored them. The previous administration openly suspended habeas corpus, which to my mind is the very symbol of tyranny.
On his first day in office, President Obama said he would close down the prison at Guantanamo. I applaud that. He has not done so yet. Worse, he has moved some of those prisoners to a prison at a military base in Afghanistan that is even further from American law or press. These failures are bad. Still, I believe we have stopped torturing prisoners. We appear to have stopped warrantless wiretaps. We have not suspended habeas corpus. I have seen no reports that the Obama administration is using secret foreign prisons. President Obama has made great strides in restoring the rule of law in the United States. This is a great good in itself, and also helps restore our standing in the world.
The right war is against Al Qaeda and its allies, who attacked the United States. One of the tactics used by Al Quaeda is terror. They use this tactic because they are too weak to use many others. Their weakness is no excuse for terror - many weak fighters did not stoop to terrorizing innocent populations. Al Qaeda is evil, and should be fought to the end. However, we are not fighting a war against "terrorism." Terrorism is just a tactic. Declaring a war on terrorism is like declaring a war on amphibious assaults. If Al Qaeda stopped using terrorism they would still be the enemy.
I believe President Obama will take increasing heat for pursuing the right war. He will be criticized by partisan opponents because they are partisan. He will also be criticized by peaceniks who oppose war. That is their job, and in the great ecology of American politics, it is good that there is a significant pacifist voice. That is the tradition I was raised in. Most of this criticism will come from President Obama's (and my) fellow Democrats. Nonetheless, President Obama has clearly stated the Niebuhrian position, with which I agree, that we must fight the right war against Al Qaeda to victory.