John McCain now has a very sharp focus to his claim on the presidency: He's
the only warrior in the race.
McCain has a gripping video and New Hampshire television ads featuring his
experience as a P.O.W. His most recent policy speech last week was devoted
to the immediate battle in Iraq but just as much to what McCain called the
"long war against Islamic extremists."
If you are in an existential war, you need to be led by a warrior, was the
message: "Tough talk or managerial successes in the private sector aren't
adequate assurance that their authors have the experience or qualities
necessary for such a singular responsibility."
Simply put, McCain has fought in circumstances in which life or death was
at stake. None of the other major contenders in either party have.
It's a powerful and emotive pitch, and likely to find traction in the
It raises, however, the most critical question of our time: Are we in a
consuming war against Islamic extremists, in which either they survive or
we do, or is terrorism primarily a risk that needs to be managed?
Certainly al-Qaida has declared war against the United States and its
citizens. And the 9/11 attacks were an act of war.
The U.S. Congress in effect declared war on al-Qaida with its use of force
So, the United States is currently at war with al-Qaida.
But is that the same thing as being at war with Islamic extremism
generally? And is the war existential, either they survive or we survive?
Al-Qaida certainly intends to pose an existential threat to the United
States. It seeks the establishment of an expansionist Islamic caliphate
with universal sovereignty or hegemonic influence.
A strategic response, however, needs to be based not only on an assessment
of its intentions but also its capabilities.
Al-Qaida's quixotic caliphate is supposed to begin with the overthrow of
what it regards as heretic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. After
9/11, there were intensified al-Qaida attacks in all three countries.
However, the al-Qaida challenge appears to have been suppressed and none of
the regimes currently seem at risk although their lack of democratic
consent of the governed makes them inherently fragile.
The size and structure of al-Qaida are difficult to gauge, particular after
the fall of the Taliban scattered its senior leadership. The 9/11
Commission estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 would-be jihadists had gone
through its training camps in Afghanistan. Other estimates have as many as
60,000 receiving some degree of training.
However, the nature of the jihadist threat has changed since 9/11 and the
fall of the Taliban, as recent thwarted plots illustrate. In Britain, local
medical professionals tried to engage in car bombings. In Canada, local
Muslim young men plotted to blow up parliament and behead the prime
minister. And in the United States, a convenience store clerk, a roofer, a
cab driver and a pizza delivery man, foreign-born but long-time residents,
planned a terrorist attack on Fort Dix.
How do you conduct a "war," in the literal not the metaphorical sense, on
that kind of activity?
The Bush administration is attempting to conflate the Sunni jihadism of
al-Qaida with Shiite militancy into a seamless threat of Islamic extremism
against the United States. The real world is more messy and muddy.
Some Islamic terrorist groups have only regional, territorial ambitions,
and do not share al-Qaida's fantasy of establishing a unified and
internationally dominant caliphate.
And some of the Islamic extremist groups are in conflict with each other.
Al-Qaida sought to assassinate Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader.
Moreover, some of our supposed allies in this struggle also engage in
Islamic extremism. The domestic practices in Saudi Arabia and its export of
Wahhabi instruction can only fairly be described as extreme.
Part of the effort to protect the country against terrorist attack will
require military action. But the scope of that military action, and its
relative importance compared to other anti-terrorism activities, will
differ depending on the construct whether the country regards itself as
in an existential war with Islamic extremism generally or facing the need
to manage a highly troubling and dangerous risk from specific Islamic
There is no more important question for the country. Regrettably, I suspect
it will be largely finessed, rather than directly addressed, in the
upcoming presidential campaign.