THE REASON George W. Bush kept America safe is because he treated the war on terror as a real war and not a law enforcement action.
The Patriot Act, the NSA surveillance program, transforming Guantanamo Bay into a detention facility, enhanced interrogation techniques - all were part of a major shift away from the belief that the struggle against Islamic extremism was only occasionally a cause for military action. In 2004, Senator John F. Kerry summed up the prevalent attitude of the Democratic Party: "The war on terror is far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law enforcement operation." Discredited then, Kerry's view is back in vogue now.
Among President Obama's first official acts was to shut down Guantanamo and issue less coercive interrogation rules to the CIA. In his inaugural speech, Obama couldn't even bring himself to identify who it is we are fighting, describing our foe as a "far reaching network of violence and hatred," instead of what it actually is - radical, violent Islamic fundamentalism. That's like a child coming home from school after being bullied and saying that "a far reaching network of violence and hatred" was responsible. Accurate, but not really helpful in stopping the bullying.
Bush generously gave us a choice of names in describing the terrorist forces: "Islamic radicalism," "militant Jihadism," and "Islamo-fascism."
Our enemy is distinguishable from the religion of Islam, but also a subset of it. Tony Blair called it "a strain within the worldwide religion of Islam." Those who belong to it want to establish a religious caliphate. They demand the end of Western influence in their lands. They call for the annihilation of the Israeli state and the collapse of the United States, economically and militarily.
Giving Palestinians their own state does not end the war. Withdrawing from Iraq doesn't either; it may make matters worse, if we leave too quickly. As he contemplates such a precipitous move, Obama needs to appreciate that our present success there is "reversible," as US Ambassador Ryan Crocker warned.
Confronting radical jihad requires new military strategies, like the ones implemented by Bush. It would be a mistake to abandon them now. Obama spoke of a "false choice between our safety and our ideals." But in an age of dirty nuclear bombs and biological weapons, has the choice ever been more real? And shouldn't we err on the side of keeping people alive?
Wartime always brings national security interests into conflict with civil liberties. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Franklin D. Roosevelt interned the Japanese. The Cold War gave rise to McCarthyism. By comparison, forcing a terror suspect to wear a hood and depriving him of sleep may sound severe, but it's relatively benign.
Occasionally, an innocent gets snared in a crackdown on enemy combatants. False imprisonment happens in the US criminal justice system, too. It's regrettable, and inexcusable, but no one is suggesting we dismantle all the prisons and scatter the population because of it. Last week, two former Guantanamo detainees appeared in an Al Qaeda video posted on a jihadist website. The Defense Department says that as many as 61 former Guantanamo detainees have returned to the field and taken up arms against the United States.
Still, there persists a belief within liberal media and foreign policy circles that what matters most is the opinion of our allies. Some argue we shouldn't even link Islam with terrorism for fear of giving offense. This mindset explains why news accounts of terror attacks may mention the country of origin of the attackers - "Pakistani," or "Saudi" - but not always their unifying, fervent belief in a radical Islamic ideology.
Ignoring this threat now by closing our eyes to it, or treating it as a law enforcement problem, will have grave consequences for the world. Obama views Guantanamo as a symbol of repression and abuse; others see it as a symbol of American resolve. One thing is for sure: its dismantling will not appease our enemy. Let's hope it doesn't embolden them.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican communications consultant.