WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. terrorism experts Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon have reached a stark conclusion about the war on terrorism: the United States is losing.
Despite an early victory over the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the two former Clinton administration officials say President George W. Bush’s policies have created a new haven for terrorism in Iraq that escalates the potential for Islamic violence against Europe and the United States.
America’s badly damaged image in the Muslim world could take more than a generation to set right. And Bush’s mounting political woes at home have undermined the chance for any bold U.S. initiatives to address the grim social realities that feed Islamic radicalism, they say.
“It’s been fairly disastrous,” said Benjamin, who worked as a director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 1994 to 1999.
“We have had some very important successes getting individual terrorists. But I think the broader story is really quite awful. We have done a lot to fuel the fires, and we have done a lot to encourage people to hate us,” he added in an interview.
Benjamin and Simon, a former State Department official who was also at the NSC, are co-authors of a new book titled: “The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right” (Times Books).
Following on from their 2002 book, “The Age of Sacred Terror” (Random House), Benjamin and Simon list what they call U.S. missteps since the September 11, 2001, attacks on America.
The Bush administration presents the war on terrorism as a difficult but largely successful struggle that has seen the gutting of al Qaeda’s pre-September 11 leadership and prevented new attacks in the United States over the past four years.
Bush said last month the United States and its allies had disrupted plans for 10 al Qaeda attacks since September 11, including one against West Coast targets with hijacked planes.
The White House describes Iraq as a central front in the war on terrorism and says the building of democracy there will confound militant aims and help to propel the entire Middle East region toward democracy.
Benjamin and Simon’s criticism of the Bush administration in Iraq follows a path similar to those of other critics, including former U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke.
“We may be attacked by terrorists who receive their training in Iraq, or attacked by terrorists who were inspired, organized and trained by people who were in Iraq,” said Simon, a Rand Corp. analyst who teaches at Georgetown University.
“(Bush) has given them an excellent American target in Iraq but in the process has energized the jihad and given militants the kind of urban warfare experience that will raise the future threat to the United States exponentially.”
For Benjamin and Simon, the war on terrorism has cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and failed to counter a deadly global movement responsible for attacks in London, Madrid, Bali, Indonesia, and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
And not even al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, they say, could have dreamed the United States would stumble so badly in the court of Muslim public opinion.
“Everyone says there’s a war of ideas out there, and I agree. The sad fact is that we’re on the wrong side,” said Benjamin, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
U.S. fortunes could improve, the authors say, if Washington took a number of politically challenging steps, like bolstering public diplomacy with trade pacts aimed at expanding middle-class influence in countries such as Pakistan.
Washington also needs to do more to ease regional tensions that feed Muslim grievances across the globe, from Thailand and the Philippines to Chechnya and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a Muslim world of 1.2 billion people, as many as three-in-four hold negative views of the United States.
Because anti-U.S. rhetoric often appeals strongly to impressionable youth, Benjamin and Simon believe many of today’s young Muslims will harbor grievances against the United States for the rest of their lives.
The authors believe there is little prospect for fundamental improvement in U.S. policy under Bush “There are resource constraints, there are constraints in the realm of trade, there are political constraints,” said Simon.
“These are not the kinds of circumstances that favor bold new policies that require spending political capital that it turns out the White House just doesn’t have,” he added.
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