Correcting for Bush’s mistakes

July 16, 2011

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IN THE aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched its “war on terror.’’ This was a cloudy concept that obscured the enemy’s identity and helped rationalize extra-legal measures such as torture and extraordinary rendition. The commitment to a war against all forms of terrorism meant that the United States could be drawn into armed conflicts almost anywhere - precisely what Osama bin Laden hoped to do. So the counter-terrorist strategy released late last month by the Obama administration, with its narrowed definition of Al Qaeda as the enemy, comes as an overdue corrective.

The administration’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, was being excessively tactful when he told an audience at Johns Hopkins that the new strategy represents neither “a wholesale overhaul, nor a wholesale retention, of previous policies.’’ He suggested that President Obama’s goals “track closely with the goals’’ of former President George Bush. But the new strategy document could not be more emphatic in distinguishing the Obama approach from the Bush doctrine, saying, “We are not at war with the tactic of terrorism or the religion of Islam. We are at war with a specific organization - Al Qaeda.’’

Al Qaeda, of course, has many loose branches, and the Obama administration shouldn’t lose its global focus. The war against Islamic extremism remains broad, and multi-faceted. But there should be fewer unnecessary military adventures now that US counterterrorism efforts are to be aimed solely at Al Qaeda affiliates that target the American homeland. Above all, US policy makers must not fall into the trap of being provoked into additional ground wars in Muslim countries. That would only serve Al Qaeda’s interests. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has done a good job on its own of discrediting itself with murderous attacks on civilians in markets and mosques.

Ultimately, the war against Al Qaeda will be won not by missile strikes but by the Muslim world’s rejection of a vicious delusion.