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America is losing war on terror, specialists say

WASHINGTON -- US terrorism specialists Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon have reached a stark conclusion about the war on terrorism: the United States is losing.

Despite an early US victory over the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, President Bush's policies have created a haven for terrorism in Iraq that escalates the potential for Islamic violence against Europe and the United States, the two former Clinton administration officials say.

America's badly damaged image in the Muslim world could take more than a generation to set right, they say, and Bush's mounting political woes at home have undermined the chance for any bold US initiatives to address the grim social realities that feed Islamic radicalism.

''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 security council, are coauthors of a new book, ''The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right" (Times Books).

Benjamin and Simon list what they call US missteps since Sept. 11, 2001.

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-Sept. 11 leadership and prevented new attacks in the United States over the past four years.

Bush said last month that the United States and its allies had disrupted plans for 10 Al Qaeda attacks since Sept. 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 toward democracy.

Benjamin and Simon's criticism of the Bush administration in Iraq follows a path similar to those of other critics, including former US national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. 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 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.

US fortunes could improve, the authors say, if Washington took a number of politically challenging steps, such as bolstering public diplomacy with trade pacts aimed at expanding middle-class influence in countries such as Pakistan.

Because anti-US rhetoric often appeals strongly to impressionable youth, Benjamin and Simon say they think that many of today's young Muslims will harbor grievances against the United States for the rest of their lives.

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