Asking the Right Questions
With the end of the Bush administration coming into view and the threat of terrorism still pressing, there is a real need for a comprehensive reassessment of the U.S.-led "war on terror." The next administration will need a firm grasp of the nature of the challenge, a precise understanding of its predecessor's strategy, and a realistic plan for achieving better results.
Fundamental questions remain. In what sense, for example, do the events since the attacks of September 11, 2001, constitute a "war"? Who or what is the enemy? How can one judge success or failure? How serious are the threats to and the vulnerabilities of the U.S. homeland, and what should be done to address them? And how should the competing claims of foreign and domestic policies, economic and security interests, and American and foreign sensibilities be reconciled?
There is much to learn from the Bush administration's record. The administration itself, of course, rarely admits doubt or mistakes. The White House briefing room is not a Catholic church: there is precious little to gain from confession. The pressures of American politics and governance dissuade serving officials from speaking candidly, and so the burden of sustaining serious public debate falls to journalists, pundits, and outside experts.
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon have written a good book about the contemporary terrorist threat and the U.S. government's efforts to deal with it. That text, The Age of Sacred Terror, was published in 2002. It drew effectively on the authors' experience as National Security Council staff members under President Bill Clinton and provided genuine insight into al Qaeda, Islamist radicalism, and the bureaucratic politics of counterterrorism during the Clinton administration. The book was widely -- and rightly -- praised.
Now, Benjamin and Simon have written another book on the same general subject, updating the story through the Bush years. This effort is a disappointment, less a work of scholarship than a polemic.
A BALANCE SHEET
Benjamin and Simon's thesis in
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