Don't fault President Obama for reconsidering his strategy in Afghanistan. Fault him for reconsidering his strategy only in Afghanistan. Nearing the end of his first year in office, his administration has not yet developed a coherent and comprehensive plan to defend Americans from the movements, groups, and regimes that declare themselves our enemies, explicitly state their intentions — e.g. "A world without America"— and, unless we take steps to prevent it, will soon have nuclear capabilities to help them accomplish their mission.
The Bush administration fought what it called a "Global War on Terrorism." The phrase was unsatisfactory because it suggested our fight was against a weapon rather than with an enemy utilizing that weapon. But at least it acknowledged the obvious: An asymmetric war is being waged against the U.S. and other free nations.
The Obama administration has rejected the Global War on Terrorism. Its spokesmen say there is no world conflict — only "overseas contingency operations." The problem with this is not merely semantic. It's conceptual. It's disconnecting the dots.
In his new book, Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West, Michael Ledeen, the freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (the policy institute I head) asks why, in the 1930s, so many otherwise smart people were so blind to the gravity of the threat posed by the Nazi movement that arose in Germany, the militarist movement that arose in Japan, and the Fascist movement that arose in Italy.
Whatever the explanation, we might have learned from that experience. Yet today, so many otherwise-smart people are equally blind to the gravity of the threat posed by the Khomeinist movement that arose in Iran in 1979, and the al-Qaeda movement that arose in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1988.
These movements are rivals — Khomeinism appeals primarily to Shia Muslims, while al-Qaeda reaches out to the Sunni — but they can and do cooperate and conspire against those they view as common enemies. One or both have links to other groups – the Taliban, Hezbolah, Hamas — that are waging war against "infidels." The Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia stoke the fires of Islamic rage in mosques, madrassas, and media, and use their enormous oil revenues to fund Islamist terrorists, insurgents, and militants around the world.
"The rise of messianic mass movements is not new, and there is very little we do not know about them," Ledeen notes in his book. Yet "there is little apparent recognition that we are under attack by a familiar sort of enemy, and great reluctance to act accordingly."
For the Obama administration to recognize that a global conflict is underway need not imply adopting the Bush strategy to fight it. On the contrary, one can give Bush credit for preventing a second attack on American soil for eight years, while also criticizing his administration for not achieving more: for not bringing Osama bin Laden to justice; for not destroying al-Qaeda's base in Pakistan; for not defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan; for not responding forcefully to Iran's targeting of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; for doing nothing to stop Iran's development of nuclear weapons; for not more effectively appealing to moderate Muslims around the world to oppose the extremists in their communities.
German Nazis, Italian Fascists, and Japanese militarists — all had grievances. They sought to redress those grievances — and gain power — through war and conquest. President Roosevelt's response was not to pursue "conflict resolution." His goal was to defeat them — utterly and unconditionally. (After that, the U.S. could — and would — assist in a robust reconstruction effort.)
Roosevelt understood, too, that he was not fighting one war in Europe, another war in the Pacific, and a third in North Africa. He grasped that these were separate theaters in a single struggle to defend the West, to protect the fragile democratic experiment from those aiming to destroy it. The hard part was deciding where to apply finite resources in order to maximize pressure on our enemies.
Seeing the current struggle similarly — recognizing that militant jihadists are fighting on multiple fronts from Iraq to Afghanistan to Gaza to Lebanon to Pakistan, and that they are aided by Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, Russia, and other regimes hostile to the United States — would help clarify the administration's strategic thinking.
In Afghanistan, Obama appears to be considering three options. He can go all in, providing his commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, with the resources required for a full-blown and prolonged counterinsurgency campaign. He can go all out — withdrawing and, almost certainly, accepting the Taliban's return to power, increasing the risk that neighboring Pakistan will be taken over by extremists or those willing to be instructed by them. Or he can maintain the status quo, which at best would mean a prolonged stalemate, at worst a slow-motion defeat for the U.S. after years of hard fighting.
It is not an easy decision. But to make it correctly requires asking how the outcome of this battle will affect the broader conflict, the "War Against the West," which is the real "war of necessity." But Obama and his advisers won't ask that question until and unless they acknowledge that such a war is underway.