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Hard Truths in the War on Terror

Foreign policy experts convened at CAP yesterday to discuss the terrorist threat the U.S. will face regardless of what happens in Iraq.

“We’ll have to fight [terrorists] here regardless of how well or how poorly things go in Iraq,” James Woolsey said yesterday at a discussion at the Center for American Progress. Woolsey, a vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was a panelist at a discussion hosted by CAP and Foreign Policy magazine about their recently released third update of “The Terrorism Index.” The index is a semi-annual, nonpartisan survey of over 100 foreign policy experts to assess the fight against international terrorism and U.S. national security more broadly.

Responding to a question about the oft-repeated Bush administration claim that the enemy will “follow us home” if U.S. military forces redeploy from Iraq, Woolsey said it is a “delusion” to think that the prospect of terrorist activity within the United States will not be a concern for a long time to come, no matter what happens in Iraq. His fellow panelist Paul Pillar, a visiting professor at the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, also disagreed with the Bush administration claim: “It’s as if the terrorists were polite enough to have the courtesy to fight us in one place at a time.” Such thinking also makes the mistake of assuming there is a “fixed number of bad guys out there,” which isn’t the case, Pillar said.

In addition to Woolsey and Pillar, the panel included Moises Naim, editor in chief of Foreign Policy; Steven Simon, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; and John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

The panel engaged in a free-ranging discussion that brought out some hard truths about the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism efforts and U.S. national security policy. A central theme that emerged was the fallacy of thinking that the war in Iraq is the central front of the war on terror and that success there will mean terrorist threats to the United States will lessen.

Eighty-four percent of the experts surveyed for this most recent update of the Terrorism Index—the last installment was released in January—said that the country is not winning the war on terror, while more than 80 percent predict a 9/11-scale terrorist attack on the United States within the next 10 years.

Woolsey argued that the United States is doing two things to enable terrorists to thrive. First, the United States is “funding the other side” with our oil dollars, which are funneled for use in perpetrating terrorist activities around the globe. Second, jihadist websites are hosted in the United States that include such things as “detailed instructions on how to attack military bases,” Woolsey said.

As for the war in Iraq itself, the panelists expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the troop surge, echoing the results of the survey. Of the experts surveyed for the Terrorism Index, more than half believe the “surge” has had a negative impact on U.S. national security. Pillar argued that the war in Iraq has been a rallying cry for jihadists recruiting new members, and thus has made Americans less safe.

Simon noted, “The surge was supposed to provide space in which the government in Baghdad would pursue reconciliation—and that hasn’t happened.” One major problem, he argued, is that the groups vying for power in Iraq have such different definitions of reconciliation, none of which align with the U.S. definition. For the Shi’a, reconciliation must be preceded by justice for what they suffered under decades of Sunni rule. For Sunni, reconciliation means “restoration,” while for the Kurds, reconciliation means a status quo that allows them to retain their autonomy and control of oil reserves.

Pillar took a long view of the surge and what it means for the future of the war in Iraq. Of course, Pillar said, “When you increase your troop strength, you get a positive effect.” But when the underlying U.S. military strategy for navigating the warring sectarian groups doesn’t differ from the existing course, “the conclusion from the strategic point of view is no, [the surge] hasn’t helped.” Woolsey, on the other hand, believed that it was too early to tell whether the surge was working, and he disagreed that reconciliation is key to Iraq’s progress. He argued instead that whether the different Iraq factions can “hammer out an oil law” will be the most important factor in whether Iraq’s sectarian groups are willing to coexist. And Naim concluded that, for many in Iraq, “reconciliation is nothing but power.” The central dispute in post-Saddam Iraq, he argued, concerns “who is going to control a pile of money… or the levers of power.”

How can the United States fix a counterterrorism strategy that is alarmingly off-course? Woolsey argued that the “single most important” step the country can take is to stop paying for terrorists’ activities with our oil dollars. “We’ve got to change that and change it fast,” he said. Right now, he argued, oil is a strategic commodity, and once it ceases to be so the terrorists’ power will be substantially lessened. “We’ve got to get on that—hard, fast, massive dedication. It will take a while, but not quite as long as pessimists suggest.” Pillar addressed the importance of continuing to strengthen defensive security measures within the United States, an area in which progress has been made but “so much more needs to be done.”

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