The report of the 9/11 Commission provides an important opportunity to assess our progress in the war against terrorism. To this end, a review of the Bush administration's record shows that the obsession of the president and his advisors with Iraq has left the United States unfocused and undermanned on the central fronts in that global effort. Over the last two years, the administration's action – and inaction – with respect to the "Axis of Evil" makes clear that it has failed to prioritize the threats we face and failed to deliver on safety.
Indicative of this, the Commission report reiterates that there is "no evidence" that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda "ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship." Nor did the Commission find any evidence that "Iraq collaborated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States," something a surprising number of Americans still believe – in large part due to the president and vice president's disinformation campaign.
The administration's decision to invade Iraq despite the lack of evidence has cost us dearly in the war on terrorism. As the 9/11 Commission asserts, "[t]he enemy goes beyond al Qaeda to include the radical ideological movement, inspired in part by al Qaeda, that has spawned other terrorist groups and violence. Thus our strategy must match our means to two ends: dismantling the al Qaeda network and, in the long term, prevailing over the ideology that contributes to Islamist terrorism."
Not only was the war in Iraq unsuitable to accomplishing these two objectives, but it may also have made the latter much more difficult to achieve, providing new fodder for Arab outrage at the United States and for al Qaeda recruiting. Through its dangerous gamble, the administration has created a new front in the war on terrorism, one which we must now address. Meanwhile, the choice to invade Iraq has left us with fewer resources and less manpower to finish our work in Afghanistan, the first and still-critical front in that war.
Nor have the dangers posed to the United States by the other two members of the "Axis of Evil," been mitigated by the Bush administration's approach. More than two years after naming Iran to the Axis, the administration has been unable to settle its internal differences on the country, leaving us without a coherent strategy. Today, Iran's nuclear program is causing alarm in the international community – with good reason.
North Korea, unhindered by any serious policy initiative from the administration, continues to advance its nuclear program, and is now believed to have upped the number of its nuclear weapons from two to eight. It is also appears to be working on new ballistic missiles for nuclear warhead delivery.
As we know now, the "Axis of Evil" language was conceived to couch the war in Iraq in a broader policy context. But that rhetoric, bereft of accompanying policy, was the basis for a reckless and dangerous endeavor. Combined with the doctrine of preemption as applied in Iraq, it effectively put Iran and North Korea on notice to accelerate the pace of their nuclear programs before we could launch an attack. And ultimately, it made the highly complex regional problems it purported to address more difficult to resolve politically and diplomatically.
The 9/11 Commission concluded, "we are safer today. But we are not safe." The more pertinent point is that with better policies over the past three years, we could have been in a position of greater safety today than we are. First, we could have invested the international goodwill towards the United States after 9/11 into serious initiatives for North Korea and Iran, instead of squandering it on the invasion of Iraq. Second, we could have spent the $144 billion that the Iraq war will have cost us by the end of this year on pursuing the most dangerous terrorists; preventing the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; fortifying our homeland; and attending to many other security imperatives.
We cannot reverse history, but we can take stock of our mistakes, even if the president will not. They show us that if effective action against terrorism is to be our top priority, as the 9/11 Commission report suggests it should, we must be much more critical in evaluating our national security policies for consistency with that objective.
To that end, the next president must place greater focus on bringing real security to Afghanistan and invigorating the battle against terrorism still being fought within and across its borders. He must also understand the imperative of completing the job to which we have now obligated ourselves in Iraq – difficult as that may be – for the sake of regional stability and our own security. In addition, he must better incorporate the war on nuclear proliferation into the war on terrorism, and show decisive leadership in strengthening the global nonproliferation regime.
Americans are not as safe as we should be. As a result, we must approach our national security with renewed vigor, and with a more discerning eye for what is and is not in our best interests.
Mirna Galic is a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.