Our credibility at home and abroad has never been lower. With no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, horrific abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, and no foreseeable end game for the U.S. in Iraq, most are hesitant to trust the Bush administration. A June 2004 poll by CBS News and The New York Times reported that 79 percent of the national adult population believed that Bush was either hiding something or completely lying in his statements about the war. The story abroad is hardly better. In a March 2004 Pew survey of European and Middle Eastern countries, a majority in seven of the eight nations surveyed believed U.S. and British leaders lied about the Iraq war.
Why is credibility so important? The conventional wisdom focuses on credibility for credibility's sake, but misses the real point: the war on terrorism cannot be won if the rest of the world mistrusts the United States.
At the start of the war on terrorism, the Bush administration sent a clear message to the world's nations: "You're either with us, or against us." After three years, it appears that far too few are with us. While America must always stand up for itself, we can neither protect nor defend ourselves if we continue to go it alone. Without meaningful and sustained international cooperation, we can neither fight terrorism effectively nor win. Here's why:
- Securing the world's ports. The Container Security Initiative (CSI) is designed to place customs inspectors in ports worldwide in order to pre-screen 70 percent of U.S.-bound cargo. Only a few of the 20 planned ports worldwide have entered the program. The current list of CSI participants is heavy on ports in Europe and Asia, but lacks any ports in the Middle East and includes only one in Africa. The United States needs to work with the entire international community to quickly expand this program to reduce the huge vulnerability of the world's ports.
- Controlling proliferation. The Aspen Strategy Group recently concluded that the threat of a nuclear attack is much greater than the public realizes. Only eleven nations have committed to a version of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), aimed at stopping shipments of weapons of mass destruction worldwide. The 9/11 Commission called for participation in PSI to be extended to non-NATO countries, specifically Russia and China. To interdict a ship, the United States must secure permission from the flag state of the vessel in question or the state whose coastal waters are being used for navigation. Otherwise, a United Nations Security Council resolution is needed. U.S. credibility is key to convincing more nations, particularly those in Africa and the Middle East, to participate in the PSI or to gain support within the Security Council.
- Rooting out terrorists. The war on terrorism involves not only preventing terrorist attacks before they occur, but also rooting out terrorist sanctuaries around the world. The 9/11 Commission Report writes that the United States must "reach out, listen to, and work with other countries that can help." While the administration has formed a relationship with Pakistan, it must also work with other weak states that are havens for terrorists, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia .
- Disrupting terrorist financial networks. Small amounts of money can fund devastating attacks. Since 9/11, $200 million in terrorist assets has been seized, mostly from abroad, but the seizure rate has dramatically slowed. A new multilateral initiative led by the United States is needed. According to the 9/11 Commission, "multilateral freezing mechanisms now require waiting periods before being put into effect, eliminating the element of surprise and thus virtually ensuring that little money is actually frozen." As a result, "worldwide asset freezes have not been adequately enforced and have been easily circumvented."
- Breaking up terrorist communications. Terrorists continue to use both low- and high-tech communications. Recent raids by Pakistan unearthed the information that terrorists had been monitoring U.S. financial institutions. The United States needs intelligence from other nations. Monitoring Osama bin Laden's low-tech means of communicating from hiding – such as putting a message on the back of a donkey – requires knowledge from other nations.
- Sharing the burden. The United States currently has 19,000 troops in Afghanistan, but NATO's International Security Force Assistance is providing only 6,536, including contributions from the United States. In Iraq, the U.S. has received little international help in footing the $144.4 billion bill. The less credibility the United States has, the less the international community will want to work with us, and the more we will have to pay.
The president states, "We are fighting this evil [terrorism] in Iraq so we do not have to fight it on the streets of our own cities." But every day, we do have to fight it in our own cities, as well as in Afghanistan, Syria, the Philippines, Algeria, and Indonesia. We cannot go it alone. Cooperation matters and we need our credibility intact to secure it.
Michael Pan is a senior policy analyst for national security and international policy and Amanda Terkel is a researcher at the Center for American Progress.