[did we lose the global war on terror?]

Topic: Terrorism

According to a Washington Post article, the United States plans to transfer 70 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay to the governments of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. As Talking Points Memo points out, there is no way we’d be turning over anyone we were seriously worried about to governments as sketchy as these, particularly the Afghan government, which may not even remain in existence a few years down the road. So again, the US government is admitting without admitting that a key part of its strategy in the Global War on Terror has failed.

This is, of course, welcome news. It comes a few days after the New Yorker commented on the name change from Global War on Terror, or GWOT, to Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, or G-SAVE, reporting that “In June, a Marine lieutenant general, Wallace Gregson, floated the new thinking in a speech: ‘This is no more a war on terrorism than the Second World War was a war on submarines,’ he said. ‘The decisive terrain in this war is the vast majority of people who are not directly involved but whose support, willing or coerced, is necessary to insurgent operations around the world.'”

This thinking is painfully long overdue, but that doesn’t make it less correct. It seems that our government is at last coming to terms with the reality of who and what it is that we should be fighting — of who and what, in other words, is fighting us. At last the US is recognizing that “Hearts and minds are more important than capturing and killing people,” as the New Yorker reported General Gregson said.

The most dangerous thing about the first Bush administration, I thought, was its utter inability to admit mistakes. The second time around, though, after blundering badly on domestic issues (Social Security, Terri Schiavo, the filibuster battle, the Karl Rove scandal), the administration has shown itself remarkably lithe, able to shift course without drawing harsh criticism for the failures that required the shifts in the first place. To some extent, this is because those who have opposed this White House are so pleased to see it adopting saner policies and showing some spirit of compromise at last. The nomination of John Roberts is a case in point: the hard right may grumble, but Bush doesn’t need them anymore — he’s never running for office again — and the left, after revving itself up for a big fight, has been largely deflated.

I’m not sure what’s driving all this change. Much of this course correction seems to have been in the works for a while. Rumsfeld’s famous memo asking, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” dates from October 2003. Rove’s reelection strategy for Bush seems to have been to admit no mistakes at all, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the administration was genuinely convinced that all was well. Perhaps we are seeing a strategic shift to greater compromise and subtlety because those in charge genuinely believe that more compromise and subtlety are needed if we are to keep America safe and strong.

One can only hope.