As Democrats, we have been very good at pointing out the failures of the Bush administration in fighting al Qaeda and other terrorists around the world.
But the question can be asked, what could and would we do differently, and why would it be better?
I'd like to address that question.
First, we have to recognize that fighting terrorism is a three pronged battle: security at home, aggressive action abroad, and 'counter-recruiting'-- preventing terrorists from reaching their objective in the streets, slums and countryside of countries where they have roots. To fight a successful war on terrorism, we need a plan for all three.
Start with security at home. Right now, it feels as if the security blanket that we have put up since 9/11 is more directed at Americans than it is at foreign terrorists. I don't think this is entirely true, but that is how it feels. The whole issue of getting a warrant within 48 hours (plenty of time) for a phone tap should be an easy one, but we don't see it happening. We must insist on reasonable safeguards for civil liberties. And a situation in which a warrant must be gotten within forty-eight hours in no way hamstrings the war on terror. Further, the contention that only phone calls with one end international is a red herring. By tapping into phone trunks, the administation has the ability to snoop on domestic calls. And given the past history of this kind of stuff (going all the way back to J. Edgar Hoover), it is not enough to simply say that we will TRUST that the administration (ANY administration) will be good little girls and boys. Put it in writing. Or, in the words of Ronald Reagan when discussing arms control agreements with the Soviet Union: "Trust, but verify."
We should also look seriously at the 'Homeland Security Department." After all the billions spent on training and preparing first responders, Katrina exposed that this was a complete failure (and yes, it was a hurricane, but what good is a Homeland Security Department if the only kind of thing they are set up to handle is more people flying planes into buildings? I mean, if a terrorist had blown up a nuke in New Orleans would things have transpired much differently? Aside from reversing obvious mistakes (i.e. moving FEMA down into DHS), we clearly must determine why all that money that we spent on the Homeland Security Department resulted in an organization which failed completely when it was most needed. Even Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff said just two weeks ago that his organization had failed even to be able to keep track of where it's own supplies were during Katrina (had Cheney not pulled the trigger, that would have been the main story two weeks ago.)
The second prong of the security issue is aggressive action abroad, by which is meant fighting terrorists directly. We have to continue to do that. First, catching Osama bin Laden and the rest of the 9/11 conspirators must be our first priority. If we don't catch them, then in a sence they will have won on 9/11. We must redouble our efforts in this regard. Now, Iraq, in contrast, was a completely unnecessary war, but the reality of it is that now terrorists have come there, to fight us. Our soldiers have become the targets in this war. We have nothing more we can possibly gain there, and if we are serious about getting the Iraqis to take ownership, we must commit to a date when we will leave, and stick to it. Right now, we are being bombed and shot at less, only because Iraqis seem so intent on bombing and shooting at each other. We don't seem capable of stopping this, so maybe it is time to leave.
The third prong can be called the 'hearts and minds' prong. Right now, terrorists have many disaffected muslims from which they can recruit. If we want to prevent this from happening, one thing we have to do is recognized that al-Qaeda is like a cancer. We should in fact treat it rigorously. But cancer is also a symptom. Treating it while maintaing an unhealthy lifestyle (say, eating too much junk food, or smoking) means that we still may get it again. The best way to treat cancer is to also make the lifestyle changes that will prevent its recurrance. In the same way, we have to quit supporting the corrupt monarchies that hold sway in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. After all, many, or even most, of their people don't support them, why should we?
True, there are areas where we will continue to disagree with much of the world (notably in terms of American support for Israel) but even here, we must play a much more assertive role in trying to bring about peace. Bill Clinton's peace efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians may not have succeeded, but at least he tried. Bush hasn't even done that. We have an obligation to keep trying.
We also have to acknowlege that what has driven recruitment by al-Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist groups has been the grinding poverty and sense of hopelessness that has been prevalent on the arab streets for a long time, living in a society where poor people have no social safety net and no social protections. Hamas gained popularity among the Palestinians at first, not because of their violent outlook (where they were among many) but for providing bread, medical care (at least what rudimentary medical care they could provide) and other necessities of life at a time when neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority could or would provide these things. When people are hungry, they are much more apt to listen to the people who feed them than the people who lead them.
As for the rest of the arab world, let's go back to leading by example. Instead of trying to force Democracy on them, let's go back to doing what we do best-- living in and enjoying the fruits of a free society. The kind of example that got people in eastern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere motivation to transition towards a freer society. Give them something bigger to work towards than anything bin Laden could offer.