Staff editorial: Tackling the source

By Editorial Board

On Monday, in an interview with NBC-TV’s Today, President Bush was asked if the war on terrorism could be won.

“I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the – those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world,” Bush said.

Immediately, Democrats seized on Mr. Bush’s remarks as a sign the president was acknowledging defeat.

But obviously, Mr. Bush was not conceding the war on terrorism despite Democratic efforts to portray otherwise. He was stating merely the obvious: Terrorism typically originates from a set of beliefs or grievances, and it’s unrealistic to expect that one can completely purge such a concept from society. In reality, the best anyone can hope for is to minimize terrorist recruitment and capture those who still plan to execute further attacks.

The real problem with the president’s remarks was it sounded as if he was backtracking from earlier statements. Bush’s recent comments come at a time when terrorism is still loosely defined. In the past three years, the rhetoric either has been “we will prevail” or “we will win.” Yet the past three years have not played out exactly as planned: Military action in Iraq is attracting terrorists from outside the country as well as recruitment from within. In Afghanistan, the rebuilding efforts have stalled, with many critics now saying it is the “forgotten front.” Meanwhile, warnings from the Department of Homeland Security continue to keep U.S. citizens fearful of when and where the next attack might occur.

Although there have been major gains in the arrests of terror suspects around the world, the act is similar to cutting off a hydra’s head – one will rise back always in its place.

In reality, the war on terrorism can’t be won in conventional terms. There is no clear enemy, no formal declaration of war, no primary base of operations and no standard set of tactics.

However, the Bush administration has continued to portray terrorism as a concrete entity that can be defeated. Whenever the president calls attention to the war on terrorism, he essentially implies we are in a war that only his administration can win. And yet, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, this war has appeared perpetual, with no clear winners or losers.

Might is not always right, and overwhelming force is not the only answer. The only way to successfully “win” the war on terrorism is to address the source of the problem. Contrary to popular belief, there are terrorists motivated not by their blinding hatred of the West but by specific U.S. foreign policy. Our blind support of Israel, our backing of the brutal Saudi monarchy and our inability to provide a clear exit strategy for Iraq are some policies that continue to fuel terrorist recruitment.

President Bush is correct in his assessment that the war on terrorism cannot be won. But until his administration tackles the problem head-on, he’s going to find himself backtracking a lot more than he is used to.