War On Terror: New Lessons

In the aftermath of the Madrid bombings and the continued strife in Iraq, it is important to remember that this is not the first time the U.S. and Western Europe have faced an aggressive and ideologically driven opponent. Look back at George Kennan's 1947 article in Foreign Affairs that laid out the basis for the Cold War, including the doctrine of containment. Many of the phrases that he used to describe a belligerent Soviet Union, including its belief in "the basic badness of capitalism, in the inevitability of its destruction," resonate today.

While the precise policies that Kennan proposed in 1947 don't fit the modern world of global terrorism, his long-term vision has a lot to teach American and European political leaders. The Soviet Union, he wrote, "cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory on the part of its opponents. And the patient persistence by which it is animated means that it can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only by intelligent long-range policies."

Similarly, short-term military or tactical victories in Afghanistan or Iraq today -- including the possible capture of Osama bin Laden -- are not sufficient. Instead, the U.S. and the leading European powers must think in terms of emphasizing common interests that will sustain a long-term fight against terrorism and fundamentalism. Individual freedoms, women's rights, democracy, open markets, and free trade -- these are all values, shared by the U.S. and Europe, that could form the framework for sustained cooperation against a common enemy. The goal is not simply to capture individual terrorists but to drain the swamp that produces them -- a task that could take years.

Along the way, there will certainly be heated disagreements about particular actions, such as the invasion of Iraq. But remember that the West was not monolithic during the Cold War, either. France withdrew from NATO's joint military command in the 1960s, and such U.S. policies as the deployment of Pershing missiles to Europe in the 1980s drew tremendous opposition there. Just as the Western alliance survived such strains, so can the anti-terrorism coalition overcome stresses such as Spain's potential withdrawal from Iraq, as long as both the U.S. and Europe keep their focus on their shared interests.

Kennan made another point that has great relevance today. To win the war against communism, he wrote, the U.S. must "create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time." The lesson is clear: Exerting military and political power around the world is not enough -- the U.S. must maintain a dynamic and open society at home as well. This is the long but necessary road to victory over terrorism.

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