WAR ON TERROR: What war on terrorism?
Alon Ben-Meir

Three-and-a-half years after the Bush administration declared war against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), I am not sure that I feel any safer than I did before 9/11.

While administration officials continue to insist that we are making considerable progress, intelligence estimates, including the latest by the CIA, strongly suggest that various terrorist groups, especially Al Qaeda, remain as potent as ever and may even have become more dangerous.

As the carnage continues unabated after the elections there, this administration still insists that Iraq has become the battleground for the terrorists and American forces to face off, which it believes is preferable to fighting them on American soil. Unfortunately, this assessment contradicts all intelligence reports on the dismal situation in Iraq and its effect on international terrorism. In his recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, CIA Director Porter J. Goss suggested that Iraq has in fact become a recruiting pool for Islamist extremists and that many of the skilled and experienced insurgents there could move on to other Arab states, where they could build terrorist cells in an effort to bring down these regimes.

And let`s not forget that Osama Bin Laden is still at large, comfortably recruiting, expanding and decentralizing while surely plotting his next attack. And if the purpose of the Iraqi war was to reduce the risks of WMD falling into the hands of a terrorist group, as Mr. Goss stated, `It may only be a matter of time before Al Qaeda or another group attempts to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.`

In this context it is becoming increasingly clear that there is sufficient nuclear material unaccounted for that make it possible for those with know-how and access to build a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, in this charged atmosphere, Iran has chosen to follow in North Korea`s path by accelerating its nuclear program to deter an American attack, while North Korea, which has been known to peddle nuclear and missile technology, feels safer to do so with nuclear weapons presumably at its disposal.

In brief, this administration has not only failed to arrest the spread of WMD, but by its own actions and failed diplomacy may have contributed to their proliferation.

This administration believes, however, that it has found the magic cure for international terrorism and it is democracy, or should I say, elections. Don`t get me wrong: I`m all for democracy and freedom. And yes, the Arab world needs to democratize. But the question is how? America cannot simply shove democracy down the throats of Arab leaders.

Elections, although a critical part of the democratic process, do not by themselves provide true democracy. Time and again we have seen in many counties of the former Eastern Europe and in South America, democratically elected leaders amassing dictatorial powers.

This is why it is the long-term process of building and developing democratic institutions that sustains and preserves democratic forms of government. In the Arab states, in particular, the United States should encourage democratic reforms, but it must simultaneously assist each nation in the region to develop its own homegrown democracy along with democratic institutions consistent with its unique situation.

And while it is true that a democratic form of government would inhibit terrorist acts and erode support for such groups, fighting poverty, despondency and social and economic dislocation in the region must be the first priority.

Our European allies are correct in suggesting that we must begin with putting out the flames of the Israeli-Palestinian inferno, while in Iraq we must invest more in sustainable development to lift the people out of their misery. But instead of such a focus, this administration has embarked on `democratizing` regimes that it wishes to topple like Syria and Iran, as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq, while leaving the leaders of other Arab and Muslim despotic states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan to continue to trample on their people. The future generation of terrorists will come precisely from these countries whose status quo Washington now protects.

This is neither a recipe for encouraging democracy nor for fighting terrorism; this is a recipe for upheaval and instability that will set new and awesome fires in the Middle East that will rage against the United States as well as the so-called allies it shields.

It appears that the Iraq war has not only diverted America`s resources and focus away from the real war on terrorism; it has created the illusion that somehow the United States, or I should say, this administration, can act like a bully, meddling with impunity in the affairs of other nations.

This administration has apparently forgotten that there is something called international negotiation, especially in the absence of other viable options or leverage. Grievances against Iran, North Korea or Syria can be dealt with through negotiations, even at times through coercive bargaining, which would compel these nations to negotiate, something they can hardly refuse, most likely resulting in the reduction rather than the increase of bilateral tension. Otherwise, as long as they feel threatened and bullied by the United States, their governments will do everything in their power, including acquiring WMD and aiding terrorists, to frustrate American efforts.

During his campaign for a second term, Mr. Bush ran on his record as a war president who was totally committed to diminishing if not eliminating terrorism. No one can question the president`s sincerity, but his actions and policies toward this end have raised serious questions about his credibility. As American and Iraqi casualties mount, it is time to focus on the real war on terrorism. This time it will be impossible for the administration to say that it has not been warned.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU and is the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute in New York