For some years now, I have been concerned that the great national debate over the terror war has been systematically misguided. Instead of a discussion of the strategic issue, our leaders and pundits have dealt with tactical questions. And so it goes, most recently in Thursday’s speeches from former Vice President Dick Cheney and President Barack Obama. The strategic questions are finessed in favor of single pieces of the issue.
Neither asked, let alone answered, the big question: what are we facing? Who is our enemy? So neither had an answer: what should our overall strategy be? How will we win? How do we measure our progress?
From the beginning we have dealt with each theatre—whether Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Europe, the homeland—as a thing in itself, something requiring its own distinct approach. At no time, save for some general statements shortly after the 9/11 attacks, has any leader discussed the fact that we are involved in a big war, in which specific enemies are engaged against us. We have debated military tactics, ideological imperatives (from winning hearts and minds to challenging radical Islam, to deconstructing Islam itself), nation building, methods of interrogation, the use of one sort of court or another. But we have yet to face the central fact of the broad war, the big war, what I insist is the real war, the one that has been waged against us for decades, in which our enemies aim at our domination or destruction.
Without that debate, it is hard to craft a winning strategy, and we will continue to be jerked around from one battlefield to another, sometimes doing well, sometimes not.
To put it differently, we refuse to look evil in the face and so we fail to confront it as we should and as we eventually must.
It’s notable, and enormously disappointing, that neither Obama nor Cheney felt it necessary to talk about Iran, which is the main artifice in the war against us. Instead Cheney, whose administration notably failed to develop a serious Iran policy, presented us with , of all things, an encomium to the CIA. The very same agency that regularly accused him of all manner of criminal or near-criminal acts. And Obama wrapped himself in feel-good language about the rule of law when the central issue facing this country is whether we will defeat our main enemy. Iran. Which was not mentioned at all.
When Iran IS mentioned, her importance is invariably contained within the nuclear issue. We are never reminded that Iran has been waging war against us for thirty years, nor that Iranians and Iranian proxies are killing Americans every single day in the real war. Nor do leading politicians, journalists or broadcasters see fit to inform the American people that American presidents have been negotiating with Iran’s fanatical leaders all those years, to no effect. It is as if the past three decades never existed, and the world was created some time during the last presidential election campaign. It is routinely claimed, by authoritative experts in and out of government, that Iran has not attacked Americans for many years. As if we had not killed and captured Iranian military officers in Iraq and elsewhere, engaged in mayhem against our men and women. As if Hezbollah were not an arm of the Iranian state. As if Hamas were an independent actor, rather than an Iranian proxy. As if Syria, in cahoots with would-be assassins and suicide terrorists in Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, were an independent actor, instead of an Iranian satrapy.
The refusal to acknowledge the Iranian evil—which I address at length in a forthcoming book entitled Accomplice to Evil, and which is eerily reminiscent of the desperate efforts in the West to blind ourselves to the evils of fascism, Nazism and Communism, as to similar willful blindness to terrible events in Cuba, Rwanda, and Darfur—prevents us from evaluating the current spat over ‘torture,’ Guantanamo, military commissions, and so forth. For all of Cheney’s pious calls for the release of the results of enhanced interrogations, at no point during his eight years in office did he or President Bush or their secretaries of state and defense or their top intelligence officials, tell us in any meaningful detail what we learned about Iran’s role in the real war. And for all of the frantic contacts with Iran launched by Obama, the many reports about the mullahs’ wicked activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere have not been integrated into a clear picture of the Iranian war against America.
Many of the most important prisoners at Guantanamo received assistance from Iran. Why should that information not be made public? We have interrogated numerous Iranian military and intelligence officers in Iraq, and most likely in Afghanistan. Why does Cheney not tell us something about it?
One understands that Obama has a political reason for not addressing it: a clear picture of Iran’s assault against the West would make it impossible to put all our chips on an agreement concerning the Iranian atomic project. It would make Obama’s efforts to embrace the Islamic Republic look silly. But surely it is better to get beyond our willful blindness right away, than to play a losing hand and have to try to catch up later on. Better politically, and far better strategically.
So here we are, eight years after the al-Qaeda attacks, and we have yet to address the central issues. There is still no national leader who seems to understand this, and who is determined to drive the real debate about the real war.