With Washington focused on health care, and political activists of the right and left doing their best to tear the nation apart, the chickens of what was once called the "War on Terror" are coming home to roost.
The administration and Congress face important decisions about Afghanistan, not the least of which is whether to commit more forces to the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and, if so, how many.
President Obama considers Afghanistan the "right war" – the one the United States must win, thus differentiating it from what he considered the ill-advised U.S. war in Iraq – but Democrats in Washington and at the grassroots are tiring of Afghanistan and pushing Obama to avoid "another Vietnam" by withdrawing. Spurred by columnist George Will's recent call for America to leave the battlefield, conservatives are fiercely debating one another over what's at stake and whether to stay.
At the same time, the White House faces its own late September deadline for Iran to engage seriously in talks over its nuclear program before the administration pursues an unspecified set of tough measures, presumably to include stringent enough economic sanctions to force Tehran to take notice.
Iran said it would talk to the United States but not about its nuclear program. The administration rejected the offer. Whether it can convince, or pressure, Tehran to abandon its nuclear effort as it closes in on the technology and know-how to make its nuclear weapons program a fait accompli, remains an open question.
Closer to home, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez trumpets his ties to Tehran's radical, terror-sponsoring regime, mimics the regime's anti-U.S. rhetoric and stokes anti-American efforts across Latin America.
Afghanistan, Iran and Venezuela represent key aspects of the multi-faceted challenge that the war on terror presents – radical ideology that fuels terror, terrorist havens in far-flung locations, terror-sponsoring states and the prospect of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those states or terrorists themselves.
The multiple challenges have left the United States, now eight years from the 9/11 attacks, still searching for a comprehensive strategy to combat the ideology, defeat the terrorists and contain the states.
Fortunately, policymakers need look no further than Winning the Long War, a new treatise from Iran watcher Ilan Berman that tells us what's right and what's wrong with our efforts to date and, more importantly, helps to fill the strategic void by offering a comprehensive strategy of his own.
The problem, he suggests, starts with the most basic question: Who are we fighting?
While the nation has focused its attention on the Sunni form of radical Islam, as represented by Al Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan, Berman suggests that our targets must include two other groups.
The first is the Shi'a-driven regime in Tehran, which the State Department consistently ranks as the most aggressive state sponsor of terror. Rather than treat Iran as a traditional nation-state to be contained, Berman advises, we must understand the war that Tehran is waging against U.S. interests.
The second is what he called the "center of gravity" in the long war, the billions of "undecided voters" among Muslims the world over who will choose sides in the battle between, on one hand, U.S.-led freedom and democracy and, on the other, radical Islamists and their fundamentalist ideology.
The "long war" begins with a war of ideas between competing visions. For a nation of breath-taking sophistication in other arenas of message-making (e.g., advertising, sales and political campaigns), the United States has been remarkably inept in promoting its values and combating the lies of its adversaries.
With Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Tehran's radical regime losing popularity in a backlash against their fundamentalist rule, the United States has a real chance to sway broad swaths of the Muslim world. But, Berman instructs, policymakers must not only decide what the nation should say but also streamline government's disorganized infrastructure of outreach and provide more sums to the effort.
Another arena of great opportunity, and woefully insufficient effort to date, is financial. Though the United States has targeted terror-financing charities and other entities for sanction, here, too, the nation lacks a comprehensive effort.
That effort would include the re-targeting of foreign aid, which the nation can distribute far more on the basis of combating terror and swaying key audiences; better monitoring of sharia-compliant financial products to ensure that they don't fund terror; and the exploiting of Iran's peculiar economic vulnerabilities as a key component of convincing Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.
Other elements of a comprehensive approach would include efforts to update national and international laws to address the challenges of modern terrorism, and a far more sophisticated effort by the United States to plant the seeds of democracy abroad and, in this way, reduce terrorism's playing field.
We are eight years into the war on terror. We have fought it without a grand strategy. Ilan Berman provides one.
Any care to read it?