No candidate has been more singleminded in exploiting the politics of fear than Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination. Mr. Giuliani won national and international respect for his leadership in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on his city, a reputation that proved financially rewarding for him on the lecture circuit and for his consulting business in the years that followed. Even his most persistent critics recognize the courage and eloquence with which he rallied the city in the aftermath of the attack. In the years before the 2001 attack, however, the Giuliani administration did not act on the recommendations made after the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The failure to clarify command structures and provide better communication between the police and fire departments compromised the heroic response of city agencies on that second day of terror. Mr. Giulianis record, then, on understanding and responding to the threat of international terrorism is, at best, mixed.
The other candidates, however, both Democrats and Republicans, have failed to address the challenge of international terrorism in ways that would enlighten and encourage the American voters. Little attention has been paid, for example, to the fact that the 2003 pre-emptive invasion of Iraq was not a necessary or wise response to international terrorism but, in fact, a costly distraction that has compounded the dangers we face. Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator, but he was not behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Bush administration, however, appealed to popular anger over those attacks to gain emotional support for a war of choice. The possibility that Saddams regime had weapons of mass destruction did represent a real danger, but it was a danger that would have been more wisely contained by international oversight. The decision to invade Iraq, against the counsel of long-time U.S. allies, was a costly blunder and has not made the region or the world safer. Yet some voices both within and outside the Bush administration seem bent on repeating that error in dealing with the nuclear ambitions of Iran by suggesting unilateral military action by the United States may be necessary.
Nearly five years after the invasion of Iraq, the United States has a responsibility to the Iraqi people to try to heal the wounds of war by supporting the transition to a stable government in a society divided by sectarian conflict. The administration also has a responsibility to help relieve the suffering of families who have lost sons and daughters on the battlefield and those veterans who are returning severely wounded in body and spirit. But the moral and emotional investment demanded by the Iraq invasion should not prevent us from recognizing that it was a mistake and gaining some wisdom from its painful lessons.
A more enlightened approach to dealing with the continuing threat of international terrorism might begin by retiring the misleading phrase war on terror. Instead of a war that might end with a surrender or a treaty, we are engaged in a continuing police action waged by the international community against a loose network of nihilists with no coherent political agenda. In dealing with an international threat, Washington must recognize the necessity of international cooperation, sharing intelligence and working toward the kind of consensus necessary to support effective military action.
Above all, in this continuing struggle, we must repudiate any tactics that compromise our commitment to human rights and international law. If we compromise our fundamental values, we run the risk of becoming mirror images of our adversaries. The struggle with Islamic extremism in the decades ahead will be, above all, a contest of ideas and values. We must recognize the self-defeating strategies of a politics of fear and have confidence that a civilization grounded in respect for human dignity will, in the end, prevail.