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Thirteen years, almost to the day, since the attacks on the World Trade Center, we find ourselves again on the brink of the next battle in what George Bush called the War on Terror. We invaded two countries, ousted their governments, set up client governments in their stead, and fought for all those thirteen years, both conventionally and covertly, against Islamist warriors who vowed our destruction.

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President Obama’s address makes clear that his strategy for addressing the threat from the Islamic State is consistent with what his administration has been doing all along, and very distinct from the strategy executed by the Bush administration under the rubric “War on Terror.”

Whereas Bush assumed that “terror” was something that could be attacked and defeated on the ground of a target state—Afghanistan and then Iraq—Obama has conceived the problem as one of managing the risk of terrorism through a variety of counterterrorism tactics such as lethal drone attacks, special forces missions such as that which killed Osama bin Laden, and other covert actions.

What neither Obama nor Bush have grasped is that the widespread and durable hostility toward the United States and the West in the Middle East is a direct result of a century of Western meddling in the region.

Obama grasps (as Bush did not) that terror is a tactic, not an enemy. When an adversary is militarily weak, the use of terror against civilian targets is attractive as a means of striking a blow, drawing blood, without a conventional military confrontation that would result in annihilation of the adversary. The appropriate response is also tactical. It is neither necessary nor even useful to send an occupying army.

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What neither Obama nor Bush have grasped is that the widespread and durable hostility toward the United States and the West in the Middle East is a direct result of a century of Western meddling in the region, primarily to secure control of petroleum resources, but also to serve Cold War interests and to support Israel against any and all adversaries.

It’s not like we were just minding our own business and these malicious terrorists came along and attacked us for no good reason. We—and the French and British before us—have been fishing in those troubled waters for decades. The very state boundaries that the Islamic State challenges were imposed on the region by the victorious powers in the Versailles settlement after World War I. Both Saddam Hussein and the Assads in Syria came to power as part of a reaction against corrupt regimes imposed by the West. The Taliban in Afghanistan were armed by us to fight the Soviet occupation.

Bush imagined that his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would be the catalyst for democratization in the Middle East. Obama thought that popular uprisings against the likes of Qaddafi in Libya would be that catalyst. Both were wrong.

john peeler

Bush could not win his War on Terror. Obama may be able to manage terror with his tactics. Neither will eliminate it, because we are its cause.

John Peeler