Interviews September 2006

Endgaming the Terror War

James Fallows talks about the surprising strides we've made against al-Qaeda—and why declaring victory will make us safer

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush stood aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and, in front of a large banner that read "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED," proudly declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. But as the search for weapons of mass destruction floundered and violence and casualties surged, the widely publicized photo-op quickly became a mockery, inspiring headlines of disdain and a heated blame game over responsibility between the White House and the Navy for months to follow.

Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows is no stranger to such Bush Administration debacles. Author of acclaimed criticism such as "Blind Into Baghdad" and "The Fifty-First State," Fallows has been consistently quick to point out America's mistakes in its war on terrorism and operations in Iraq. Five years after 9/11, Fallows once again takes stock of the nation's performance—though this time from the perspective of al-Qaeda. What, for example, might an al-Qaeda strategist say if asked to brief Osama bin Laden on the current state of affairs? What has gone better than expected? What has gone worse? "Could bin Laden assume, on any grounds other than pure faith," he asks, "that the winds of history were at his back?" Fallows approaches these questions with the same characteristic open-mindedness, imagination, and judicious eye that have marked his previous critiques, and this time arrives at a surprising conclusion: from the enemy's vantage point, America actually looks pretty good—so good, in fact, that the United States can now truly declare "mission accomplished" in the war on terrorism.

Could this be true? Has the landscape changed so much in three-and-a-half years—a period riddled with its own share of blunders and missteps—that President Bush could utter those two words today without engendering the same ridicule? Indeed, Fallows asserts, and the essence of the change is this:

Because of al-Qaeda's own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda's ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.

This is not to say, of course, that America has waged a perfect war. A precipitous leap into the morass of Iraq, and excessive spending on security are two major mistakes Fallows feels that we've made, along with a failure to engage al-Qaeda in a serious "War of Ideas." "America's glory has been its openness and idealism, internally and externally," he writes. "Each has been constrained from time to time, but not for as long or in as open-ended a way as now." Considering that America is much richer and stronger than it was fifty years ago, why are we not "waging peace" more effectively?

Drawing perhaps from his experience as a speechwriter for former President Carter, Fallows suggests a new public relations strategy for the nation: declare victory in the war on terrorism so that the country can move to its real work—domestic protection, worldwide pursuit of al-Qaeda's lingering elements, and an all-fronts diplomatic campaign. And in the meantime, Fallows suggests, how about a new message that gives us a clearer-eyed understanding of our current—non-dire—situation? He offers a few words for President Bush to borrow:

"My fellow Americans...

The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges—and opportunities. With quiet pride, we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face."

James Fallows is currently in Shanghai. We communicated by email on July 22nd.

Abigail Cutler

The overarching thesis of this piece—that there is a real case to be made for declaring victory in the war on terrorism—seems like a departure from the tenor of your previous articles. You acknowledge that this realization came as a surprise to you. Do you have any doubts as to whether this is the best new approach?

A journalist who doesn't have doubts about anything he's found has not spent enough time in this business. Everything we do is tentative—the best version of the facts and the related concepts that we can put together in real time. (It's so much easier to know how things will turn out when you're looking back on them, as historians do!)

But with that caveat, I thought the case for declaring victory was a powerful one, as I heard it. If I had to boil it down to three crucial propositions, they would be these:

First, what we went to war to avenge—and prevent—was a large-scale, devastating, indiscriminate, civilian-slaughtering attack on our homeland. Al-Qaeda's errors and internal friction, along with the efforts of the U.S.—yes, the Bush Administration—and its allies, have made this kind of attack much less likely. (The exception, of course, is the risk of rogue nuclear weapons—but we can undertake an all-out effort to contain that specific risk.) Therefore, the U.S. could plausibly declare "mission accomplished" about the original cause of war.

Second, the real strategic threat from al-Qaeda is its ability to provoke us toward actions that hurt us in the long run. (See: war in Iraq.) This, by the way, was a point I had not focused on before doing the reporting, but which ran through many of the interviews.

Third, we are most likely to avoid overreaction—and to continue the long-term efforts to win the "war of ideas"—if we move off a wartime footing. For reasons I lay out in the piece, an open-ended war makes it harder to do a lot of things we should do, and makes it more likely that we'll make strategic mistakes.

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Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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