Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the world is not safer and the war on terrorism appears to be getting harder to win, no matter what U.S. President George W. Bush says. The proliferation of terrorist attacks is a fact of life no one can disregard. It is time for the international community to use more brains to break the cycle of terrorist violence.

President Bush’s record so far is mixed at best. Calling the Sept. 11 atrocities a “challenge to civil society,” he declared war on terror and toppled Afghanistan’s militant Taliban regime, which gave shelter to al-Qaeda. He engaged in “regime change” in Iraq, claiming that Baghdad was hiding weapons of mass destruction and providing support to al-Qaeda.

But the euphoria over the swift military victories soon evaporated, particularly in Iraq, where the security situation quickly deteriorated. Although the occupation authority transferred power to an interim government in June, U.S. troops have frequently been attacked by hostile forces, including both loyalists of former leader Saddam Hussein and foreign elements linked to al-Qaeda. The U.S. death toll since the start of fighting in March last year has exceeded 1,000.

In his acceptance speech at the recent Republican convention in New York, Mr. Bush declared: “We have fought the terrorists across the Earth — not for pride, not for power, but because the lives of our citizens are at stake. . . . We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer.” The statement must have struck a chord in many Americans, but if he is determined to pursue his unilateralist doctrine of preemption, including exclusion of U.S. forces from U.N. command, then international efforts to contain terrorism will not succeed.

Mr. Bush certainly can take credit for the fact that no terrorist attacks have occurred in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. But elsewhere in the world terrorism has spread its tentacles, leaving heavy tolls in its wake. Earlier this month, Chechen rebels seized a school in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, killing at least 330 people, including hundreds of children and women. A car bomb exploded near the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, leaving nine dead and almost 180 injured.

An international campaign against terrorism requires, of course, a wide range of multilateral measures, including exchange of intelligence, tracking and regulation of terrorist funds and weapons, and border surveillance. Unfortunately, international cooperation is overshadowed by the deep discord between the U.S. and European nations, particularly France and Germany, that came to a head over whether or not to attack Iraq.

The trans-Atlantic split reflects a conceptual difference between unilateralism and multilateralism, but it is not unbridgeable. In fact, the U.S. had an opportunity to heal the rift when a Senate committee published a report citing intelligence failures regarding the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq was maintaining a secret arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Had Washington acknowledged its mistakes forthrightly, Paris and Berlin would have changed their attitude. Mr. Bush, however, continued to justify the war, saying that the Hussein regime had a capacity to develop WMD, although such weapons were not discovered.

Less than two months to the U.S. presidential election, opinion polls show Mr. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, running neck and neck. Those who support Mr. Kerry are said to include many who say they would vote for anyone other than Mr. Bush. Analysts say the election’s outcome will likely depend on the behavior of undecided voters, who are estimated to make up nearly 20 percent of the electorate.

It is often said that political democracy in the U.S. functions more like a pendulum. When the party in power moves too far in a given direction, the theory goes, the other party takes over to correct the move. It is, of course, up to American voters to decide whether the governing party is “going to an extreme.”

For the first time since the Vietnam War, foreign and security policy, not the usual menu of bread-and-butter issues, is polarizing U.S. public opinion. The questions at stake are whether the world is safer, as Mr. Bush says it is, or will get safer in the future, and whether the war on terror is winnable. In a reflective moment during an interview, Mr. Bush said it may not be winnable, then quickly added he will stay the course.

Simply put, the question is whether American voters will give Mr. Bush four more years on Nov. 2. In a way, they will be choosing between unilateralism and multilateralism — a choice that will profoundly affect the international campaign against terrorism. Whichever side wins, though, the battle will likely be a long, hard slog.

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