Seven years after 9/11, John McCain still doesn't get the war on terrorism.
At a stop on July 22 in Rochester, New Hampshire, Senator John McCain was asked a series of questions about the American troop presence in Iraq. As he has throughout his campaign, McCain insisted that U.S. forces were winning the war in Iraq and, if allowed to complete their mission, would leave behind a working democracy, check “disruptive” influences, and clear the way for a transformed Middle East. The back-and-forth culminated with the following exchange:

Questioner: Don’t you believe that we are inflaming the Muslim world by our presence there?

McCain: Thank you. I do not. I believe that if we had been defeated in Iraq that the radical elements in the Muslim world would have been dramatically encouraged.

The Arizona senator’s response presented in a nutshell his belief that military force is the sine qua non of a successful counterterrorism policy. McCain does not promise that victory in Iraq--which he does not define--will end Islamist terrorism in other regions or prevent attacks directed at the United States. Implicit in his view, though, is the notion that terrorists will be deterred by American military might and that their defeat in Iraq will make it more difficult for them to acquire the recruits, funding, and popular backing they need to continue their efforts.

Undoubtedly, flagrant displays of U.S. weakness could embolden America’s terrorist enemies, though it seems far-fetched that a U.S. departure from Iraq in the next three years--a move endorsed by the Bush administration, the Baghdad regime, and Senator Barack Obama--would be seen as a rout. But McCain’s approach fails to take into account the many other factors that affect the jihadists’ ability to promote their cause and carry out attacks. Above all, it ignores the motivational power of the jihadist “story”--the contention, made by Osama bin Laden and others, that the United States is a predatory power which seeks to occupy Muslim countries, destroy Islam, and steal the Middle East’s oil wealth. Undermining that narrative, most counterterrorism analysts believe, must be a central part of the strategy against radical Islamism. Yet McCain’s insistence that the U.S. military stay in Iraq for the long term does just the opposite.


For a man who routinely calls the fight against terrorism “the transcendent challenge of our time,” John McCain seems to understand little about it. At least twice, he has confused Sunni and Shia, the two main sects of Islam. On one famous occasion in Amman last March he suggested that Al Qaeda terrorists, who are Sunnis, were receiving training from Iran’s Shia government. That notion would have surprised the late Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mussab al Zarqawi, who killed Shia with a demonic fury and repeatedly called them “worse” than Americans. According to the CIA, Al Qaeda personnel do operate within Iran, but the Iranian government is unaware of their presence. McCain’s other fumble came just a few weeks later when he implied that Al Qaeda was “an obscure sect of the Shiites.” Perhaps there should have been less surprise at McCain’s mistakes, given that in a 2003 interview with Chris Matthews, he predicted that there would be comity between the sects in postwar Iraq because “there’s not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias. So I think they can probably get along.”

Like the key architects of the Iraq war, McCain appears to see all hostile Muslims as part of a monolithic enemy. This conflation of Al Qaeda with other threats underlay President Bush’s belief that Iraq had something to do with the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Cheney’s repeated insistence that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working together years after that was proven untrue, and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s obsessive demands that the intelligence community demonstrate a connection between the jihadists and Saddam’s Baathists. McCain has also spoken about Hamas and Hezbollah in terms that suggest that he considers these groups no different from Al Qaeda, Iraq’s Baath Party, and the Iranian regime. He has speculated that if the United States were defeated in Iraq, Iran and Al Qaeda would reach a strategic understanding to divide the country between them--an inconceivable outcome, given their deep hatred for each other.

Ironically, the McCain campaign’s principal critique of Barack Obama, as expressed by foreign policy aide Randy Scheunemann, is that he “does not understand the nature of the enemy as we face it.” Former CIA director James Woolsey, also an adviser to McCain, said in a conference call with reporters that Obama “ignores that we are in a war against terrorism.” Insofar as we are in a conflict that involves violence, we are in a war. But the flaw in McCain’s worldview is his conviction that the war against terrorism is a war in the conventional sense--something of a cross between Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day. The depth of the McCain team’s embrace of the “war paradigm” has been apparent both in the candidate’s near-exclusive focus on Iraq and his revival of the Bush/Cheney canard that Democrats see terrorism solely as a law enforcement challenge--that they would rather serve a terrorist a subpoena than kill him. To McCain, the central front in the war on terrorism is Iraq, and it is a war that must be fought chiefly with military power. One hundred thousand or more U.S. troops stationed in Iraq will maintain order, destroy malefactors through air strikes and ground engagements, and demonstrate that no one can outgun the American military.

But massed armies and traditional notions of total war have little to do with the current conflict with the jihadist movement. Most of the terrorists cannot be overrun with tanks. Many of them are in Pakistan--in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and, increasingly, in the broad western band of the country ranging from the Northwest Frontier Province down to Baluchistan, where Al Qaeda and its allies in the Pakistan Taliban operate in the open and increasingly destabilize our operations in Afghanistan. The United States may be able to disrupt an emerging conspiracy there with military means, such as drones, tactical air strikes, or Special Forces, but it cannot invade this nuclear armed-country, even though the terrorists who plotted 9/11 have found refuge there.

McCain has long maintained that the way to deal with this problem was to press the Pakistanis into action. “I know Musharraf. ... I know how to deal with Pakistan. I’ve been to Waziristan. I know these issues and I’ve been involved in them for the last 20 years,” the Arizonan said in a Fox News roundtable during the primaries. Of course, the Bush White House emphasized working with Musharraf, too, and the failure of that approach is now clear. As The New York Times has reported, years of frustration with Pakistani military intelligence--the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate--has boiled over in the Bush administration, and a senior CIA official recently flew to Islamabad to present information showing the ISI’s attempts to subvert the Afghan government and its complicity in the July bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. Besides which, Musharraf is now gone.

After South Asia, the other key areas of concern are in the Muslim diaspora, especially in Europe, in urban ghettoes or university cafes. These are the haunts of the plotters who planned in 2006 to rival the 9/11 attacks by blowing up six or seven airliners flying out of Heathrow. Others have burrowed into the societies of pro-Western Muslim countries, like the 700 or so Saudis arrested in the last year whose main targets were oil facilities. Military force will not be used in any of these areas, which cover most of the “theaters of jihad.”

Where military force does matter--say, in Afghanistan--McCain’s prescriptions have made little sense. Initially, he touted Afghanistan as a military success, but after Obama repeatedly pointed to the decay there, McCain reversed course in July and called for more troops. His pledge to deploy three more brigades, however, is hollow if he also insists on maintaining a high troop level in Iraq until 2013. As Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out on July 2, the Pentagon does not have those brigades today, and increasing the size of the army will take years.

Undoubtedly, the United States must continue working with the Iraqi army and Sunni tribes to dismantle Al Qaeda in Iraq--a parasite that came to Mesopotamia to feed off the chaos created by Bush’s invasion--but doing so won’t require the 15 combat brigades McCain wants to keep there or anything close to that number. Military force from some country or coalition may also be needed elsewhere in the failed and failing states that radiate violence, such as Lebanon, Somalia, and Gaza. The jihad in these areas has taken root in tribal areas, slums, and refugee camps that are effectively off-limits to police. Unlike in Europe or Saudi Arabia, these jihadists are contesting territory, not just terrorizing unlucky individuals. Ultimately, a mix of special operations forces and conventional units will be needed to chip away at these insurgencies. But they will succeed only if their efforts are carried out in the name of a government that enjoys popular support.


What McCain fails to comprehend is that his preference for firepower will give the terrorists exactly what they want. For bin Laden and his fellow jihadists, it is axiomatic that the United States must feel itself to be at war with Islam. Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, explained this clearly to his American captors after he was apprehended in Pakistan in 1995 and flown back to the United States for trial. When the United States considers itself at war, the mujahedin believe, it will behave in a warlike way, and the deployment of its heavy equipment in places like Iraq will confirm to the world’s Muslims that America is, as bin Laden claims, at war with Islam. This is the jihadists’ strategy for winning hearts and minds, and it has worked for them. It is true that Al Qaeda hasn’t mobilized the masses as it wanted, but it is nevertheless getting the funding and recruits it needs.

The key is to provoke an American overreaction. It’s not just the pictures of tanks or humvees cruising through Muslim countries that horrify and motivate Al Qaeda’s target audience; it is the enormous number of civilian casualties in Iraq--from a documented minimum of just below 100,000 to estimates of more than six times that--which are laid at America’s doorstep. The New York Times and Fox News may not routinely show images of Iraqi civilian casualties, but media outlets overseas do. Supporters of the war have been so delighted by the decline in violence in Iraq--purchased mostly through the arming of Sunni tribesmen whose long-term reliability is dubious at best--that they fail to notice the continued erosion in America’s standing in a Muslim world, where the occupation of Iraq has come to rival the plight of the Palestinians as an issue of concern.

Indeed, there is little room for opinion to become any more hostile. The 2008 Arab Public Opinion Poll by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland finds 83 percent of respondents in six Middle Eastern countries somewhat or very unfavorably disposed toward the United States. That is up five percent from two years ago. When asked about Al Qaeda, 30 percent of respondents said they sympathized with the group because it confronts the United States, 18 percent because it stands for Muslim causes such the Palestinian issue, 10 percent because of its method of operation, and 7 percent because it seeks to create an Islamic state like Taliban Afghanistan. John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown, led a global Gallup poll which found that 7 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims believe that the 9/11 attacks were completely justified; that’s 91 million people.

For the jihadists, a “war with America” not only wins them supporters, it also tempts the United States into overreaching. Jihadists know that they cannot defeat America militarily; but they can bleed it. This idea is at the heart of The Management of Savagery by Abu Bakr al-Naji, perhaps the most influential work on jihadist military doctrine. (As the scholar Will McCants notes on his blog, Jihadica.com, Saudi authorities have said that many of the roughly 700 jihadists arrested in the last year were clearly pursuing al-Naji’s strategic blueprint.) Osama bin Laden himself, in his November 2004 video, explained this strategy:

All that we have to do is to send two mujahedin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written Al Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we alongside the mujahedin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat....

So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.

Although Al Qaeda in Iraq can still carry out 40 attacks per month, it did overplay its hand in 2007 and has since been handed a serious defeat. But after five years of warfare, more than 4,000 American deaths, and nearly a trillion dollars in costs, one would have to say America has been bled pretty effectively.


In his speeches on terrorism, McCain has become proficient at talking the talk of ideological struggle and counterinsurgency. Like the Bush administration, he speaks of how victory against the radicals will require “far more than military force,” how it will require the use of “all elements of our national power.” As he put it in a speech in Los Angeles in March, “Our goal ... must be to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the vast majority of moderate Muslims who do not want their future controlled by a minority of violent extremists. In this struggle, scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs.”

But McCain won’t win any Muslim hearts and minds if he insists on permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. In this regard, his inability to learn from recent history is of a piece with that of the Bush administration. After the 1996 bombing of the U.S. Air Force housing complex in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, the United States began to redeploy its forces within the kingdom away from population centers and began to remove military installations to Qatar and elsewhere. When it ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the White House recognized that it was essential that the U.S. remove the vestiges of its military presence from Saudi Arabia because they were increasingly viewed as an intolerable affront, and the troops were gone in a few months. Yet neither the White House nor McCain seem to understand that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is also an affront to Iraqis and others--and permanent bases would be anathema. That hasn’t deterred McCain from supporting them or from carelessly talking about staying in Iraq for the next hundred years.

Should he become president, McCain will face other hurdles to winning Muslims over to America’s side. Although his stance against torture earned him the enmity of some of his fellow hawks, including those in the White House, he voted against forbidding the CIA from using water-boarding as an interrogation technique. What’s more, he has assailed the Supreme Court’s decision affirming the right of Guantanamo inmates to habeas corpus as “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” Guantanamo and the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib have been used successfully by Al Qaeda and lots of lesser America-haters to win “hearts and minds.” Whatever McCain told his audience in New Hampshire this July, the U.S. war on terror has indeed inflamed the Muslim world. If he can’t understand that, he will probably also be surprised when recipients of those McCain scholarships turn out to be like that distinguished alum of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Class of 1986.

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon served respectively as director and senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff 1998-1999. They are the co-authors of The Age of Sacred Terror and The Next Attack.

By Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon