As the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, President Bush is reemphasizing his focus on the war on terror as the defining struggle of the age. With historical analogies his constant tool, the president compares Osama bin Laden to the ideological foes the United States faced in the 20th century – Lenin and Hitler, for example – and likens the struggle against Islamic radicalism to the cold war.
Such comparisons can help Americans understand the foe the US is up against, analysts agree, and can help put the challenge ahead into perspective. For example, the cold war was an ideological battle spanning more than four decades, and the fight against terrorism is not likely to reach a decisive denouement anytime soon, experts say.
But such analogies go only so far and can actually hinder understanding if they obscure the differences in the current situation or act to cover up missteps in current policy.
"The cold war is a good template to begin to think about how to deal with the challenge of radical Islam," says Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and now professor of international relations at Boston University. "The problem is that whatever the president is saying now, his administration's policies have not mirrored the policies of the cold war – starting with the fact that US strategy in the cold war was not primarily oriented towards an aggressive use of force."
Mr. Bush himself has said that the war on terror is not just a military battle, but the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are nevertheless seen as the signature acts of the president's war on terror.
At the same time, Bush continues to draw comparisons between this war and 20th-century conflicts. "Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them," he said in Washington Tuesday in a speech to the Military Officers Association of America.
Such references are both useful and problematic, some experts say. "It's helpful to have things to point to that people can understand. But it's also true that historical analogies are rarely 100 percent accurate, and that can lead to misunderstandings," says Thomas Henriksen, a historian focusing on US foreign policy at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "It's true that this will be a long conflict, and when the president says this is more than a military conflict, that's also true."
But Mr. Henriksen says other factors weaken such analogies: For example, World War II and the cold war were fought against "state actors" – Germany, Japan, and then the Soviet Union – while the foes in the war on terror are stateless, dispersed organizations and the ideology that feeds them.
Another problem with such analogies is that they suggest that the answers to the current challenge can also be found in history. Some experts say that can be a costly mistake.
"Superficially, the comparison [to the cold war] is credible, in that this is an ideological challenge, but it starts breaking down when you compare the enemies we were and are [now] up against," says Geoffrey Kemp, a national-security expert at the Nixon Center in Washington.
In the cold war, the ideological foe the US faced was backed by "serious countries with serious capabilities," says Mr. Kemp, who served in the National Security Council of the Reagan White House. While radical Islam may be fed by a common ideology favoring a global caliphate, "when you get into the details, you find a disparate constellation of differing factions and agendas."
The result, he says, is that the current foe "has to be dealt with in a very different way. The traditional ways are less relevant now."
Where many experts differ most ardently with the Bush administration's strategy is in the use of force – and specifically in the characterization of the Iraq war as the central front in the war on terror.
Bush continues to insist on that point. "Iraq is not a distraction in [the radical Islamists'] war against America," he said Tuesday, but rather "the central battlefield where this war will be decided."
Professor Bacevich disagrees, saying that "if the Bush approach had been applied in the cold war, our response would have been to invade Poland." Adds Kemp, "Where Iraq is the central front is in an intensifying battle between Shiites and Sunnis. It doesn't serve our purposes [in the battle with terrorism] to be caught in the middle of that."
Some experts say battling Islamic radicalism is so different from previous wars – and so little a military fight – that the word "war" should not be used at all. "The message the rhetoric about Iraq sends is that we still think we can win this conflict with military force, and that's simply not the case," says Charles Pena, a national security-expert with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy in Washington. He is so adamant about this point that he titled a new book "Winning the Un-War."
Aside from de-emphasizing the military response, Mr. Pena says the US has to change a "hypocritical" policy toward the Middle East that talks democracy but supports authoritarian regimes. He says, "If we don't reassess our foreign policy and deal with the root causes of what attracts so many Muslims to the radical message, it's a losing battle."