The US is losing the war on terror. That's the assessment of the nation's top foreign-policy, intelligence, and national-security leaders from across the ideological spectrum. In this year's Terrorism Index, a survey released Monday by Foreign Policy magazine, 84 percent of these experts believe the nation is losing the war on terror, while more than 90 percent say the world is growing more dangerous for Americans.
That's prompted a variety of leaders to call for a complete rethinking of the nation's strategy. And some are looking back to the cold war's battle against communism to find models for the ideological struggle against terrorism.
A key component is deterrence, the policy that, at the height of the cold war, kept the superpowers' nuclear warheads safely in their bunkers – the only way to avoid mutually assured destruction (MAD). Another is a call for a Middle East Marshall Plan to help develop the region's economies and confront the alienation of the young.
"We need a grand strategy to address not only the question of al Qaeda, but also, how do you put out the fires in the region?" says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at New York's Sarah Lawrence College. "How do you diffuse the crisis and help the Muslims in order to counterbalance the militant ideologies that are simmering above the surface and below the surface?"
The Terrorism Index was developed by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress a year ago, as a way to gauge progress in the war on terror. The original idea was to determine whether the nation was deterring, capturing, or killing more terrorists each day than were being recruited, trained, and deployed. Such information proved nearly impossible to obtain. So the groups decided to survey top foreign-policy, intelligence, military, and academic experts on their sense of progress.
This is the third Terrorism Index they have issued. Among its findings are that foreign-policy experts "see a world that is growing more dangerous, a national security strategy in disrepair, and a war in Iraq that is alarmingly off course," according to the magazine.
"The main reason for this pessimism appears to be events on the ground," says Mike Boyer, senior editor of Foreign Policy. "[Fifty-three] percent of the experts say the surge of troops into Baghdad is having a negative impact on the war effort, an increase of 22 percent from just six months ago." The sentiment crosses party lines, he says. So, too, does a desire to disengage from Iraq. Seven out of 10 experts surveyed believe it's time to draw down forces there, although a majority do not favor an immediate withdrawal. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly gave a higher percent for the experts who think the surge is having a negative impact.]
Experts are also blaming the war in Iraq for a diminishing sense of security in America. Eighty percent of them say the war has had a negative effect "on protecting the American people from global terrorist networks and in advancing U.S. national security goals." Only 15 percent of the experts say that creating a stable, secure Iraq should be the top foreign-policy objective of the next five years. In contrast, 30 percent believe that winning the "hearts and minds" of the Muslim world should be the most important US policy objective in that time frame.
These and other conclusions, says Mr. Boyer, indicate that the Iraq experience is informing experts' broader views on the war on terrorism – and prompting calls for new strategies.
"This poll presents an enormously bleak and melancholy picture ... and it's difficult not to read it as a complete repudiation of the entire current conduct on the war on terrorism," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "Where we have been particularly remiss or ineffectual is in fighting the al Qaeda brand as hard as we've fought the al Qaeda terrorists."
Middle East experts like Dr. Gerges say that while the majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda's violence, they have come to believe that much of al Qaeda's rhetoric is correct. "The US is losing the ideological struggle against al Qaeda," says Gerges. "Some of the most intelligent people in that part of the world believe the US is waging a crusade against Islam and Muslims and is trying to subjugate the Arab world and remake it in its image, and that it's doing it brutally."
Many experts say it's critical that the US focus on countering such perceptions. The solution lies in changing US policy in the region and supporting Islamic scholars who can show how al Qaeda is distorting the Koran.
"Once you strip the adversary of their extremist message of religion, there's nothing left but criminality and thuggery," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There's growing recognition this needs to be done, but we haven't marshaled and mobilized those resources as much as we ought to." Some scholars believe a comprehensive strategy should include a massive economic and social investment similar to the Marshall Plan after World War II. They also think it's crucial to develop a strategy of deterrence.
"Deterrence is probably the hardest part of counterterrorism," says John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA. "Classical deterrence in the past worked against adversaries who played by certain rules and didn't want to die. Here, you're up against an adversary who plays by no particular rules and is willing to die."
It's equally important to combat the terrorist narrative, he says. Others agree and again point to the findings of the Terrorism Index.
"Part of the results ... is a warning that we must change our strategy, or otherwise we'll be ... fighting this struggle ad infinitum," says Hoffman.