The talking points of the day from the McCain camp involve the idea that Barack Obama wants to fight terrorism with law enforcement alone, that he has a “September 10 mentality.” As Richard Clarke pointed out on a conference call earlier today, this is a pretty hoary chestnut “they said that about the Clinton administration, they said that about Senator Kerry, and now they’re saying it about Senator Obama” but it’s never been true. Michael Goldfarb at McCain’s blog alleges that “Obama wants to take us back to the bad old days of going after terrorists with prosecutors rather than predators.” This is, of course, not what Obama is proposing — as Jon Chait says “Obama did propose going after terrorists, which prompted McCain to accuse him of having ‘once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan.’”
But of course the GOP philosophy has for years now been that we need to hit the terrorists hard where they aren’t, while letting problems in Central Asia fester because they’re difficult. Meanwhile, the “old days” Goldfarb is talking about never existed. In retrospect, I think we all wish the Clinton administration had been somewhat more aggressive in its approach to al-Qaeda, but as I note in the book more Americans (and many, many more people overall) have died as a result of the idiotic response to 9/11 that Bush and McCain embraced than actually died on that day.
The shortcomings of previous policy are no reason to go implement a worse policy. Military force will play a role in U.S. counterterrorism strategy, but it simply has a limited utility in dealing with the problem. If you don’t recognize that, you wind up blundering down the Bush/Rumsfeld/McCain/Feith road of sending troops to Iraq because Iraq contains good military targets rather than coming up with an actual strategy for fighting terrorism.