Is victory possible?

At last, there may be some good news. In the current Atlantic Monthly (September 2006), James Fallows, who writes often on geopolitics, finds good reason to believe we’re actually winning the “war on terror.”

Based on interviews with some 60 experts on terrorism and jihad, Fallows argues that even though Osama bin Laden is still at large the capacity of al Qaeda’s leadership to mount attacks against the West on the scale of 9/11 has been seriously undermined.

Fallows doesn’t assert that there won’t be further attacks; in fact, attacks of some sort are almost inevitable. But he argues convincingly that our anti-terrorism efforts have been reasonably successful and that al Qaeda no longer represents a serious threat to our culture. In fact, according to those he interviewed, the biggest threat is our own overreaction to the perceived capacity of al Qaeda to destroy us. For example, al Qaeda’s greatest triumph wasn’t 9/11, but our subsequent willingness to let ourselves be lured into the militarily, morally and politically dubious swamp of Iraq.

Since al Qaeda’s capacity to destroy us no longer exists, Fallows argues, it’s time to declare victory in the war on terror, to classify the remnants of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups as criminals rather than warriors, to continue to pursue them diligently and ruthlessly, and, quoting President Dwight Eisenhower in the middle of the Cold War, to “wage total peace.”

The last goal is undoubtedly the most important. Some of the experts that Fallows interviewed suggest the United States still has the capacity to offer the world moral leadership and that doing so would damp down much of the motivation to attempt terrorism against our interests in the first place. Our country’s moral history may not be perfect, but we’re still one of the most free and open societies in the world. We’re by far the most powerful and we’re rich and creative and often generous. Our position in the world invites other countries to envy and hate us or to befriend and admire us. I believe that their natural inclination is to befriend and admire us, unless we go out of our way to discourage them from doing so.

So, assuming that Fallows and the experts are right, how do we assume moral leadership? First, let’s re-commit to the values and qualities that we’re already famous for, but which have been compromised by our reaction to al Qaeda. Of course we have to wiretap and perform other kinds of electronic surveillance, but let’s remain deeply committed to governing these activities by judicial oversight and the rule of law, in the interest of maintaining freedom from government intrusion into private life. Many world citizens already appreciate that concept. And let’s not go to war until we’ve exhausted diplomacy and our “soft” power, and then only when we’re certain of the reason and only on the constitutional authority of Congress. And torture? Unthinkable!

Second, the world could benefit from a uniting global theme, a cause that transcends and distracts us from disputes over land, religion, and access to energy, the things that we’ve traditionally fought over. And nothing unites people as much as a really serious threat, such as the one that is currently endangering our environment with catastrophic harm.

As the world’s largest consumer of energy and one of its greatest polluters, we’ve contributed a lot to this threat to our environment and we’ve done little to diminish it. In spite of how desperately some want to believe it, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by ordinary market forces. Solutions of any sort are unlikely to evolve naturally from our current system. In fact, we’ll rescue our world only with a deep, systematic restructuring of how it’s put together.

But this won’t happen on its own. It’s going to require conscious and deliberate action and strong leadership. It’s clear that the United States is the only country that can provide that leadership. Other countries may have the will and the expertise, but unless the United States is committed to rescuing the environment, it’s not likely to happen. With the right leadership, this may be a cause that world citizens can support.

That’s my prescription for saving the world. That’s all there is to it. Let’s get started.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email jcrisp(at)