War on terror a defining issue

The fate of President George W. Bush’s global “war on terror” is on the line, as the 2008 White House race heats up and Democratic and Republican hopefuls feud over how to keep Americans safe.

Republicans endorse Bush’s approach, warning of the stark menace of Islamic fundamentalism, and agree with the president’s view that Iraq is a central front of the struggle.

Adopting Bush’s 2004 election playbook, they also accuse Democrats of failing to even comprehend the mortal threat from terrorism.

Democrats, while vowing to avenge any future attacks, accuse Bush of botching the anti-terror fight, and argue Iraq was a disastrous diversion.

Hillary Clinton and rival John Edwards have squabbled over whether the “war on terror” actually exists, and the former first lady has also sparred with another adversary Barack Obama over whether to strike Al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

In 2004, Bush sold the case that Americans were safer under his leadership than they would have been under Democratic challenger John Kerry.

But now, with US troops mired in Iraq and signs Al-Qaeda is regrouping, foreign policy looms as the dominant issue in the coming election.

“I think Iraq and national security will be top issues in 2008,” said Costas Panagopoulos, of Fordham University’s campaign management program.

Stephen Flanagan, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Democrats will try to capitalize on uncertainty about US anti-terror tactics among voters.

“There is a sense the Bush strategy hasn’t been so effective, and there is a need for a more nuanced and sophisticated approach, that’s what the Democrats are wrestling with,” he said.

Senator Clinton, who often notes that she represents New York, the prime target on September 11, 2001, has carved out a tough image on national security.

She promises no mercy should Al-Qaeda strike again in the heart of a US city, saying in a campaign debate in March: “I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.”

But in a speech in Washington in June, Clinton condemned the “bluster and intimidation” of Bush’s approach and pledged to renew US alliances and crack down on nuclear proliferation.

Clinton has also accused Obama of endangering US ally President Pervez Musharraf after he said he would be ready to strike Al-Qaeda on Pakistani soil.

That comment detracted from Obama’s unveiling last month of a new anti-terror strategy, in which he pledged to end the war in Iraq and send more troops to the “the right battlefield” in Afghanistan.

Obama also pledges to dry up sources of terrorism with billions of dollars in new US foreign aid, end the use of “torture” interrogation methods and close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

One aide said Obama wants to overturn “conventional wisdom” on foreign policy, after he said that as president he would meet leaders of US foes including Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.

And the Illinois senator claims Clinton’s foreign policy would mirror that of the current president as “Bush-Cheney lite.”

Third ranked Democrat Edwards rejects the premise of “war on terror” as a “bumper sticker,” not a “strategy to make America safe.”

Edwards advocates a preventive strategy of strong diplomacy, a battle against global poverty and improved intelligence gathering.

Among Republicans, front-runner Rudolph Giuliani has used his stewardship as mayor of New York after September 11 as the basis of his campaign.

He largely embraces the Bush approach and savages Democrats, saying Democrats are “back in the 1990s” during a debate in New Hampshire in June.

“This war is not a bumper sticker. This war is a real war.”

Rival Mitt Romney also takes a tough line, vowing on one occasion to “double Guantanamo” and writing this year in Foreign Affairs journal of the need for a war against “the Jihadists.”

Former senator Fred Thompson, expected to jump into the Republican race next month, is also a hawk.