The mid-term election in the US was the sharpest popular rebuke that President George W. Bush has yet suffered at home. With Congress lost to the Democrats and exit polls showing six in 10 voters opposed to the Iraq war, Bush finally fired Donald Rumsfeld, his disastrous secretary of defense. But while Americans gave Bush low marks on the war in Iraq, polls show that they still support him on the struggle against terrorism.
Unfortunately, the US is not winning the "war on terrorism." An official National Intelligence Estimate confirmed that more jihadist terrorists are being recruited than the US is killing. Bush is correct to say that al-Qaeda has been disrupted, but its attraction as a movement has been enhanced. The cancer has metastasized.
Bush is also right to say that this will be a long struggle. Most outbreaks of transnational terrorism in the past took a generation to burn out. But the US won the long Cold War by a smart combination of hard coercive power and attractive ideas. When the Berlin Wall collapsed, it was not destroyed by an artillery barrage, but by hammers and bulldozers wielded by those who had lost faith in communism.
There is little likelihood that people like Osama bin Laden can ever be attracted: Only force can deal with such cases. But the people the extremists recruit can be brought to choose moderation over extremism. The Bush administration is beginning to understand this proposition, but it does not seem to know how to implement such a strategy.
In the information age, success depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins. The struggle against jihad terrorism is not a clash of civilizations, but a civil war within Islam. There can be no victory unless the Muslim mainstream wins.
Polls throughout the Muslim world show that the US is not winning this battle, and that US policies are offensive. Bush's rhetoric about promoting democracy is less convincing than pictures of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
There has been too little political debate about the squandering of the global attractiveness of the US. "Soft power" is an analytical term, not a political slogan. Perhaps that is why, not surprisingly, it has taken hold in academic analysis, and in places like Europe, China, and India, but not in US political debate.
Especially in the current US political climate, "soft power" sounds like a loser. Having been attacked, Americans' emotions rebel against anything described as "soft." The US may need soft power as a nation, but politicians need the harder stuff to win re-election. Former president Bill Clinton captured the mindset of the American people when he said that in a climate of fear, the electorate would choose "strong and wrong" over "timid and right."
The good news from the recent election is that the pendulum may be swinging back to the middle. One sign will be if the bipartisan Iraq Commission chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton produces a consensus on a strategy for gradual disengagement in Iraq.
After the election, Democrats need to press "hard power" issues like the failure of the administration to implement key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, or the inadequate number of troops in Afghanistan, and Republicans need to press for a strategy that pays more attention to attracting hearts and minds.