The 9/11 Commission Report draws praise for valid reasons. But the remarkable plaudits, publicity, and sales it has garnered do not prove that it has been correctly understood. The public discussion of the report in fact suggests that Americans are missing its central point and purpose.

This results in part from the report’s virtues. The thorough, well-documented, and often gripping description of the events surrounding 9/11 tends to focus attention on what are essentially historical questions of causes and responsibilities, while the report’s main purpose is to make recommendations for the future. Even more important, its penetrating analyses of the failures and inadequacies in America’s counterterrorist system before 9/11 and its proposals for reforming that system tend to reinforce perceptions already dominant. America is now the frontline in the anti-terrorist struggle and that the central battle involves keeping Americans safe from further attack, primarily by improving security at home and carrying the fight to the terrorists by military action and intelligence work elsewhere. The administration naturally promotes this perception, believing it yields an electoral advantage, and Democrats, not daring really to challenge it, only contend that they could wage the battle better.

No one could complain about this perception and its likely electoral consequences if it were correct. If the report actually confirmed that the American homeland constituted the main battleground in the so-called War on Terror, then the verdict of “safer but not yet safe” endorsed by the administration would be reasonable. (I say “so-called” because this “war” consists of two distinct though connected things: a real if unconventional war against particular terrorists and their organizations and a wider non-military struggle against terrorism in general in favor of a decent civil society. Why this distinction is crucial will become clear later.)

In fact, the report says something different. It demonstrates clearly if indirectly in its narrative and analysis and directly in its conclusions that the struggle against terrorism is not centered in America. It is essentially global, therefore any strategy that concentrates on homeland security, military action, and counterterrorist intelligence and policing while neglecting the foreign-policy aspects of the struggle will fail. Repeatedly it stresses how much international organization, communication, financial activity, travel, training, and recruitment went into the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks. Time and again it emphasizes how those terrorist strikes and others were connected to wider issues of international politics, economics, religion, and society. Constantly it points out the transnational nature and reach of terrorist organizations.

The most important recommendations of the book, ignored in the public discussion, come near the end in Chapter 12, significantly entitled, “What to Do? A Global Strategy.” These recommendations start from the clear recognition that even though the United States is al-Qaeda’s avowed prime enemy, and America’s homeland has become an important target for terrorist attacks, the central front lies elsewhere—Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula and nearby East Africa, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines, West Africa, and European cities with large Muslim populations. (Iraq is mentioned only in passing, with the remark that it would go to the head of the list were it to become a failed state.) The report goes on to argue that the main task of finding and destroying the terrorist networks must be done by local governments and forces that the U.S. cannot command but can only aid and persuade. Success depends on active co-operation from friends and at least noninterference or partial help from neutrals and opponents.

Even more crucial advice, real dynamite expressed in calm factual prose, comes in Section 12:3, entitled “Prevent the Continued Growth of Islamist Terrorism.” Note the ominous verdict implied in that title and backed by a quotation from Donald Rumsfeld: since 9/11, despite three years of American effort and two wars, Islamist terrorism has continued to grow. Even more startling admissions follow: the U.S. needs a long-range strategy giving foreign policy as much attention as the military and intelligence aspects of the struggle and does not have one; American engagement in the Muslim world is both deep and resented; throughout the Muslim world “support for the United States has plummeted”; our task is to “help defeat an ideology, not just a group of people, and we must do so under difficult circumstances”; and most arresting, “among the large majority of Arabs and Muslims . . . we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy, and opportunity, even though our own promotion of these messages is limited in its effectiveness simply because we are its carriers.”

These statements do not represent new revelations. They are commonplaces, supported almost daily by ongoing developments. Their importance lies in their devastating indictment—within an expert, moderate, bipartisan report—of the existing policy on combating terrorism and in their call for radical change.

This report says that the United States needs but does not have a long-range strategy that recognizes the centrality of foreign policy. In the vital global struggle with the terrorists over ideas, influence, allegiance, recruitment of followers, and commitment, we are losing. Our world influence and image have deteriorated so badly that measures we need others to take for our mutual benefit become less likely simply because we urge them. A more decisive verdict of policy failure is hard to imagine.

The report does not discuss what caused this deterioration in our world position. That was not its mandate. It does offer advice on what might be done to reverse it, but the suggestions are, understandably, rather general, sometimes amounting to little more than restatement of the problem. One point about the actions proposed to help prevent the continued growth of Islamist terrorism is, however, significant: they are all international, that is, they represent things that the United States cannot do without help and in many instances cannot do as a prime actor or mover at all—actions it can only encourage others to do, restricting itself to paying for them, giving them international legitimacy, and sometimes just getting out of the way and concealing its role.

What does this reading of the report tell us about the current American discussion of it, concentrated on homeland security and intelligence reform? Indulge me in a parable.

There once was a very rich man who lived on a lavish country estate, well away from a teeming nearby city plagued by gangs, crime, poverty, and violence. He was the richest and most powerful businessman in that area, owning extensive properties in the region and exercising a leading influence in its politics, economic activity, and society.

One day the worst gang in the city, led by a particularly dangerous thug who had earlier attacked some of the landowner’s businesses, made a daring assault on his country estate, causing major damage. The landowner responded by declaring war on the gangs and promising to take the fight to their lairs in the housing complexes of the city. The first raid, enjoying the consent and support of local authorities, many fellow businessmen, and even some residents in the complex, succeeded brilliantly. The housing complex was quickly seized, some gang members, though not the most important leaders, were killed and captured, the managers of the complex were replaced, and some order was restored. But a succeeding raid on another larger housing complex went much differently. It was not approved by the local authorities, was supported by only a few businessmen, and was condemned by almost all others in the city. Though this housing complex was also easily overrun, no evidence of gang activity could be found, the problems of occupying and running it proved unmanageable, living conditions became worse, the residents resisted, and gang members who had not been there before now filtered in.

Under pressure from his family and associates, the landowner reluctantly agreed to let an independent expert analyze the situation and advise him how best to wage his war on gangs. After careful study, the expert gave him this report: “Lax security on your estate under both the previous and the current management was one factor enabling the gang to attack it. That situation already has been improved, but not enough. I have a list of more things to do. Your main challenge, however, lies not in defending your estate but in doing something about the gangs themselves and the environment in which they live. The gang leaders are not mainly trying at this time to kill you or destroy your estate. They are trying to distract and discredit you, ruin your reputation, wreck your businesses, drive you out of the region, and isolate you on your estate—and then kill you.

“You therefore cannot win this war on gangs by yourself. The more you try this, the more you give them the war they desire. The local authorities have to do the main job of finding these gangs and rooting them out. You can help, urge, pay, bribe, and coerce them into doing it, but beyond a certain point if you make it too dangerous to their interests and lives, they won’t go along. You also need to enlist more of the other businessmen in the task, not just to help pay the costs but even more to make clear that this is not just your war. Above all, you have to get the people in the city on your side. Persuade them that the way you and your friends do business will make their lives better, that what the gang leaders promise is false.

“As of now, the local authorities do not really trust you. Your fellow businessmen have concluded that your method of fighting threatens their interests. Worst of all, people in the community, including many who work for you and used to support you, have come to see the gang leaders as Robin Hood and you as King John—so much so that if you urge them to do something, they will be less likely to do it simply because you are urging it. Unless you change your strategy, you will lose.”

The wealthy landowner listened to the expert, thanked him, assured him that he would consider his recommendations carefully—and went back to concentrating on strengthening the security of his estate and finding out what new attacks the gangs might be planning.

Some weeks ago, an editor of this journal asked readers to respond to this question: what should voters who generally oppose Kerry and the Democrats and favor Bush and the Republicans on social and domestic issues, but oppose Bush on Iraq and foreign policy, do on November 2?

The differences between Bush and Kerry in personal qualities, beliefs, and abilities, though important, need not be decisive here, and the differences in their announced programs, goals, and policies for Iraq and elsewhere are notoriously not that far apart. But this commission’s analysis and recommendations call for major change on the foreign-policy side of the struggle against terrorism, and to do any good a change must be perceived as credible—not just in America but especially in other parts of the world. Re-electing Bush rules it out.

This president cannot change himself or his administration’s foreign policy. That would contradict his style, character, and self-image, and overthrow his whole campaign and appeal to his base. He must go on as he has, insisting in the face of every evidence of failure that things are going well, that he and America are right and good and that only evildoers fail to see it.

Moreover, even if he could change, if by some miracle he and his whole administration underwent a road-to- Damascus conversion, it is too late. No one would believe him—and this is decisive. Hard though it is for Americans to accept, when it comes to the main front in the struggle against terrorism, it matters far less whom Americans trust to ensure their safety than whom Arabs, Muslims, Europeans, and even Asians trust enough to join in the common endeavor. On that score, the verdict is in. Like Belshazzar, Bush and his policies have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Polls, demonstrations, defections, diplomatic defeats, restlessness among allies, glee among enemies, and continued terrorist activity demonstrate a massive, almost worldwide distrust.

Where Kennedy, Reagan, and the elder Bush could be acclaimed in Germany as heroes and use that acclaim to accomplish important ends, Bush cannot now find an audience there safe to speak to. Clinton visited Dublin and was surrounded by 100,000 cheering Irishmen. Bush could briefly visit Ireland, the most pro-American country in the world, only when surrounded by 10,000 security guards.

It does not finally matter what caused this, and how much Bush is to blame. Saying so is not attacking him personally but recognizing facts and drawing inescapable conclusions. The slogan “Anybody but Bush” need not arise from blind Bush-hatred but from a sober appreciation of the international situation. Most of the world has reached that conclusion, and as Bush says, results matter.

The same facts that make serious change in the direction of American foreign policy impossible under Bush make it possible under Kerry. The crucial factor is not whether he is better qualified by education, experience, intellect, and temperament. It is rather that he is not burdened by the crushing baggage Bush carries—the Bush Doctrine, the open disdain for international institutions and law, the choice of preventive war, the misleading arguments for it, the botched occupation of Iraq, the stains of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Kerry already enjoys in much of the world, especially Europe, such credibility as a harbinger of change that some call for toning down the praise so as not to create a backlash in the United States.

One more thought, intended to sweeten slightly for conservatives the bitter pill: many think that voting out an incumbent president in wartime shows national irresoluteness, even cowardice. Rationally and historically this makes no sense. It is no more a sign of weakness to change leadership in wartime if success depends on it than it is to remove a baseball pitcher who is getting shelled in order to prevent the game from becoming hopelessly lost. Switching to the elder Pitt helped Britain win the Seven Years War; switching to Churchill helped win World War II. Clinging to failed leaders and policies often contributes to disaster. Germany might have benefited in World War I by getting rid of Bethmann earlier. Exchanging Daladier for Reynaud earlier might conceivably have helped France in 1939-40. Examples could be multiplied. And this switch can be made without personal vindictiveness or betrayal of one’s deep convictions and party loyalties, if a greater good and overriding need justify it. The case of Chamberlain and Churchill illustrates this. Even in 1940, Chamberlain was still more trusted by many Conservatives and Labourites than Churchill, widely seen by Conservatives as a maverick and by Labour as a warmonger. What brought Churchill to power was simply the conviction that Chamberlain, though he meant well, was unsuited to lead the war effort, while Churchill was—and once the war in Europe was over, the voters promptly kicked him out. There would be nothing dishonorable in conservatives voting for Kerry now as a necessary evil while vowing to oust him in four years.

But enough of argument—a final plea: do not let America continue to play the rich landowner in the parable. There is still ample chance to turn things around now. After four more years there may not be.

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Paul W. Schroeder is professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. He is the author of The Transformation of European Politics, 1765-1848.