George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton have both just had the opportunity to address the war on terrorism in the context of a relatively sophisticated, academic discussion. Suffice it to say, they used their opportunities differently.
Here’s the president, speaking this morning in the Distinguished Lecturer Program at the National Defense University:
“We’re at war with coldblooded killers who despise freedom, reject tolerance, and kill the innocent in pursuit of their political vision … And one of the real challenges we face is, will we have confidence in the liberty to be transformative? Will we lose faith in the universality of liberty? Will we ignore history and not realize that liberty has got the capacity to yield the peace we want? So this administration, along with many in our military, will continue to spread the hope of liberty, in order to defeat the ideology of darkness, the ideology of the terrorists — and work to secure a future of peace for generations to come. That’s our call.”
Now here’s Clinton, asked by Guardian America’s Michael Tomasky whether terrorists “hate us for our freedoms” or actually have “specific geopolitical objectives.”
“Well, I believe that terrorism is a tool that has been utilized throughout history to achieve certain objectives. Some have been ideological, others territorial. There are personality-driven terroristic objectives. The bottom line is, you can’t lump all terrorists together. And I think we’ve got to do a much better job of clarifying what are the motivations, the raisons d’etre of terrorists. I mean, what the Tamil Tigers are fighting for in Sri Lanka, or the Basque separatists in Spain, or the insurgents in al-Anbar province may only be connected by tactics. They may not share all that much in terms of what is the philosophical or ideological underpinning. And I think one of our mistakes has been painting with such a broad brush, which has not been particularly helpful in understanding what it is we were up against when it comes to those who pursue terrorism for whichever ends they’re seeking.”
Now, does Bush’s talk of “coldblooded killers” play better on the campaign trail? Of course it does. But does Clinton’s refusal to “lump all terrorists together” suggest that she has thought about the issue in a slightly more penetrating way?
Well, let’s put it this way: Can you imagine a reporter asking Bush — as Tomasky asked Clinton — whether he thought the war on Iraq fits “within the tradition we associate with Truman and Acheson”?
And if a reporter were to ask such a question, can you imagine Bush answering by saying that “it’s hard to take what was a philosophy with respect to the use and containment of power during the Cold War and try to shoehorn it into a post-Cold War context”?