Sen. John McCain has repeatedly characterized the threat of "radical Islamic extremism" as "the absolute gravest threat . . . that we're in against." Before we simply accept this, we need to examine the nature of the terrorist threat facing our country. If we do so, we will see how we have allowed the specter of that threat to distort our lives and take our treasure.
The "Global War on Terror" has conjured the image of terrorists behind every bush, the bushes themselves burning and an angry god inciting its faithful to religious war. We have been called to arms, built fences, and compromised our laws and the practices that define us as a nation. The administration has focused on pursuing terrorists and countering an imminent and terrifying threat. Thousands of Americans have died as a result, as have tens of thousands of foreigners.
The inclination to trust our leaders when they warn of danger is compelling, particularly when the specters of mushroom clouds and jihadists haunt every debate. McCain, accepting this view of the threats, pledges to continue the Bush administration's policy of few distinctions but ruthless actions.
I spent 23 years in the CIA. I drafted or was involved in many of the government's most senior assessments of the threats facing our country. I have devoted years to understanding and combating the jihadist threat.
We rightly honor as heroes those who serve our nation and offer their lives to protect ours. We all "support the troops." Yet the first step for any commander is to understand the enemy. The next commander in chief should base his counterterrorism policies on the following realities:
We do not face a global jihadist "movement" but a series of disparate ethnic and religious conflicts involving Muslim populations, each of which remains fundamentally regional in nature and almost all of which long predate the existence of al-Qaeda.
Osama bin Laden and his disciples are small men and secondary threats whose shadows are made large by our fears. Al-Qaeda is the only global jihadist organization and is the only Islamic terrorist organization that targets the U.S. homeland. (MORE)