Presidential Election 2008: Combating Terrorists

November 14, 2007

Three readings help students consider the president's "war on terror" strategy, statements by Bush's critics, and what constitutes torture. Discussion questions and other student activities follow.

While most everyone agrees that terrorist attacks are a threat to the U.S. and other countries, everyone does not agree about how to define and combat that threat. President Bush's strategy has focused on a military response (the "war on terror"). Some charge that through this approach the Bush administration has abused its power and misled the public and Congress.

The first student reading below summarizes the president's strategy, the second offers a sampling of statements by Bush's critics, and the third asks students to consider torture in the "war on terror." Following the readings are discussion questions and other student activities. Teachers might also find useful background for these readings in some of the "Presidential Power" materials on this website.


Student Reading 1:

President Bush's strategy to combat the terrorist threat

In an address to a joint session of Congress after 9/11, President Bush sounded major themes in his administration's strategy to combat terrorism: "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

"Americans are asking, 'Why do they hate us?' They hate what we see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms-our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

"They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They want to drive Israel out of the Middle East. They want to drive Christians and Jews out of vast regions of Asia and Africa. These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us because we stand in their way." (9/20/01)

The president's phrase "war on terror" became the standard, shorthand expression used by public officials and the media to refer to the U.S. effort to track down and capture or kill Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Al Qaeda's attacks, the president said, were "more than acts of terror. They were acts of war."

The president acted to expand presidential power to fight the "war on terror." Some critics said his moves violated the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and, in some cases, the Geneva Conventions. In particular, critics pointed to: indefinite preventive detention without trial of "unlawful enemy combatants" at the U.S.'s Guantanamo military base in Cuba and in secret prisons elsewhere; abusive interrogations that violated American laws and international agreements; "extraordinary rendition" involving kidnappings and "renderings" of individuals to foreign countries known for prisoner torture; eavesdropping on the telephone calls and e-mails of Americans; and "signing statements" in which the president declared his power as commander-in-chief to determine how he would interpret laws passed by Congress.

After the U.S. invaded and gained control of Afghanistan, President Bush turned American attention to Iraq. He charged that it possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to neighboring countries and the U.S. He linked its leader Saddam Hussein to 9/11, Al Qaeda, and the "war on terror." "Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda," the president said in his January 2003 State of the Union address. American troops invaded Iraq in March 2003.

The U.S. quickly took Baghdad but found no weapons of mass destruction. Later that year the president said, "We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11." By then an Iraqi insurgency was underway. Fighters from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries joined a growing insurgency by Iraq's Sunni Muslims. "Al Qaeda in Iraq" emerged, but its size, leadership and relationship, if any, to Bin Laden's group are unknown.

As the death toll of Iraqi civilians and American troops grew, a majority of Americans turned against U.S. involvement in Iraq. But President Bush maintained that it was vital to "stay the course." Americans should not "cut and run."

The president said that the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq made that country "the central front in the war on terror." He warned, "What all of us in this administration have been saying is that leaving Iraq before the mission is complete will send the wrong message to the enemy and will create a more dangerous world....I repeat what our leading general said in the region. He said if we withdraw before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here. I strongly agree with that." (8/21/06)

The president linked the attacks by "Al Qaeda in Iraq" with the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks: "The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th, and that's why what happens in Iraq matters to the security here at home." (7/12/07) "The facts are that Al Qaeda terrorists killed Americans on 9/11, they're fighting us in Iraq and across the world and they are plotting to kill Americans here at home again. Those who justify withdrawing our troops from Iraq by denying the threat of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its ties to Osama bin Laden ignore the clear consequences of such a retreat." (7/24/07)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. In the president's post-9/11 address he announced a "war on terror" that "will not end until every terrorist of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." In recent years there have been widespread terrorist attacks from Spain and Britain to Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. How would you determine which of the groups responsible for these and other attacks has "global reach"? What does the president's statement suggest about the length of the "war on terror"?

3. How does the president explain why terrorists hate the U.S.? Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. What controversial measures has the president taken to fight the "war on terror"? For each one consider whether it violates the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the Geneva Conventions. If you need further information to answer, examine the relevant documents.

5. Why does the president say that Iraq is the "central front" in the "war on terror"? What evidence is there for his claim? How might you get more information on this issue?

6. What is the link, if any, between "Al Qaeda in Iraq" and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda that attacked the U.S. on 9/11? Is the former "plotting to kill Americans here at home"? How do you know? If you don't, what might you do to find out?


Student Reading 2:

Criticisms of the president's strategy

Zbigniew Brzezinski:

"The 'war on terror' has created a culture of fear in America....The phrase itself is meaningless....Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare-political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of policies they want to pursue.

"We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist attack in the United States itself. That is the result of five years of almost continual national brainwashing on the subject of terror, quite unlike the more muted reactions of several other nations (Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, to mention just a few) that also have suffered painful terrorist attacks. In his latest justification for his war in Iraq, President Bush even claims absurdly that he has to continue waging it lest Al Qaeda cross the Atlantic launch a war of terror here in the United States.

"Where is the U.S. leader ready to say, 'Enough of this hysteria. Even in the face of future terrorist attacks, the likelihood of which cannot be denied, let us show some sense.'"

Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Terrorized by 'War on Terror,'", 3/25/07. Brzezinski, a foreign policy analyst, was national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter.

Samantha Power:

"The phrase ['war on terror'] and the agenda that grew out of it caught on. In Bush's view, wartime demanded a strong commander in chief, and he would be far more effective prosecuting the war, if he could free himself of the legislative, judicial and even interagency checks fashionable in peacetime. Surely, Bush's team argued, the extreme continuing threats to our national security warranted a dramatic expansion of presidential power."

This view "led the president and his executive branch to conclude that it had the right and duty to remove themselves from traditional legal frameworks and consolidate power in imperial fashion. And the torture, kidnappings and indefinite detentions carried out at the behest of senior administration officials have blurred the moral distinction between 'us' and 'them' on which much of the Bush's logic rested."

Samantha Power, "Our War on Terror," New York Times Book Review, 7/29/07. Samantha Power is the author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Juan Cole:

"The Republican candidates have continued to vastly exaggerate the threat from terrorist attacks (far more Americans have died for lack of healthcare or from hard drugs) and have demonized Muslims." Non-Muslim terrorist groups in India and Sri Lanka and Uganda and Colombia "are seldom referred to by Republican politicians worried about terrorists."

"The Democratic candidates have mostly been timid in criticizing Bush's 'war on terror,' a failing that they must redress if they are to blunt their rivals' fearmongering."

Juan Cole, The Nation, 11/19/07. Juan Cole is a professor of Middle East and South Asia history at the University of Michigan.

Bruce Riedel:

"Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia [also called Al Qaeda in Iraq] did not exist before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sunni group thrived as a magnet for recruiting and a force for violence largely because of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought an American occupying force of more than 100,000 troops to the heart of the Middle East, and led to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

"But while American intelligence agencies have pointed to links between Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia leaders and the top leadership of the broader Qaeda group, the militant group is in many respects an Iraqi phenomenon. They believe the membership of the group is overwhelmingly Iraqi. Its financing is derived largely indigenously from kidnappings and other criminal activities. And many of its most ardent foes are close at home, namely the Shiite militias and the Iranians who are deemed to support them.

Bruce Riedel, "Bush Distorts Qaeda Links, Critics Assert," New York Times, 7/13/07. Riedel, a former CIA official, now works at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

New York Times, 7/18/07:

"President Bush's top counterterrorism advisers acknowledged Tuesday that the strategy for fighting Osama bin Laden's leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan had failed. The intelligence report, the most formal assessment since the Sept. 11 attacks about the terrorist threat facing the United States, concludes that the United States is losing ground on a number of fronts in the fight against Al Qaeda and described the terrorist organization as having significantly strengthened over the past two years."

"In many respects, the National Intelligence Estimate suggests, the threat of terrorist violence against the United State is growing worse, fueled by the Iraq war and spreading Islamic extremism. The stark declassified summary contrasted sharply with the more positive emphasis of President Bush and his top aides for years: that two-thirds of Al Qaeda's leadership had been killed or captured; that the Iraq invasion would reduce the terrorist menace; and that the United States had its enemies 'on the run,' as Mr. Bush has frequently put it."

Defense Science Board on Strategic Communications:

"Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states." (The U.S. government supports the governments of all of these countries.)

Report of the Defense Science Board on Strategic Communications, a Pentagon advisory group, 9/04


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How do the president and Brzezinski differ about terror?

3. What is Power's main criticism of the president's "war on terror"?

4. How do the president and Riedel differ on "Al Qaeda in Iraq"?

5. How do U.S. intelligence advisers assess the country's success in fighting terrorism?

6. According to the Pentagon advisory group, what are the sources of Muslim opposition to U.S. policies?


Student Reading 3:

Waterboarding in the "war on terror"

Of all the interrogation techniques in the "war on terror," the one receiving the most attention is waterboarding. A prisoner is strapped to a board, his face covered with a cloth, and water poured over it. The prisoner feels suffocated, as if he is drowning. The CIA has waterboarded prisoners and perhaps so have officials of other U.S.

In 2005 the Justice Department, under Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, gave legal written approval to the technique and also wrote that under some circumstances, this technique was not "cruel, inhuman or degrading." In December 2005, Congress banned several interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, on the grounds that they are cruel, inhuman and degrading.

The waterboarding technique became a major issue in the confirmation hearings of a proposed successor to Gonzalez, Michael Mukasey. Pressed for his opinion on waterboarding, Mukasey answered that he regarded it as repugnant but did not know enough about it to call it illegal. In addition, he said did not want to place in "legal jeopardy" any U.S. professional interrogator whose actions were based on Justice Department authorization.

What do the leading presidential candidates say about waterboarding?

Rudolph Giuliani, Republican: "It depends on how it's done. It depends on the circumstances." (10/24/07)

John McCain, Republican: "It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture." (10/26/07)

Mitt Romney, Republican: "In circumstances of extreme threat to the nation, where we employ what is known as enhanced interrogation techniques, we don't describe those techniques." (10/25/07)

Fred Thompson, Republican : "I will do what I think is in the best interest of the country." (10/31/07)

Hillary Clinton, Democrat: Opposed the confirmation of Mukasey over his remarks on waterboarding.

John Edwards, Democrat: "What more information does he [Mukasey] need? Waterboarding was used in the Spanish Inquisition and considered a war crime in World War II." (10/3/07)
Barack Obama, Democrat: "I have been consistent in my strong belief that no administration should allow the use of torture, including...waterboarding." (10/29/07)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What justification do you think there might be for torturing a prisoner?

3. Should the U.S., under certain circumstances, permit the torture of prisoners?
What circumstances? Why or why not?

4. Do you define waterboarding as torture? Why or why not?


For inquiry

What is the view of each of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on what the U.S. should do about the terrorist threat? How does that view compare and contrast with that of President Bush? To what extent do you agree or disagree with each candidate and why?

These are questions that could form the basis of a class inquiry with each student assigned to examine the website of a particular candidate and any other available materials. Student might then report in writing and/or orally to the class on their findings. A general discussion would follow.

For writing

Write a well-developed paper in which you do one of the following:

1. Evaluate President Bush's approach to the terrorism threat.

2. Evaluate a presidential candidate's approach to the terrorism threat.

3. Discuss the key factors in a successful approach to the terrorism threat.

For citizenship

See "Teaching Social Responsibility" on this website for involving students in a schoolwide educational program, in this case on the terrorism threat.

Suggest that students write to public officials-the president, their representative or their senators—about waterboarding

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: