Sadly, the contradiction for the Obama administration, as for George W. Bush, is embedded in the misguided phrase "global war on terror." The concept of a "war on terror" isn't only flawed. Worse, it cannot work.
Americans have long been subjected to many wars declared against drugs, poverty, crime, illiteracy, racism and, of course, terror. None has worked.
The reason is that none of these scourges is a war and treating them as such usually produces solutions directed at symptoms and not correcting actual causes.
Terror is a tactic, ploy and tool to achieve larger ends. Lenin understood that. The purpose of terror he asserted was to terrorize.
When adversaries don't need nor possess armies, navies and air forces, terror is a highly effective, less costly and more relevant alternative. As the United States learned in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the most powerful military in the world cannot defeat an enemy that owns no army, navy or air force when other instruments required to overcome the fundamental causes that produce insurgencies and terrorism are missing in action.
Further, the vocabulary to define properly the "terrorist" adversary along with the associated syntax and grammar to defang this threat is absent. Terms such as Islamic violent extremism or radicalism; jihadism; and other invented phrases confuse not clarify the real issue, which isn't the acts of terror, however dire, but the underlying causes that produce such violence and contribute to the ability of these groups to attract followers.
In one sense, creating a conceptual underpinning for waging what has been mistakenly called the war on terror is simple. The issue is recognizing that these acts of violence represent political revolutions albeit ones that incorporate larger religious characteristics and perhaps share more in common with the religious wars of the Middle Ages or the Crusades than 1789, 1848, 1917 and the Cold War but must be dealt with in a broader context.
Geographically, the centroid for today's political revolutions lies between the eastern Mediterranean and the Bay of Bengal.
Obviously, the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict has inflamed the passions of Sunni and Shiite alike as well as given the more radical groups nearly unlimited ammunition in pursuing their aims. Wahabism and Salafism remain affiliated to what the West views as radicalism. Iranian Shiite fundamentalism combined with Persian arrogance vies with Saudi Arabia for influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond. And the civil war in Syria is a microcosm of these competing religious rivalries and hatreds.
A more effective way of responding to these political revolutions is emulating treatment of disease. Cures are directed at causes with the stricture to do no harm. Both defensive and preventative actions to contain the spread of infection are essential to treatment.
Put differently, no matter how much the specter of another Sept. 11, 2001, tortures the American psyche, at this stage these outbreaks aren't existential as an epidemic of an untreatable and highly contagious superbug might be. That doesn't mean however, these revolutions couldn't metastasize into far greater threats.
And, in treatment, the root causes and sources of potential contagion must be treated. Nor can the toughest issues including confronting both friends and adversaries who are inextricably entwined in these political revolutions be avoided and must be part of any solution.
This will require great political courage, as neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia will react well to "tough love solutions" that are based on protecting U.S. interests and not captured by the thrall of U.S. domestic politics or oil wealth.
As this column has noted, it is also inconceivable that the United States hasn't put in place an effective public diplomacy campaign that supports moderate and peaceful Islam and attacks, discredits and delegitimizes radicalism and extremism. During World War II and the Cold War, propaganda was a powerful and effective weapon that was put to good use by the allies. This needs to be repeated across the full spectrum of black, gray and white propaganda and public diplomacy.
But the most important first step is ridding ourselves of this promiscuous use of the term "war on terror" and concentrate on dealing with the pathology of the political revolutions that rely, not on microbes, viruses and germs to spread disease, but on terror, violence and ideological rationale for achieving specific aims. If we are incapable of this understanding, the road ahead will neither be safe nor navigable.
(Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council in Washington, and chairman of the Killowen Groupm, which advises leaders of business and government.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)