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As for al-Qaeda, there is always the threat of another attack, like those attempted by militants aiming at Detroit during Christmas 2009 or Times Square in May 2010. In the event of another such terrorist assault originating from Pakistan, all bets are off: According to Woodward, the United States has a "retribution" plan to bomb 150 separate sites in that country alone, and there are no apparent plans for The Day After.
Assuming that nightmare doesn't happen, today's al-Qaeda is not the al-Qaeda of a decade ago. Osama bin Laden is dead, its organization is damaged, and its strategy of conspiratorial terrorism has been displaced significantly by the people-power democratic uprisings across the Arab world.
It is clear that shadow wars lie ahead, but not expanding ground wars involving greater numbers of American troops. The emerging argument will be over the question of whether special operations and drone attacks are effective, moral, and consistent with the standards of a constitutional democracy. And it is clear that the economic crisis finally is enabling more politicians to question the trillion-dollar war spending.
Meanwhile, the 2012 national elections present an historic opportunity to awaken from the blindness inflicted by 9/11.
Diminishing the US combat role by escalating the drone wars and Special Operations could repeat the failure of Richard Nixon in Vietnam. Continued spending on the Long War could repeat the disaster of Lyndon Johnson. A gradual winding down may not reap the budget benefits or political reward Obama needs in time.
With peace voters making a critical difference in numerous electoral battlegrounds, however, Obama might speed up the "ebbing," plausibly announce a peace dividend in the trillions of dollars, and transfer those funds to energy conservation and America's state and local crises. His answer to the deficit crisis will have to include a sharp reduction in war funding, and his answer to the Tea Party Republicans will have to be a Peace Party.