ROGUE STATES vs. FAILED STATES….Last night I wondered why George Bush denied on national TV that he had ever said he was “not that concerned” about Osama bin Laden, thus handing an early Christmas gift to John Kerry, who will get to watch split-screen video of Bush saying exactly that for the next 24 hours on every news channel in the country.

But although last night’s gaffe is the one that will get all the attention, Matt Yglesias and Chris Suellentrop point out that it’s equally interesting ? and, ultimately, more important ? to investigate a different question: why did Bush say that in the first place? Why would anyone, let alone the president of the United States, say he was no longer concerned with Osama bin Laden? As Suellentrop says, this question goes straight to the heart of one of the key differences between conservatives and liberals about fighting the war on terror:

The president’s philosophy toward the war on terror could not be clearer: It is a war against nation-states, not against “nonstate actors” like al-Qaida. Bin Laden was dangerous because he controlled a state, not because he controls a terrorist network. When the Bush campaign talks about “going on the offense,” this is what they mean….The subtext of the initial exchange between Bush and Kerry was more illuminating than the entire first debate.

Generally speaking, conservatives believe that our biggest danger comes from rogue states, those who support international terrorism. Thus the “axis of evil” and the obsession with Saddam Hussein.

Liberal analysts, by contrast, tend to believe that the bigger danger comes from failed states, those that are so chaotic that non-state terrorist groups like al-Qaeda can flourish simply because there’s nobody around to keep them under control. Afghanistan and Sudan in the late 90s are good examples. Peter Beinart discusses this in a bit more detail bit here.

There’s no question that rogue states are dangerous, and it’s unnerving to consider a future world in which a nuclear-armed Pakistan is under the control of radical Islamists and both Iran and North Korea have dozens of nuclear bombs each.

But as dangerous as they are, they’re still states, and they still have an interest in continuing to exist ? which means they’re unlikely to directly threaten the United States. What’s more, since central governments dislike competing power centers, they have a fundamental interest in preventing terrorist groups from amassing too much influence within their borders.

Failed states, by contrast, don’t, which is why terrorist groups seek them out. And since terrorist groups like al-Qaeda do directly threaten us, it’s failed states and non-state terrorist groups themselves who pose a much greater danger to the security of the United States. John Kerry understands this. George Bush and his advisors don’t.

It’s unfortunate that this debate never makes an appearance during the campaign. It’s not really that abstract, and it’s absolutely at the core of who’s better able to defeat radical Islamic terrorism. We should be all be talking about it a lot more than we are.

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