We're in the middle of an ideological war.
At least, some of us are.
The "War on Terror," in retrospect, was probably a bad policy name. "War on Al-Qaeda and its allies" would have probably been better. Really, we're not waging a war on Hamas, Hezbollah, the Basques (of Spain), Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, Indonesian who-knows-what-they-call-themselves, etc. I'm equally unconvinced that the War on Terror is secretly a "War on Radical Islam." We surely don't like Radical Islam... nor should we. But we shouldn't be out to militarily crush the ideology, and we haven't shown signs of trying to do that. We've stayed far away from many of the most radical Islamists-- Syria, southern Lebanon, Indonesia, Somalia. Iraq was probably the least of our Radical Islam worries in the Middle East... at least until we showed up. There's certainly been no tendency in the US "War on Terror" to unilaterally fight terrorists or Radical Islamists.
We're rather confident at this point that Bush was planning on taking out the Hussein regime even before 9/11, so let's not even consider the 2003 invasion as part of the War on Terror itself (regardless of what the President claimed at the time). Given that, we've had one major military operation against a terror operation, and this has been in Afghanistan.
Even our considerations of action (military and not) against Iran are unrelated to Terror or Islam. Iran's pressing need for nuclear weapons, suspiciously combined with a pressing need to wipe Israel off the map, should reasonably make any US foreign policymaker feel some hostility. But on top of it, evidence mounts that Iran is meddling in Iraq and making Coalition lives harder in creating security for the country. Given our desperation to fix up Iraq and go home, hostility in US foreign policymakers is understandable.
So it's clear that the "War on Terror" is poorly named. But why change it?
A few reasons. First, wars on concepts tend to do poorly, and help accentuate individual failures. The War on Drugs and War on Poverty are failed policies that we're hanging on to (and spending gobs of money on) regardless of performance. We don't need another one of these. Second, and more importantly, US foreign policy needs to be clear. We need to let our allies and enemies alike know where we draw the line between tolerable and unacceptable behavior. We need to let potential adversaries know what will cause us to go to war. The "War on Terror" is a war against a tactic. If we declare that we'll go to war against anyone who uses this tactic, then we either have to follow through with it and be consistent, or the sentiment will be lost, and none of our potential adversaries will know where our line is.
This clarity of communication was key to fighting the Cold War effectively, and will be key to fighting against potential terror enemies effectively. From here, I think we should replace the "War on Terror" with, indeed, a "War on Al-Qaeda and its allies." Many countries have interpreted the former as the latter, which is excellent: Al-Qaeda is a black name, and is not given haven in any country that wishes to avoid our wrath. Since our war began, they have lost ground in most states with strong security and administration (and have gained in Iraq and Northwestern Pakistan, where there is relatively little government influence). They've also lost ideological support overall:
Defeating Al-Qaeda, and making it clear that anyone who attacks us or our allies will fall onto our black list, should be a much more clear and effective line. Middle Eastern countries will have a strong incentive to crack down on potential radical groups that should wish us harm, so that we don't have to show up and do the cracking down ourselves.
Hopefully, a less ideological administration will be elected in 2008, and may take this more pragmatic approach to our fight against Al-Qaeda and its allies. Should that occur, I will be toasting, hopefully with many of you, to the End of the War on Terror.