A concept that excludes nothing defines nothing. That’s why one of the most urgent tasks for President-elect Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” foreign policy brain trust is coming up with a coherent intellectual framework — and a winning battle plan — for the globe-spanning asymmetrical conflict that George W. Bush calls the “war on terror.”

Terrorism (for the umpteenth time) is a tactic, not an enemy; Bush might as well declare war against flanking maneuvers or amphibious landings. Everyone knows what Bush is trying to say, and no one can deny the potential of terrorist attacks to destroy lives and change the world. Few would doubt that a line can be drawn between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and last week’s bloody rampage in Mumbai. But is it a straight line or a zigzag? Is it bold or faint? Continuous or dotted?

The Bush administration takes the position that all terrorism is evil, and that therefore all terrorists are evil. That black-and-white view is obviously correct but it doesn’t take you very far toward useful policy choices. Being firmly opposed to rainy days won’t keep you dry in a storm.

The fact that all terrorism is evil doesn’t mean that all terrorism is alike. I’m confident that Obama understands this distinction, but not that he has worked through all its implications.

At Monday’s news conference, Obama introduced Hillary Clinton as the new secretary of state, Robert Gates as the continuing secretary of defense, retired Gen. James Jones as national security adviser, Eric Holder as attorney general, Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security and Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations — a remarkably diverse group, including just two white males, that proved Obama’s intention to show a different American face to the world.

But then a reporter asked the president-elect a particularly inconvenient question: During the campaign, Obama claimed the right for U.S. forces to go after terrorists inside Pakistan. Does the Indian government — which believes the Mumbai killers launched their assault from Pakistan — have the same right?

Obama refused to answer, saying only that he recognizes India’s right to defend itself and supports the government’s efforts to track down those responsible for the Mumbai atrocity. Soon, though, it will be his responsibility — and that of Clinton, as the new architect of U.S. diplomacy — to find a way out of this kind of logical cul-de-sac.

In his opening statement, Obama vowed to continue the fight against “those who kill innocent individuals to advance hateful extremism.” Is that his definition of terrorism? Is any one-size-fits-all definition sufficiently flexible to allow U.S. Special Forces to go after Osama bin Laden but also to keep nuclear-armed India out of nuclear-armed Pakistan?

No one asked Obama about another of his campaign promises — to promptly close the Guantanamo prison camp, where “war on terror” detainees have been held without formal charges, adequate legal representation or any meaningful right to prove their innocence. Holder has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration on issues of torture and indefinite detention. Soon, it will be his job to figure out how to deal with the remaining detainees — some of whom may indeed be innocent, many of whom surely are not — within legal norms consistent with both the nation’s honor and its citizens’ safety.

Holder will also be key in shaping any effort to investigate possible “war on terror” abuses that have not yet come to light. And he and Napolitano will be responsible for surveying the newly redrawn line between privacy and security — and deciding whether the Bush administration went too far in asserting the right to eavesdrop on private communications and collect personal information.

For Gates, who said he felt it was his duty to stay on at the Pentagon, winding down the occupation of Iraq might be the easy part. Obama described Afghanistan as “where the war on terror began and … where it must end.” If Obama meant to confine the “war on terror” to just this one theater, it was a smart move. But U.S military thinkers have yet to come up with a workable plan for prevailing in Afghanistan, to say nothing of the resources needed to make such a plan work.

There might be other issues that Obama and his team would like to tackle first. But as the carnage in Mumbai reminds us, terrorists don’t wait their turn.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.