To most Americans, with deference to climate change and Iran, the major national security threat to the nation emanates from al-Qaida. Yet strategic incompetence on our part may be a greater danger. This characteristic is not new.

During World War II Winston Churchill and his generals frequently complained about the inability of America to think strategically, relying instead on nearly unlimited resources to deliver the tools that ultimately won the war. Some two decades later as the Vietnam War raged, Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffmann wistfully observed that America believed that its adversaries either reasoned strategically as we did or were in desperate need of being educated to our level. When America overwhelmed the Taliban in Afghanistan and then overthrew Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the aim was to change the geostrategic landscape of the greater Middle East.

But we never seriously asked “what next?” – a signal mark of incompetence. We, the Afghans and Iraqis are still paying that price. Unfortunately, the landscape of that region has been changed – and not to our liking.

The grotesquely misleading sound bite “war on terror” is symptomatic of strategic incompetence because it mistakes and misidentifies the real enemy. Even declaring war on al-Qaida is indicative of strategic malaise by not matching ends and means with risks, costs, benefits and effective actions to achieve those aims. Further, we still cannot define the “enemy” or what the real danger is.

In World War II, the enemy was clear and present. The Nazis, Hitler and Tojo were its faces, and Germany and Japan had armies, navies and air forces that had to be defeated or destroyed on the road to victory. Al-Qaida has no army or navy, let alone a state. And if an air force is needed, hijacked commercial airliners can become weapons or blown up.

Indeed, we still don’t have a satisfactory name for this enemy. “Violent extremists” or “religious radicals” are meaningless. The phrase “jihadist” lends legitimacy as in Islam “jihad” is not viewed as evil. “Islamofascism” is insulting. Imagine the response to labeling other religious extremists as Judeo or Christo fascists. This definitional gap is another sign of an inability to think and act strategically.

Consider how this came together over the foiled Christmas bombing plot to take down Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit. The fundamental lapses rested in airport security in Lagos and Amsterdam. Why did the screening fail? And why did the airline not have a backup? A strategic response would be to strengthen overseas pre-boarding screening and to make the airlines ultimately responsible for passenger screening. After all, if an airline permits pilots who are drunk or incapacitated to fly or fails to accomplish required maintenance, it is held responsible and liable to legal action. That is one way to reduce the likelihood of recurring terror in the air.

A report issued by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board more than six years ago on strategic communications identified another symptom of incompetence. Strategic communications is about getting t message out and neutralizing or defeating the messages of the other side. The DSB correctly concluded that to defeat terror, it is crucial to win the “war of ideas.” Yet, on page one, the report bluntly argued that the state of our strategic communications was losing the battle of ideas. We still are. One explanation is incompetence.

Strategic incompetence is not limited to national security. A careful examination of the major institutional failures of just the last decade demonstrates an abundance of strategic incompetence. Whether Enron and General Motors or AIG and Lehman as well as responses to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, strategic incompetence brought those institutions down – from wishing to become the largest company in the world (Enron) without good reason or building cars bought by customers in their mid-50s when three-quarters of all buyers for the next decade were currently 40 or younger.

Short of a DNA transplant or dramatic change to a political system that is badly broken, can anything be done to correct this destructive characteristic? The answer is yes. However, that means going back to first principles and a willingness to accept facts and reality as they are and not as we would like them to be. Too often, where one stands determines where one sits. And the destructive effects of political partisanship are growing if not uncontrollably then certainly too quickly.

President Barack Obama and his administration have the opportunity to redress this flaw. Unfortunately, having made plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan that are in the process of implementation, pre-emptive changes are not going to happen for the short term. Instead, the president must focus on strategic communications in dealing with those who threaten both our nation and our friends. It is here that competence is desperately needed. But can we deliver?

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.  This essay was syndicated by UPI.