Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in the Fall 2001 edition of the Claremont Review of Books. The editors are grateful for permission from the Claremont Institute to republish the article here. Read Angelo Codevilla’s response to President Trump’s August 21 speech on Afghanistan.
“It is not that they love peace less, but that they love their kind of peace more.”
—St. Augustine, City of God
” In the end, there was no one so small or weak that they could not do them harm.”
—Montesquieu, The Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline
“…by their fruits shall ye know them.”
—Jesus, Sermon on the Mount
As Americans mourned on the night of September 11, many in the Middle East celebrated. Their enemies, 280 million people disposing of one third the wealth of the earth, had been bloodied. Better yet, Americans were sadly telling each other that life would never be the same as before — and certainly not better.
The revelers’ joy was troubled only by the fear that an angry America might crush them. For a few hours, Palestinian warlords referred to the events as Al Nachba—”the disaster”—and from Gaza to Baghdad the order spread that victory parties must be out of sight of cameras and that any inflammatory footage must be seized. But soon, to their relief, the revelers heard the American government announce that it would not hold them responsible. President George W. Bush gratuitously held out the cachet of “allies” in the war on terrorism to nations that the U.S. government had officially designated as the world’s chief sponsors of terrorism. Thus Yasser Arafat’s, Saddam Hussein’s, and Bashar al Assad’s regimes could enjoy, undisturbed, the success of the anti-Western cause that alone legitimizes their rule. That peace is their victory, and our lack of peace is our defeat.
Common sense does not mistake the difference between victory and defeat: the losers weep and cower, while the winners strut and rejoice. The losers have to change their ways, the winners feel more secure than ever in theirs. On September 12, retiring Texas Senator Phil Gramm encapsulated this common sense: “I don’t want to change the way I live. I want to change the way they live.” Common sense says that victory means living without worry that some foreigners might kill us on behalf of their causes, but also without having to bow to domestic bureaucrats and cops, especially useless ones. It means not changing the tradition by which the government of the United States treats citizens as its masters rather than as potential enemies. Victory requires killing our enemies, or making them live in debilitating fear.
The flood of authoritative commentary flowing from the U.S. government and the media soon washed common sense out of America’s discourse. The conventional wisdom is foursquare in favor of the “War on Terrorism.” But it defines that war in terms of an endless series of ever more sophisticated security measures at home; better intelligence for identifying terrorists; and military as well as economic measures to “bring to justice” the shadowy al-Qaeda network. Notably, this flood averts attention from the fact that sowing terror in order to get America to tie itself in rancorous knots is the principal element of several governments’ foreign policy. It also discourages questioning the competence of the U.S. officials under whose guidance, in a single decade, America became the object in much of the world of a fateful combination of hatred and contempt. In short, the conventional wisdom envisages no effort to make mourners out of revelers and vice versa.
There will surely be more attacks, and of increasing seriousness. That is because the success of the September 11 attacks and of their aftermath has mightily encouraged America’s enemies, and as we shall see, no security or intelligence measures imaginable stand any chance of diminishing the opportunities for successful terrorist attacks. Why should America’s enemies stop doing what has proved safe, successful, and fun?
Let us first examine the attitudes and policies of the U.S. government that guarantee defeat—in fact, are defeat itself. Then we will be able to see more clearly what victory would look like, and how it could be achieved.
Part I: Anatomy of Defeat
The U.S. government’s “War on Terrorism” has three parts: “Homeland Security,” more intelligence, and bringing al-Qaeda “to justice.” The first is impotent, counterproductive, and silly. The second is impossible. The third is misconceived and is a diversion from reality.
Security is Illusory
The nationally televised statement on October 31 of Tom Ridge, President Bush’s head of Homeland Security, that the national “alert” and the new security measures would last “indefinitely,” is a conclusive self-indictment. The Homeland Security office’s vision of the future for ourselves and our children and our children’s children involves identification cards for all, with biometric data and up-to-the-minute records of travel, employment, finances, etc., to be used to authorize access to places that are vulnerable to terrorist attack. This means that never again will the government simply trust citizens to go into a government office, a large building, a stadium, an airplane, or for that matter merely to walk around without what the Germans call Ausweis—papers. Checking everyone, however, makes sense only if officials will never be able to tell the difference between the average citizen and the enemy—and if the enemy will never be defeated.
But to assume such things is deadly. Unable to stop terrorists, Homeland Security will spend its time cracking down on those who run afoul of its regulations. In Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, for example, a man was taken off an aircraft in handcuffs for having boarded before his row number had been called. Tom Ridge, with the demeanor of every state trooper who has ever pulled you over for exceeding 55 miles per hour, reassured Americans that he has the authority to order the shoot-down of civilian airliners. As Machiavelli points out in his Discourses, security measures that hurt, threaten, or humiliate citizens engender hatred on top of contempt. No civil libertarian, Machiavelli teaches that true security comes from armed citizens to whom the government is bound by mutual trust. America fought Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union without treating the public as potential enemies, and without making officials into a protected class. By governing from behind security screens, America’s leaders today make our land less free and prove themselves less than brave.
Impotence worsens contempt. In The Prince, Machiavelli points out that no defense is possible against someone who is willing to give up his life to kill another. In our time we have seen suicide gunners and bombers shred Israel’s security system, surely the world’s most extensive. Studies carried out by the CIA’s Counterintelligence Center generalize the lesson: Whereas terrorist attacks against undefended targets have a rate of success limited only by the terrorists’ incompetence, the rate of success against the most heavily defended targets hovers around 85%. In short, the cleverest, most oppressive defensive measures buy very little safety. In America, the possibilities for terrorist attack are endless, and effective security measures are inconceivable. How many school buses roll every morning? What would it take to toss a Molotov cocktail into 10 of them at precisely the same time? How easy would it be to sneak into a Safeway warehouse and contaminate a case of breakfast cereal? What would it take to set afire a gasoline tanker in a U.S. port?
Security measures actually magnify the effects of terrorism. The hijackings of September 11 have set in motion security measures that shut down airports on receipt of threats or merely on the basis of technical glitches in the security system itself. Similarly, attacks on the food distribution system, the schools, ports, etc., would cripple them by setting in motion attempts to make them secure. Indeed, manipulating the security system in order to cause disruption must rank high on the agenda of any competent terrorist. What’s more, any successful attack through, or around, the security systems (remember, such attacks are very likely to succeed) proves that the government cannot protect us.
On top of this, most security measures are ridiculous on their face. Airport security is prototypical. Everyone who flies knows that September 11 ended forever the era of hijacking, and not because of the ensuing security. In fact, hijacking had become possible only because of U.S. policy. Bowing to pressure from the Left in the 1960s, the U.S. government failed to exercise its right to force Castro’s Cuba to return hijackers, and instead defined security as disarming passengers. This succeeded in disarming everyone but hijackers. By 1969, Cuba’s immunity had encouraged Arab governments to get into the hijacking business. The U.S. government’s response to failed policy, however, was not to reverse it, i.e., to attack foreign governments involved with hijacking and to empower passengers to defend themselves. Rather, the government reemphasized its approach. The official instructions to passengers (in force on September 11) read like an invitation to hijackers: “Comply with your captors’ directions”; “Relax, breathe deeply”; “If told to maintain a particular body position, talk yourself into relaxing into that position, you may have to stay that way for a long time.” Indeed. U.S. security policy guaranteed the success of the September 11 hijackings.
But the first plane that hit the World Trade Center forever ended the free ride for hijackers by showing that the federal regulations exposed passengers to death. The passengers on United Airlines flight 93 violated the regulations (for which they technically could have been prosecuted—Remember: “you must comply with all federal regulations, posted signs and placards, and crew member instructions”) and attacked the hijackers, who unfortunately were already at the controls of the plane. Had they disobeyed minutes before, they would have saved themselves. Since then, a few incidents aboard aircraft have shown that the only function that henceforth a sky marshal might be able to perform would be to save a would-be hijacker from being torn apart by the passengers.
Despite the fact that anti-hijacking measures are now superfluous, the U.S. government now requires three checks of the same identity documents before boarding an airplane, and has banned more items that might be used as weapons. These now superfluous measures would have been futile on September 11. The hijackers would have satisfied any number of document checks, and could have carried out their operation using as weapons things that cannot be excluded from aircraft, such as nylon stockings; or even barehanded, using martial arts. Nor could the gun-toting, camouflage-clad soldiers who nowadays stand out like sore thumbs in America’s airports have done anything to prevent September 11.
For passive security to offer any protection against enemies while reducing aggravation of innocents, it must focus very tightly on the smallest possible groups who fit terrorist profiles. In America’s current war, terrorists are overwhelmingly likely to be a tiny, mostly visible minority—Arabs. But note that even Israeli security, which carries this sort of profiling to the point of outright racial discrimination, reduces the success of terrorist attempts only marginally.
Intelligence is Impossible
Are America’s intelligence agencies culpable for failing to stop September 11? No. But for the same reasons that they could not have prevented that atrocity, it is futile to suggest that they might help punish those responsible for it and be able to prevent future terrorism. It is impossible to imagine an intelligence system that would deal successfully with any of the three problems of passive anti- terrorism: security clearances for most of the population; the multiplicity of targets that must be defended as well as the multiple ways in which they can be attacked; and an unlimited stream of possible attackers.
Imagine a security investigation in which neither the investigators nor the evaluators can ask or even listen to anything about the subject’s ethnic identity or political or philosophical beliefs, never mind sexual proclivities. This is the system in force today for clearing a few people for “Top Secret—Codeword” information, which concerns nuclear weapons, among other things. How could the U.S. government deny access to a job in Homeland Security, or as an airline pilot, to an Arab Muslim opposed to U.S. policy in the Middle East, for example? Consequently, although The Card (the American equivalent of the Soviet Internal Passport) would contain all sorts of data on your personal life, it would do nothing to impede terrorism. The first act of terrorism committed by a properly credentialed person would dispel any illusion. Alas, the routine occurrence of such events in Israel has not shaken official faith in documentation.
To protect against future terror, U.S. intelligence would have to gain foreknowledge of who, precisely, intended to do what, where, when, and how. It cannot do this both because of fundamental shortcomings and because the task is beyond even the best imaginable system.
Roughly, U.S. intelligence brings to bear against terrorism its network of communications intelligence (COMINT) and its network of human collectors. The value of COMINT with regard to terrorism has never been high and has been diminished by the technical trends of recent decades. The exponential growth in the number of sources of electronic communication—cell phones, computers, etc. —as well as of the volume of such communications has made nonsense of the standard U.S. practice of electronic sorting of grains of wheat in mountains of chaff. Moreover, the advent of near-perfect, cheap encryption has ensured that when the nuggets are found, they will be unreadable. It would have been a fluke had U.S. intelligence had any COMINT data on September 11 prior to the event. It has had none since. If any of the thousands of CIA human intelligence collectors had acquired prior knowledge, the surprise would have been even greater. These collectors simply are not in contact with any of the people who are involved with such things. CIA people work in embassies, pretend to be diplomats, and have contact only with people who normally see diplomats. Human intelligence means human contact. To make contact with terrorists, the CIA would have to operate the way the Drug Enforcement Agency does—becoming part of the drug business. But nobody at CIA knows how to do that, is capable of doing that, or wants to learn. As for the FBI, alas, they are cops who get pay raises not so much for accurate intelligence as for the number of people they put behind bars.
Imagine, however, that U.S. intelligence were excellent in every respect. What could it contribute to passive anti-terrorism? The (new, much improved) official doctrine of the new CIA-FBI Joint Counterintelligence Office states that the intellectual point of departure for counterintelligence and counterterrorism must be identification of the U.S. assets and secrets that enemies are most likely to attack. Then analysts should identify the ways in which enemies might best wage the attacks. Once this is done, they can investigate whether in fact these attacks are being planned, how, and by whom. When analysis of “what” leads to knowledge of “who,” the attacks can be frustrated. This approach makes sense as regards counterintelligence, because the targets of the attacks are few and the attacks themselves have to be in the form of slow-developing human contacts or technical deceptions. But it makes no sense with regard to terrorism because the assets that are vulnerable to attack are practically infinite in number and variety, and the modes in which they are liable to be attacked are legion. There cannot be nearly enough investigative resources to explore every possibility.
Hence counterterrorist intelligence has no choice but to begin with the question “who?” Answering this question as regards those who are preparing attacks is difficult in the retail sense, and irrelevant on the wholesale level. Both the difficulty and the irrelevance stem from the fact that those who perpetrate terrorist acts are the equivalent of soldiers in war—there are lots of them, none is remarkable before he shoots, and there are lots where they came from. How would the Drug Enforcement Agency’s intelligence operate if it tried to target mere drug couriers or petty salesmen? Its agents would haunt the drug dens, cultivating petty contacts a few of which might be recruited into trafficking. By the same token, today’s CIA and FBI (in the unlikely event they could manage the cover) would haunt mosques, Islamic schools, and so forth, in the hope that some of their contacts might be among those recruited for terrorism. Very occasionally all this hard work would be rewarded by a success. But all this would amount to picking off a few drops from a fire hose.
That is why intelligence is useful only in the service of intelligent policy, that is, policy that aims at eliminating the people whose elimination would turn off the hose. But as we shall see, the identity of such people is discoverable not by espionage but by intelligence in the ordinary meaning of the word. It is in this regard that U.S. intelligence is most defective. For example, since September 11, for want of sources of its own, the CIA has been accepting information on terrorism from the intelligence services of Syria and of Yasser Arafat’s PLO—outfits whose agendas could not be more opposed to America’s.
The gullibility of U.S. intelligence is not merely an intellectual fault. The CIA’s judgment is corrupted by its longstanding commitment to certain policies. It is only a small exaggeration to say that radical Arab nationalism was invented at the CIA. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, when speaking to his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, about the granddaddy of Arab radicalism Gamal Abdul Nasser, used to call him “your colonel” because his takeover of Egypt had been financed by the CIA. Franz Fanon, the father of the anti-American Left in the Third World, was so close to the CIA that he chose to die under the Agency’s medical care. Within the government, the CIA long has championed Arafat’s PLO, even as the PLO was killing U.S. ambassadors. Under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, CIA director George Tenet has openly championed the fiction that Arafat’s “Security Forces” are something other than an army for the destruction of Israel. Before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate described Saddam Hussein as no threat to the region and as ready to cooperate with the United States. These are not mere errors.
Intelligence officers are most corrupted by the temptation to tell their superiors what they want to hear. Thus in September, CIA prevailed upon the intelligence service of the Czech Republic to cast doubts on reports that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the September 11 attacks, had twice met in Prague with Iraqi intelligence as he was preparing for the attacks. The Czech government later formally disavowed its service’s denial and affirmed the contacts between Atta and Iraq. But the CIA insists that there is no evidence that these two professional terrorists met to discuss terrorism. Gardening, perhaps?
When weapons-grade anthrax began to appear on Capitol Hill and in U.S. post offices in October, attention naturally turned to Iraq, whose regime had run the world’s largest or second-largest program for producing it. But the FBI in November, after failing to discover anything whatever concerning the provenance of the anthrax, officially gave the press a gratuitous profile of the mailer as a domestic lunatic. The domestic focus of the investigation was doubly foolish. Even if Saddam Hussein had not thought of anthrax attacks on America before October 2001, the success of the attacks that did occur, as well as the U.S. government’s exoneration of foreigners well-nigh ensured that Saddam would quickly get into the business of spreading the disease among us. Why shouldn’t he? Moreover, the further “identification” of the source of the anthrax by an unidentified “intelligence source” as “some right-wing fanatic” aggravated the naturally worst effect of foreign wars: to compound domestic rivalries.
The use of intelligence not to fight the enemy but to erect a bodyguard of misimpressions around incompetent policy is not a sign of brilliance.
The third pillar of the Bush strategy, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and military action first and foremost against the Taliban, is equally problematic.
Al-Qaeda is Not the Problem
In life as in math, we judge the importance of any part of any problem or structure by factoring it out. Does the equation still work? Does the building or the argument still stand? Imagine if a magic wand were to eliminate from the earth al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. With them gone, would Americans be safe from Arab terrorists? No way. Then what good does it do for the U.S. government to make war on them and no one else? Why not make war on those whose elimination would eliminate terrorism?
Talk of bringing bin Laden “to justice” would sound less confident were ordinary rules of evidence to apply. The trial of bin Laden would be a nightmare of embarrassment for U.S. intelligence. Any number of uncorroborated reports from sources both unreliable and with an interest in deflecting U.S. anger away from Arab governments have painted bin Laden and his friends as devils responsible for all evils. This picture is attractive because it tends to validate decades of judgments by U.S. policy makers. The only independent test of these reports’ validity came in 1998, when President Clinton launched a cruise missile strike against what “sources” had reported to be al-Qaeda’s germ warfare plant in Khartoum. It turned out to be an innocent medicine factory. None of this is to deny that bin Laden and his friends are America’s enemies and that their deaths would be good for us. But people like bin Laden are far from the sole practitioners of violence against Americans and the people and conditions that brought forth all these violent anti-Americans would soon spawn others like them.
Moreover, even if bin Laden had ordered September 11, as he boasts in a recruitment video, the fire that it started in America’s house has been so attractive to potential arsonists that America will not be able to rest until they are discouraged. Getting bin Laden won’t help much.
The Taliban are mostly irrelevant to America. Typically Afghan and unlike the regimes of Syria, Iraq, and the PLO, the Taliban have little role in or concern with affairs beyond their land. They provide shelter to various Arabs who have brought them money and armed help against their internal rivals. But Afghans have not bloodied the world. Arabs have.
The loyalty of the Taliban to their Arab guests is of the tribal kind. The moment that the Taliban are under serious threat, they probably will give the foreigners up. But absent the complicity of someone where bin Laden may be hiding, it is inconceivable that U.S. intelligence would find bin Laden’s location and dispatch Special Forces that could swoop in, defeat his entourage, and take him out. It is surprising that no one has yet lured the U.S. into such an operation—and into an ambush. Destroying the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was always the only way of getting bin Laden, for what little that is worth.
From the beginning of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan on October 7, the lack of strategy for ousting the Taliban was evidence of incompetence. Since then, obvious changes in the character of operations belied U.S. spokesmen’s claims that the war is “on schedule,” and confirmed that those who planned the operation made no intellectual connection between the military moves they were making and the political results they expected. During the first weeks, U.S. actions were limited to bombing “fixed targets,” mostly primitive air defenses and mud huts, unrelated to the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan. Only after it became undeniable that the only force that could make a dent in the regime was the Northern Alliance did U.S. bombers begin to support the Alliance’s troops—but tentatively and incompetently. All war colleges teach that bombs from aircraft or artillery are useful in ground combat only insofar as they fall on enemy troops so close in time to the arrival of one’s own infantry and armor that they render the enemy physically unable to resist. Whether in the two World Wars, in Vietnam, or in Kosovo, whenever significant amounts of time have passed between bombs falling on defenders and the arrival of attackers, the defenders have held. The Afghan civil war is very much a conventional war. Nevertheless, U.S. officials began to take seriously the task of coordinating bombing and preparing the Northern Alliance for serious military operations only after more than a month of embarrassment. In the initial days and weeks, the operation was a show of weakness, not strength.
The U.S. government’s misuse of force was due to its desire to see the Taliban regime lose and the Northern Alliance not win—impossible. When the Alliance did win, the tribal nature of Afghanistan guaranteed that the tribes that stood with the losers would switch sides, and that they would sell to the winners whatever strangers were in their midst. This, however, underlined the operation’s fundamental flaw: just as in the Persian Gulf War, the objective was so ill-chosen that it could be attained without fixing the problem for which we had gone to war. We could win the battle and lose the war.
Hence the worst thing about the campaign against Afghanistan was its opportunity cost. Paraphrasing Livy, Machiavelli tells us “the Romans made their wars short and big.” This is the wisdom of the ages: where war is concerned, the shorter and more decisive, the better, provided of course that the military objective chosen is such that its accomplishment will fix the problem. By contrast, the central message of the Bush Administration concerning the “War on Terrorism” is hardly distinguishable from that of the Johnson Administration during the Vietnam War: This war will last indefinitely, and the public must not expect decisive actions. In sum, the Bush Administration concedes that the objectives of its military operations will not solve the problem, will not bring victory. Whatever its incidental benefits, the operation is diverting U.S. efforts from inconveniencing any of America’s major enemies, and it is wasting the American people’s anger and commitment.
You Can’t “Spin” Defeat
Sensing mounting criticism at home and abroad for ineffectiveness, President Bush addressed the world and the nation on November 8. But he did not address the question that troubled his audiences: Do you have a reasonable plan for victory, for returning the country to the tranquility of September 10? Conscious that economic activity and confidence in America were sinking, he tried to rally the public by invoking the cry of the passenger on Flight 93 who attacked the hijackers: “Let’s roll!” But the substance of what he said undercut the spirit. Rather than asking Americans to take security into their own hands, he asked Americans for indefinite tolerance of restrictions on their freedom. Typical of the result was a New York Times interview with a young laid-off professional. When he watches the news, he said, “it feels like the world is going to hell, like nothing is going to get better.” That is defeat.
What would victory look like?
Part II: Victory
For Americans, victory would mean living a quiet and peaceable life, if possible even less troubled by the troubles of other parts of the world, even freer from searches and sirens and friction and fear, than on September 10. Hence all of the U.S. government’s actions subsequent to September 11 must be judged by how they relate to that end. So what should be the U.S. government’s practical objectives? Who is the enemy that stands in the way? How is this obstacle to be removed? In sum, as Thucydides’ Archidamus asked the Spartans, “What is to be our war?”
The Tranquility of Order
Our peace, our victory, requires bloody vengeance for the murder of some 5,000 innocent family members and friends—we seek at least as many deaths, at least as gory, not to appease our Furies, nor even because justice requires it. Vengeance is necessary to eliminate actual enemies, and to leave no hope for any person or cause inimical to America. Killing those people, those hopes, and those causes is the sine qua non of our peace—and very much within our power.
Fortunately, our peace, our victory, does not require that the peoples of Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Palestine, or indeed any other part of the world become democratic, free, or decent. They do not require any change in anybody’s religion. We have neither the power nor the right to make such changes. Nor, fortunately, does our peace depend on making sure that others will like us. We have no power to make that happen. Neither our nor anyone else’s peace has ever depended on creating “New World Orders,” “collective security,” or “communities of power.” International relations are not magic. Our own peace does not depend on any two foreign governments being at peace with each other. It is not in our power or in the power of any third party to force such a peace except by making war on both governments. Much less does our peace depend on a “comprehensive peace” in the Middle East or anywhere else. It is not in our power to make such a peace except by conquering whole regions of the world. Our peace and prosperity do not depend on the existence of friendly regimes in any country whatever, including Saudi Arabia. That is fortunate, because we have no power to determine “who rules” in any other country.
Virtually all America’s statesmen until Woodrow Wilson warned that the rest of mankind would not develop ideas and habits like ours or live by our standards. Hence we should not expect any relief from the permanent burdens of international affairs, and of war. Indeed, statesmen from Washington to Lincoln made clear that any attempt to dictate another people’s regime or religion would likelier result in resentment abroad and faction at home than in any relief from foreign troubles. We can and must live permanently in a world of alien regimes and religions. The mere difference in religion or mode of government does not mean that others will trouble our peace. Whether or not any foreign rulers make or allow war on America is a matter of their choice alone. We can talk, negotiate, and exercise economic pressure on rulers who trouble our peace. But if they make war on us we have no choice but to make war on them and kill them. Though we cannot determine who will rule, we surely can determine who will neither rule nor live.
What do we want from the Middle East to secure our peace? Neither democracy nor a moderate form of Islam—only that the region’s leaders neither make nor allow war on us, lest they die. We have both the right and the capacity to make sure of that. But is it not necessary for our peace that the countries of the region be ruled by regimes friendly to us? No. By all accounts, the Saudi royal family’s personal friendship with Americans has not affected their aiding and abetting terror against us. It is necessary only that any rulers, whatever their inclinations might be, know that they and their entourages will be killed, surely and brutally, if any harm to Americans originates from within their borders. Respect beats friendship. Do we not have to make sure that the oil of the Middle East continues to fuel the world economy? Is this not necessary to our peace? Indeed. But this does not burden us with the impossible task of ensuring that Saudi Arabia and the Oil States are ruled by friendly regimes. We need only ensure that whoever rules those hot sands does not interfere with the production of the oil that lies beneath them. That we can do, if we will.
In sum, ending the war that broke out on September 11 with our peace will require a lot of killing—to eliminate those in any way responsible for attacking us, and those who might cause further violence to us or choke the world’s economy by troubling the supply of oil. It turns out that these mostly are the same persons. Who then are the enemies whose deaths will bring us peace?
It’s The Regime, Stupid
When the suicide pilots of September 11 died, they made nonsense of the notion that terrorism was perpetrated by and on behalf of “senseless” individuals, and that the solution to terrorism lay in “bringing to justice” the bombers and trigger pullers. If this notion were adhered to, the fact that the terrorists had already gone to justice should have ended the matter, except for some ritual exhortation to states to be a bit more careful about madmen in their populations.
But these terrorists were neither madmen nor on the edges of society. They came from well-established families. They had more than casual contacts with the political movements and intelligence services of their own regime and of neighboring countries. They acted on behalf of international causes that are the main sources of legitimacy for some regimes of the Middle East, and are tolerated by all. These causes include a version of Islam; a version of Arab nationalism; driving Westerners and Western influence form Islamic lands; and ridding the Arab world of more or less pro-Western regimes like that of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates. Moreover, peoples and regimes alike cheered their acts. In short, these acts were not private. Rather, they were much like the old Western practice of “privateering” (enshrined in Article I of our own Constitution, vide “letters of Marque and Reprisal”), in which individuals not under formal discipline of governments nevertheless were chartered by governments to make war on their behalf.
Since the terrorists of September 11 are dead and we sense that their acts were not merely on their own behalf but rather that they acted as soldiers, the question imposes itself: Whose soldiers? Who is responsible? Whose death will bring us peace?
Islam is not responsible. It has been around longer than the United States, and coexisted with it peacefully for two hundred years. No doubt a version of Islam —Islamism—a cross between the Wahabi sect and secular anti-Westernism, is central to those who want to kill Americans. But it is neither necessary nor sufficient nor possible for Americans to enter into intra-Muslim theological debates. Besides, these debates are not terribly relevant. The relevant fact is that the re-definition of Islam into something harmful to us is the work of certain regimes and could not survive without them.
Regimes are forms of government, systems of incentives and disincentives, of honors and taboos and habits. Each kind of regime gives prominence to some kinds of people and practices, while pushing others to the margins of society. Different regimes bring out different possibilities inherent in the same people. Thus the Japanese regime prior to World War II changed the meaning of the national religion of Shinto from quaint rituals to militant emperor-worship. Germany meant vastly different things to the German people and to the world when it was under the regime established by Konrad Adenauer, as opposed to the one established by Adolf Hitler. In short, regimes get to define themselves and the people who live under them.
Note that Palestine’s Yasser Arafat, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Syria’s Assad family have made themselves the icons of Islamism despite the fact that they are well known atheists who live un-Muslim lives and have persecuted unto death the Muslim movements in their countries. Nevertheless, they represent the hopes of millions for standing up to Westerners, driving Israel (hated more for its Westernness than its Judaism) out of the Holy Land, and undoing the regimes that stand with the West. These tyrants represent those hopes because they in fact have managed to do impressive anti-Western deeds and have gotten away with it. The Middle East’s memory of the Gulf War is that Saddam tried to drive a Western lackey out of Kuwait and then withstood the full might of America, later to spit in its face. The Middle East’s view of Palestine is that Arafat and the Assads champion the rights of Islam against the Infidels.
Nor are the Arab peoples or Arab nationalism necessarily our enemies. America co-existed peacefully with Arabs for two centuries. Indeed, the United States is largely responsible for pushing Britain and France to abandon colonial and neo-colonial rule over Arab peoples in the 1950s. U.S. policy has been unfailingly—perhaps blindly—in favor of Arab nationalism. It is true that Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser founded Arab nationalism on an anti-American basis in the 1950s. It is true that in 1958 the Arab Socialist Party’s (Ba’ath) coup in Iraq and Syria gave Arab nationalism a mighty push in the anti-American direction. It is true that the Soviet Union and radical Arabs created the Palestine Liberation Organization as an anti-Western movement. But it is also true that Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and, since 1973, Egypt have been just as Arab and just as nationalistic, though generally more pro-Western.
How did the PLO and the Ba’ath regimes of Syria and Iraq gather to themselves the mantle of Arab nationalism? First, the Saudis and the Emirates gave them money, while Americans and Europeans gave them respect and money. Saudis, Americans and Europeans gave these things in no small part because the radical Arabs employed terrorism from the very first, and Saudi, American, and European politicians, and Israelis as well, hoped to domesticate the radicals, buy them off, or divert them to other targets—including each other. Second and above all, we have given them victories, which they have used as warrants for strengthening their hold on their peoples and for recruiting more terrorists against us.
Today Iraq, Syria, and the PLO are the effective cause of global terrorism. More than half of the world’s terrorism since 1969, and nearly all of it since the fall of the Soviet Union, has been conducted on behalf of the policies and against the enemies of those three regimes. By comparison, Libya, Iran, and Sudan have been minor players. Afghanistan is just a place on the map. Factor these three malefactors out of the world’s political equation and what reason would any Arab inclined to Islamism or radical nationalism have to believe that such causes would stand a chance of success? Which intelligence service would provide would-be terrorists with the contacts, the money, the training to enter and fight the West or Israel? For whom, in short, would they soldier?
The Iraqi, Syrian, and the PLO regimes are no more true nationalists than they are true Muslims. They are regimes of a party, in the mold of the old Soviet Union. Each is based on a narrow segment of society and rules by physically eliminating its enemies. Iraq is actually not a nation state but an empire. The ruling Ba’ath party comes from the Mesopotamian Sunni Arabs, the smallest of the empire’s three ethnic groups. The ruling faction of the party, Saddam’sTikriti, are a tiny fraction of the ruling party. The Assad family that rules Syria is even more isolated. The faction of the local Ba’ath party that is their instrument of power is made up almost exclusively of Alewites, a neo-Islamic sect widely despised in the region. It must rely exclusively on corrupt, hated security forces. Yasser Arafat rules the PLO through theFatah faction, which lives by a combination of buying off competitors with money acquired from the West and Israel, and killing them. Each of the regimes consists of some 2,000 people. These include officials of the ruling party, officers in the security forces down to the level of colonel, plus all the general officers of the armed forces. These also include top government officials, officials of the major economic units, the media, and of course the leaders of the party’s “social organizations” (labor, youth, women’s professional, etc.).
All these regimes are weak. They have radically impoverished and brutalized their peoples. A few members of the ruling party may be prepared to give their lives for the anti-Western causes they represent, but many serve out of fear or greed. The Gulf War and the Arab-Israeli wars proved that their armies and security forces are brittle: tough so long as the inner apparatus of coercion is unchallenged, likely to disintegrate once it is challenged.
Killing these regimes would be relatively easy, would be a favor to the peoples living under them, and is the only way to stop terrorism among us.
On Killing Regimes
It follows that killing regimes means killing their members in ways that discredit the kinds of persons they were, the ways they lived, the things and ideas to which they gave prominence, the causes they espoused, and the results of their rule. Thus the Western Allies de-Nazified Germany not by carpet-bombing German cities, which in fact was the only thing that persuaded ordinary Germans that they and the Nazis were in the same boat. The Allies killed the Nazi regime by killing countless Nazis in battle, hanging dozens of survivors, imprisoning hundreds, and disqualifying thousands from social and economic prominence. The Allies promised to do worse to anyone who tried Nazism again, left no doubt in the minds of Germans that their many sorrows had been visited on them by the Nazis, and made Nazism into a dirty word.
Clearly, it is impossible to kill any regime by killing its people indiscriminately. In the Gulf War, U.S. forces killed uncounted tens of thousands of Iraqis whose deaths made no difference to the outcome of the war and the future of the region, while consciously sparing the much smaller number who made up the regime. Hence those who want to “bomb the hell out of the Arabs” or “nuke Baghdad” in response to September 11 are making the same mistake. Killing must be tailored to political effect. This certainly means invading Iraq, and perhaps Syria, with ground troops. It means openly sponsoring Israel’s invasion of the PLO territories. But it does not mean close supervision or the kind of political reconstruction we performed in Germany and Japan after World War II.
It is important that U.S. forces invade Iraq with the stated objective of hanging Saddam and whoever we judge to have been too close to him. Once those close to him realize that this is going to happen and cannot be stopped, they will kill one another, each trying to demonstrate that he was farther from the tyrant than anyone else. But America’s reputation for bluff and for half measures is so entrenched that the invasion will have to make progress greater than in the Gulf War in order for this to happen. At this point, whether or not Saddam himself falls into U.S. hands alive along with his subordinates, it is essential that all be denounced, tried, and hanged on one charge only: having made war on America, on their own people, and on their neighbors. The list of people executed should follow the party-government’s organization chart as much as possible. It is equally essential that everyone who hears of the event be certain that something even more drastic would follow the recrudescence of such a regime. All this should happen as quickly as possible.
After settling America’s quarrel, America should leave Iraq to the peoples who live there. These would certainly break the empire into its three ethnic constituents: Kurds in the North, Mesopotamian Sunnis in the center, and Marsh Shiites in the South. How they may govern themselves, deal with one another and with their neighbors, is no business of ours. What happens in Iraq is simply not as important to us as the internal developments of Germany and Japan were. It is enough that the Iraqis know that we would be ready to defend whatever interest of ours they might threaten. Prestige is a reputation for effective action in one’s own interest. We would have re-earned our prestige, and hence our right to our peace.
In the meantime, we should apologize to Israel for having pressured her to continue absorbing terrorist attacks. We should urge Israel to act decisively to earn her own peace, which would involve destroying the regime of the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel could do this more easily than we could destroy Saddam’s regime in Iraq. The reason is that the regime of the PLO, the so-called Palestine Liberation Authority, is wholly dependent on Israel itself for most basic services, from money and electricity to telecommunications, water, food, and fuel. Moreover, the PLO’s key people are a few minutes’ driving distance from Israeli forces. A cutoff of essentials, followed by a military cordon and an invasion, would net all but a few of these terrorists. The U.S. could not dictate how they should be disposed of. But it would make sense for Israel to follow the formula that they deserve death for the harm these criminal gangs have done to everyone with whom they have come in contact, even one another. With the death of the PLO’s gangsters, Palestinian politics would be liberated from the culture of assassination that has stunted its healthy growth since the days of Mufti Hussein in the 1920s.
After Iraq and Palestine, it would be Syria’s turn. By this time, the seriousness of America and its allies would speak for itself. A declaration of war against the Assad regime by the U.S., Israel, and Turkey would most likely produce a palace coup in Damascus—by one part of the regime eager to save itself by selling out the others—followed by a revolution in the country. At that point, the Allies might produce a list of persons who would have to be handed over to avert an invasion. And of course Syrian troops would have to leave Lebanon. Americans have no interest in Syria strong enough to require close supervision of successors to Assad. But Turkey’s interest might require such supervision. The U.S. should make no objection to Turkey’s reestablishment of a sphere of influence over parts of its former empire.
Destroying the major anti-Western regimes in the Middle East might come too late to save the moribund government of Saudi Arabia from the anti-Western sentiments that it has shortsightedly fostered within itself. Or the regime might succumb anyway to long-festering quarrels within the royal family. In any case, it is possible that as a consequence of the Saudi regime’s natural death, the foreigners who actually extract and ship the oil might be endangered. In that case, we would have to choose among three options: 1) letting the oil become the tool of whoever might win the struggle (and taking the chance that the fields might be sabotaged in the war); 2) trying to build a new Saudi regime to our liking; or 3) taking over protection of the fields. The first amounts to entrusting the world’s economy to the vagaries of irresponsible persons. The second option should be rejected because Americans cannot govern Arabs, or indeed any foreigners. Taking over the oil fields alone would amount to colonial conquest—alien to the American tradition. It would not be alien, however, to place them under joint international supervision—something that Russia might well be eager to join.
Our Own Worst Enemies?
What stands in the way of our achieving the peace we so desire? Primarily, the ideas of Western elites. Here are a few.
Violence and killing do not settle anything. In fact they are the ultima ratio, the decisive argument, on earth. Mankind’s great questions are decided by war. The battle of Salamis decided whether or not there would be Greek civilization. Whether Western Europe would be Christian or Muslim was decided by the battle of Tours. Even as the U.S. Civil War decided the future of slavery and World War II ended Nazism, so this war will decide not just who rules in the Middle East, but the character of life in America as well.
Our primary objective in war as in peace must be to act in accordance with the wishes and standards of the broadest slice of mankind. In fact, the standards of most of mankind are far less worthy than those prevalent in America. America’s Founders taught this, and forgetting it has caused harm. Alliances must always be means, never ends in themselves, and as such must be made or unmade according to whether or not they help secure our interest. Our interest in war is our kind of peace. That is why it is mistaken to consider an ally anyone who impedes the killing of those who stand in the way of our peace. With allies like Saudi Arabia, America does not need enemies.
When involved in any conflict, we should moderate the pursuit of our objectives so as propitiate those moderates who stand on the sidelines. Individuals and governments stand on the sidelines of conflict, or lend support to one side, according to their judgment of who will win and with whom they will have to deal. “Extremist” is one of many pejorative synonyms for “loser.” The surest way to lose the support of “moderates” is to be ineffective. Might is mistaken for right everywhere, but especially in the Middle East. Hence the easiest way to encourage terrorism is to attempt to deal with “the root causes of resentment against us” by granting some of the demands of our enemies.
Learning to put up with security measures will make us safer, and is a contribution we can all make to victory. On the contrary, security measures will not make us safe, and accustoming ourselves to them is our contribution to defeat. The sign of victory over terrorism will be the removal of security measures.
The Arab regimes that are the matrices of terrorism have nothing going for them except such Western shibboleths. Their peoples hate them. Their armies would melt before ours as they have melted before Western armies since the days of Xenophon’s Upcountry March. They produce nothing. Terror is their domestic policy and their foreign policy. The oil from which they get the money that they lavish on themselves and on terrorism comes from revenues that Westerners give them to satisfy Western ideas of what is right. The regimes that are killing us and defeating us are the product of Western judgments in the mid-20th century that colonialism is wrong and that these peoples could govern themselves as good stewards of the world’s oil markets. They continue to exist only because Western elites have judged that war is passé. It is these ideas and judgments, above all, that stand in the way of our peace, our victory.