How Terrible Is It?

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002)

National Security Council
35 pp., available at

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (March 2006)

National Security Council
54 pp., available at

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander must make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.

—Carl von Clausewitz, On War

The actual reason for the failure of the US policy in its political field and international relations is their lack of information regarding the world’s realities and also the enclosure of the decision making people of that country in their own fabricated and false political propaganda.

—From the Web log of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, following a visit to New York in September 2006

Five years after George Bush launched America on a global crusade to “rid the world of evil,” it is safe to say that the tide has turned. No, America is not winning, although some argue that it might be politic, at this juncture, to declare victory.1 Nor is America necessarily losing, as others have asserted. What has happened instead is that the mental construct that framed the Bush administration’s reaction to September 11 as a “war” is beginning to fall apart.

This is not surprising. What is surprising is that it has taken so long for Americans to notice. Much of the rest of the world at a fairly early stage lost faith, if they ever had any, in the narrative promoted by President Bush, in which America was cast as the leader of freedom, battling a foe variously described as terror or terrorism, and sometimes as evil or evildoers. To doubters it seemed obvious from the beginning that one does not wage “war” against terrorism, a word that, despite those last three letters, does not describe an ideology or a targetable enemy, but rather an ugly technique of attack that has long been used by the weak against the strong.

Even disregarding the President’s hyperbole, such ostensibly sober statements of purpose as the administration’s 2002 and 2006 National Security Strategy papers, which were intended to lay out a comprehensive program, reveal, on careful reading, a disturbing lack of focus. One proclaimed goal in the 2006 report, for instance, is “Ending Tyranny,” an objective that may be commendable, but which has not proved attainable, on anything like a global scale, at any point in recorded history. One declared method for achieving American war aims is the launching of preemptive strikes, on the grounds, as the 2002 National Security Strategy put it, that “we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize.” This was understandable, certainly, in the light of the horrors of the September 11 attacks and the fear raised by them, yet it seemed rash to sanction aggression based on the presumption of others’ intent, particularly since the same documents outlined a rather bewildering array of perceived threats and dangers facing America.
These strategy papers correctly identify al-Qaeda as the principal enemy of the United States. But they also point to “a host of other groups and individuals” charged with using terrorism to achieve political ends. It turns out, however, that of the forty-two entries on the State Department’s list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” only a half-dozen—all of them branches, offshoots, or ideological allies of al-Qaeda—have ever attacked the United States, or even indicated a readiness to do so. Most of the others, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, are engaged in nasty localized insurgencies that have little to do with the US. Some, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, have targeted Israel, an American ally. But their occasional expressions of hostility to America have only been exacerbated, and granted greater urgency and resonance, by America’s apparent declaration of war on them.

The 2006 National Security Strategy states that America “may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” Again, the dislike of a noisily belligerent and obscurantist regime that may be seeking nuclear arms is understandable. Yet to an objective observer America seems wonderfully blessed, if indeed it is true that Iran represents its greatest challenge. No doubt, one result of the American invasion of Iraq has been to greatly expand Iran’s influence there, a “challenge” made possible by America’s own policy.2 But the Islamic Republic is, after all, halfway around the globe from America’s shores. Its population is a quarter of America’s, its GNP one hundredth the size, and it is, at present, surrounded by better-equipped American and allied armed forces.

Compared, say, to the threat of atomic obliteration posed by the Soviet Union between 1949 and 1989, the possibility of an Iranian attack on the United States does not seem very large. Even a nuclear-armed Iran would never dare strike the superpower because it would risk annihilation in response. Obviously America poses a far greater threat to Iran than Iran does to the United States. And perversely, it is this threat, more than anything else right now, that bolsters Iran’s oppressive and unpopular government.

It is also true, of course, that the Bush administration successfully marketed the invasion of Iraq to the American public as a front in the Global War on Terror. A poll taken in August 2003, for instance, found that 69 percent of Americans were convinced that Saddam Hussein had a “personal role” in the September 11 attacks. Foreign reporters who interviewed US troops in Kuwait on the eve of fighting were appalled to find them sincerely convinced that they were about to fight “terrorists.” This misapprehension, fanned by administration officials, was surely one of the reasons for the overly aggressive behavior—as in Falluja, Abu Ghraib, and Haditha, among others—that sparked and continues to stoke such fierce popular resistance to American forces in Iraq. Long after the invasion, and long after search teams failed to find either weapons of mass destruction or any intelligence linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, polls showed that most Americans still believed that Saddam Hussein bore some responsibility for September 11.3

Oddly enough, the 2006 National Security Strategy paper still conflates Iraq with a global terrorist menace. Its enumeration of the many successes in the “war on terror” includes this jaunty item: “A multinational coalition joined by the Iraqis is aggressively prosecuting the war against the terrorists in Iraq.” Further down the page, under the heading “new challenges,” it concedes that the bloody insurgency currently plaguing Iraq might be interpreted by some as a product, rather than a cause, of America’s invasion. “The ongoing fight in Iraq has been twisted by terrorist propaganda as a rallying cry,” according to a cryptic bullet point.

Increasingly, however, the narrative of a great crusade to rid the world of terrorism (the current label used by the White House is “The Long War”), with Iraq an exemplary episode, is no longer convincing to Americans, as the opinion polls suggest. In August, CBS polls found that 81 percent of Americans accept the threat of terrorism as something “they will always have to live with.” More than half, according to a Harris poll in July, do not believe that the fighting in Iraq is part of Bush’s campaign against terrorism, and 57 percent do not believe that America’s safety from terrorism depends on its outcome. In fact, some 63 percent now say the Iraq war was “not worth it,” compared to 48 percent last year. A majority also think the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are creating more terrorists than they are eliminating. And this year, for the first time since September 11, a solid majority reckoned a terrorist attack in the United States within coming weeks was “unlikely.”

In other words, while most Americans feel that the threat of terrorism is receding, they have also come to regard terrorism as an ineradicable fact of life. The treatment of terrorism by means of a global military offensive, they recognize, has been both inappropriate and counterproductive. With much smoke and many mirrors, the invasion of Iraq may have looked like war in a just cause; it has turned into an immensely costly and destructive war to salvage shrunken American prestige. But as has become clear it was, at its outset, no more a “war on terror” than were the American invasions of Grenada and Panama.

Even in America, of course, skeptics did try to raise their voices after September 11. Not only were they up against the power of the White House and the Pentagon, but some of them tended to be overly strident, or overly cautious, and so their voices were easily drowned in the noise of chest-thumping patriotism. It is only recently that the broader public has begun to absorb the facts of American failure abroad. To whoever wants to listen, several new books offer detailed and persuasive explanations of what has gone wrong in America’s counterterror policy, why it went wrong, and how it may be put right.

One of the best is by Louise Richardson, a Harvard professor who not only has been teaching about terrorism for a decade, but brings the experience of an Irish childhood, including youthful enthusiasm for the IRA, to understanding the phenomenon. As she explains, she had always thought it wise for academics to stay out of politics. The sheer boneheadedness of Washington’s incumbents, who have ignored decades of accumulated wisdom on her subject, prompted her to write a belated primer.

The result is a book that reads like an all-encompassing crash course in terrorism: its history, what motivates it, and the most effective ways of treating it. Her analysis is clear, thorough, illuminating, and provocative. The lesson, as it unfolds, is quietly, authoritatively excoriating about the policies this administration has pursued. Indeed, one would like to see the entire US national security establishment frog-marched into Richardson’s Terrorism 101.

Here are a dozen of her basic points:

  1. Terrorism is anything but new. Violence by nonstate actors against civilians to achieve political aims has been going on for a long, long time. The biblical Zealots known as the Sicarii used it against the Romans, as well as against fellow Jews, in the vain hope of provoking the Imperium to so extreme a response that they would foment a mass uprising. Following the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, the German radical Karl Heinzen published a tract, simply titled Murder, which advocated selective homicide as a spark to general revolt. Various groups soon put such ideas into practice. The Clerkenwell bombing of 1867, carried out by the Fenians, an Irish nationalist group, prompted a surge of hysteria in London reminiscent of the response provoked by September 11.

So, in later decades, did the wave of anarchist terrorism that swept Europe and the United States. Revolutionaries assassinated seven heads of state between 1881 and 1914. Paris suffered bomb attacks no fewer than eleven times between 1892 and 1894. In the 1930s and 1940s of the last century, Menachem Begin’s Irgun organization slaughtered scores of Palestinian civilians and British soldiers. The Israeli leader went on to share a Nobel Peace Prize.

  1. Terrorism is obviously a threat, and the deliberate killing of innocent civilians an outrage, but it is not a very big threat. As John Mueller points out in Overblown, his sadly funny, far less patient account of America’s response to September 11, the probability of an American being killed by terrorists is about the same as of being felled by an allergic reaction to peanuts. Six times more Americans are killed every year by drunk drivers than died in the World Trade Center. (And more Americans have now died in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Excepting a few particularly bad years, the annual number of deaths from terrorism worldwide since the late 1960s, when the State Department started record-keeping, is only about the same as the number of Americans who drown every year in bathtubs.

  2. The danger from terrorist use of so-called weapons of mass destruction is not as large as scaremongers profess. Known chemical weapons do not, in fact, cause much wider damage than conventional weapons, and in addition they are difficult to use. The Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (Aum is Japanese for Supreme Truth), which had excellent technicians and facilities and plenty of money to brew lethal potions, discovered this when it tried to poison the Tokyo subway with sarin gas in 1995. Biological weapons are potentially more deadly, but also hard to make and to diffuse. As for nuclear weapons, there is no evidence that any terrorist group has ever come close to acquiring them. Placing all these dangers in a single category of threat is misleading, and greatly exaggerates the overall threat posed by terrorist groups around the world.

  3. Many terrorists are not madmen. The choice to use terror can be quite rational and calculated. In his memoirs, Nelson Mandela recalls that the African National Congress debated what method to use to confront apartheid. Terrorism was considered, but scrapped, mercifully, in favor of sabotage attacks, for fear of alienating potential supporters. The IRA was murderous, but found that planting bombs and then warning of their presence was just as effective as setting them off in crowds. This tactic had the advantage of avoiding some of the “collateral damage” of bad publicity. Other terrorists, such as those linked with al-Qaeda, unfortunately, like bad publicity as much as good.

  4. Groups that commit terrorism, in many cases, believe they are acting defensively, using the most effective means at their disposal. Their justifications can be self-serving and morally repugnant, but are often carefully elaborated. Some terrorists rely on the complicity of the people around them, and so must work to persuade them of their rectitude. Others operate in inhospitable environments, and aim more to shock and provoke. It is, Richardson emphasizes, important to distinguish these differing approaches, since they suggest different remedies.

  5. Suicide attacks can also represent a rational policy choice. They are cheap. They can be a means of access to difficult targets. They are effective in frightening people, and in advertising the seriousness and devotion of those who undertake them. Typical suicide “martyrs” are not loners or misfits; in their will to die for a cause, they tend to be sustained by the strong solidarity of a close group of collaborators. They are often motivated by personal humiliation at the hands of those they wish to hurt, or they wish to take revenge for the killings of family members or comrades. Suicide attacks are not new, either. They were used, for example, since the nineteenth century by the Muslim Moros guerrillas against both Spanish and US invaders of the Philippines. Before Iraq, their most intensive use in modern times was not in the Middle East but in Sri Lanka, where, since 1987, Tamil rebels have killed hundreds of government soldiers in scores of suicide operations, often carried out by women.

  6. There is no special link between Islam and terrorism. Most major religions have produced some form of terrorism, and many terrorist groups have professed atheism. If there is a particular tenacity in Islamist forms of terrorism today, this is a product not of Islamic scripture but of the current historical circumstance that many Muslims live in places of intense political conflict. Contemporary Islamist movements that resort to terrorism are, however, often strengthened in their appeal by the fact that they want to link a faith-based activism, intended to “transform” society, with ethnic and nationalist causes. Most other terrorist groups have not combined their intentions in this way. For instance, the IRA does not have “transformational” aims, as Richardson puts it, but rather territorial ones.

  7. Electoral democracy does not prevent terrorism, which has flourished in many democracies, typically being used by groups representing minorities who believe the logic of majority rule excludes them. The Basque separatist group ETA and Greece’s November 17th urban guerrillas started under dictatorships, but continued their attacks following transitions to democracy in both countries.

  8. Democratic principles are no impediment to prosecuting terrorists. On the contrary they are, Richardson asserts, “among the strongest weapons in our arsenal.” Pointedly, she recalls that during the Revolutionary War, George Washington, although incensed by Britain’s policy of incarcerating American revolutionaries on grisly prison ships, where twice as many perished as on the battlefield, gave strict orders for the humane treatment of British captives.

  9. Military action is sometimes necessary to combat terrorism, but it is often not the best way to do so. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, after a twenty-two-year occupation, it left behind a far stronger and more determined adversary in Hezbollah than it had started with. The Peruvian army spent twenty years in an ugly, scorched-earth campaign against Sendero Luminoso guerrillas, during which nearly 70,000 people were killed. The group was defeated and disbanded after a change in tactics when a seventy-man police team took just six months, using incisive analysis and good intelligence, to capture its leader. In the cases where brute military action has succeeded, as in Uruguay and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, it was at the cost of democracy and human rights.

  10. Armies, in fact, often create more problems than they solve. When Britain sent its army into Northern Ireland in 1969 in response to the Troubles, it took just two years for the majority of Catholics, who were at first relieved by their presence, to turn against them. The turnaround for the US in Iraq was far shorter. During the seven months between September 2003 and April 2004, as Charles Peña reminds us in Winning the Un-War, the proportion of Iraqis saying that attacks on foreign troops were somewhat or fully justified leapt from 8 percent to 61 percent. This was exactly the period when a sudden surge in attacks on US forces, following the initial post-invasion calm, prompted vigorous counterinsurgency measures. That is all the time it took, it seems, for Iraqis to decide they did not like being searched, beaten up, shot at, jailed, and humiliated by American troops, whatever the reasons given. Recent polls show some 61 percent of Iraqis still approve of attacking the Americans, and 78 percent believe the US presence is “provoking more conflict than it is preventing.”

  11. To address the issues terrorists say they are fighting for cannot automatically be dismissed as appeasement. Britain did not succeed in disarming the IRA by ignoring its demands but by engaging them, and by altering the situation in Northern Ireland that had created the IRA’s perception of a threat to its goals. In fact, the conversion of terrorist groups into peaceful political movements has often occurred because their rationale for violence has ceased to exist, or because they came to feel that resort to terrorist tactics would limit their room for political maneuver.

One particularly important point of Richardson’s is that few terrorist groups have ever succeeded in achieving their stated primary aim, whether to foment a revolution or to “liberate” a territory. In fact, most of them do not really expect to do so, and are extremely vague about what they would do if they actually succeeded. Osama bin Laden has said next to nothing about what sort of society he would actually like to create, just as Marx never described in any detail what his communist utopia would look like. This may explain why the terrorist groups that have taken power have sometimes produced such incompetent rule—as was the case with Yasser Arafat.

Because terrorists tend to be aspirational rather than practical, their practices typically amount to what Ms. Richardson calls a search for the three R’s of terrorism: revenge, renown, and reaction. As she puts it, “the point of terrorism is not to defeat the enemy but to send a message.” This simple insight is important, because it suggests ways of dealing with terrorism: you must blunt the impulse for revenge, try to limit the terrorists’ renown, and refrain from reacting in ways that either broaden the terrorists’ appeal or encourage further terrorism by showing how effective their tactics are.

Richardson’s three R’s go a long way toward explaining why American policy has become so disastrously askew. As she notes, an act such as September 11 itself achieves the first of her three R’s, revenge. So spectacularly destructive an attack also gains much of the second objective, renown. But the Bush administration’s massive and misdirected overreaction has handed al-Qaeda a far greater reward than it ever dreamed of winning.

The declaration of a global war on terrorism,” says Richardson bluntly, “has been a terrible mistake and is doomed to failure.” In declaring such a war, she says, the Bush administration chose to mirror its adversary:

Americans opted to accept al-Qaeda’s language of cosmic warfare at face value and respond accordingly, rather than respond to al-Qaeda based on an objective assessment of its resources and capabilities.

In essence, America’s actions radically upgraded Osama bin Laden’s organization from a ragtag network of plotters to a great enemy worthy of a superpower’s undivided attention. Even as it successfully shattered the group’s core through the invasion of Afghanistan, America empowered al-Qaeda politically by its loud triumphalism, whose very excess encouraged others to try the same terror tactics.

Worse yet, as the National Security Strategy documents clearly show, the Bush administration willfully blended al-Qaeda into a peculiar amalgam including other, far less urgent threats to concoct a perceived global enemy. John Mueller, a respected historian who teaches at Ohio State University, suggests that this inflation of America’s agenda had much more to do with entrenched cold war attitudes than with any practical appraisal. He quotes the well-known words of James Woolsey, the CIA director in the early 1990s, testifying following the collapse of the Soviet Union: “We have slain a great dragon, but we now live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.” This view informed the security establishment’s unwillingness to budge from its position of hawkish response to threats, even though the danger posed by, say, “rogue states” was minimal. “There seems to exist something that might be called a catastrophe quota,” is Mueller’s sardonic conclusion. “When big problems go away, smaller ones become magnified in importance to compensate.”

Charles Peña, who as a distinguished defense analyst and Washington insider should know, broadly concurs. Although the administration’s initial focus was al-Qaeda, he says, it quickly reverted to the pre–September 11 model of rogue states armed with WMDs: “Instead of recognizing that the threat posed by al-Qaeda required changing how the administration thought about the problem, it changed the problem to fit its thinking.”

None of these authors delves more deeply into the reasons for this shift, which is a shame. One might surmise, for instance, that the attraction of marketing a wartime president proved irresistible to Bush handlers such as Karl Rove. Sheer bureaucratic entropy, or the Pentagon’s desire to actually play with its costly toys, might have been among the other reasons. The influence of neoconservatives, and of the pro-Israeli lobby, perceiving a chance to set a superpower on Israel’s enemies, was certainly another.

All three writers both name the warmongers among post–September 11 officials and commentators and put them to shame. Their quotes make disturbing reading. The Bush speechwriter David Frum declared that the only options for America were “victory or holocaust.” The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said civilization itself was at risk. General Richard Myers, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that terrorists would “do away with our way of life.”

Trying to act on such rhetoric, the administration blundered into a series of mistakes. Instead of seizing a uniquely strong opportunity to rally the world behind a positive vision that would build on the liberal and democratic ideals that made America a great nation, it adopted a paranoid and bellicose position that dismayed much of the world. “The US government believed that the atrocity committed against it was so great that it could not afford to have any constraints on the exercise of its power in response,” Richardson explains.

Ironically, it was precisely the unbridled deployment of that unrivaled power that alienated its allies, turned neutrals against it, swelled the ranks of its adversaries and destroyed its chances of achieving its long-term objective, that is, the containment of the resort to terrorism.

This arrogance, for there is no better word, led the administration to another error. Instead of pulling the rug from under al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations by removing at least some of their causes for violence, it created new causes. Bush categorically rejected any notion of even considering what might motivate al-Qaeda’s anger, or might give this anger resonance among more moderate Muslims. “In fact, we’re not facing a set of grievances that can be soothed and addressed,” he declared. “We’re facing a radical ideology with unalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world.” His National Security Strategies reflected the same obtuseness. Even while intoning that “we must be clear-eyed about what does and does not give rise to terrorism,” the 2006 report testily dismisses any linkage to a half-century of US policy concerning the Palestinian issue, on the slim grounds that “al-Qaeda plotting for the September 11 attack began in the 1990s, during an active period in the peace process.”

And then there was Iraq. There is much to say about America’s most disastrous folly since Vietnam, but in some ways the most telling indictment is the response of ordinary Iraqis. As Richardson explains:

They find the claims that the United States is occupying Iraq to defend New York and deploying an army to import democracy to be so implausible that they do not believe them. Instead, they believe the claims of those who say the US Army is a self-interested army of occupation interested only in dominating the region and exploiting its oil wealth.

In effect,” she concludes, “they find al-Qaeda’s propaganda more credible than ours.”

—October 31, 2006

  1. 1

    For instance, James Fallows, in his excellent and tirelessly researched essay “Declaring Victory,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2006.

  2. 2

    See Christopher de Bellaigue, “Defiant Iran,” The New York Review, November 2, 2006.

  3. 3

    In July 2006, 64 percent of respondents still believed Saddam had maintained “strong links” to al-Qaeda, up from 62 percent in October 2004. Fifty percent still believed he had harbored weapons of mass destruction, up from 38 percent in the earlier poll.