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How Terrible Is It?

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

National Security Council
35 pp., available at www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html

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

National Security Council
54 pp., available at www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss/2006

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. 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.

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