A Response: Hassner's 'Friendly Questions' and the War on Terrorism

A Response: Hassner's 'Friendly Questions' and the War on Terrorism

Pierre Hassner's "friendly questions" (In the National Interest, December 4, 2002) are indeed mostly friendly and reflect the sentiments of one of Europe's most preeminent defense intellectuals, but deserve a friendly rejoinder.

Pierre Hassner's "friendly questions" (In the National Interest, December 4, 2002) are indeed mostly friendly and reflect the sentiments of one of Europe's most preeminent defense intellectuals, who also happens to be a committed supporter of the Atlantic Alliance. They do, however, call for a friendly rejoinder; both because of the observations that they contain and of the points they do not raise. To begin with, are we really at war and, if so, with whom? Hassner seeks to provide a nuanced answer to the pivotal question, by pointing out that, while we are at war with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, we are not yet at war with the Islamic civilization as a whole. It is this broader war that, in his view, can and should be averted. According to Hassner, one way to avert such a war is to recognize and, presumably, deal with the causes of the broader Islamic discontent--"feelings of humiliation, oppression and exclusion."

While his observations are factually sound, the implications he draws from them are more debatable. To begin with, it is indeed true that, we are not at war with the Islamic civilization as a whole. Yet, it is myopic to suggest that our fight is merely with a few terrorist organizations, which happen to be staffed by radical Islamists. In fact, we are at war against a segment of the Islamic world -- which have themselves declared war on the West. The belligerents arrayed against us include both pan-national terrorist organizations and a number of rogue states. With some of these states, e.g., Iraq, we are actually involved in combat; with others, the situation closely resembles a Cold War-type relationship. Significantly, all of these entities are either truly animated by radical Islamic ideology or at least pay lip service to it. Here, a brief Cold War analogy might be in order. During the Cold War, we also did not engage in an all-out existentialist conflict with the entire "communist world." Rather, our major strategic opponent was the Soviet Union, supported by a number of rather unwilling Central and East European allies; for a number of years, communist-run Vietnam was another major adversary. Yet, during most of this time, such communist countries as China and Yugoslavia were neutral and, occasionally, supportive of U.S. policies.

It is also the case that the question of the role of communist ideology as a motivating factor for the Soviet external conduct, as distinct from the impact of Russian history, culture or geography, used to preoccupy many a Sovietologist, including this one. However, I do not know of many experts, who argued that the communist ideology was irrelevant or that we should not acknowledge the broader doctrinal context in which the Cold War unfolded. In particular, it was essential to appreciate that we and the Soviet Union espoused a fundamentally different vision of how to organize human society and that, in the end, either one or the other system would triumph. A famous Soviet saying, describing the zero-sum nature of the conflict, put it well -- "Kto Kovo", who will beat whom. In my view, we would do well to appreciate that the same logic governs the struggle today between the radical Islam and the West. The forces who are fighting against us are opposed not merely to specific American or European policies, but to our entire way of life, to the way in which we organize our body polities. Sadly, this existentialist point seems to be appreciated much better in the United States than in Europe, just as, by the way, was the case during the Cold War.

The next big question is how do we prevail in this ongoing conflict. The typical European complaint, which Hassner at least partially endorses, is that we need to pay more attention to such underlying causes of Islamic anti-Western angst as poverty, oppression, sense of humiliation, and last, but not least, anger about what is perceived as the excessive U.S. support of Israel. It is commonly alleged that, without addressing these broader concerns, and relying excessively on military force, the U.S. cannot win its war against terrorism. Yet, the European criticism is a caricature of American policy. Leaving the issue of the U.S. policy towards Israel aside -- since one cannot do justice to this complex subject in a short letter -- I do not know of any U.S. policy pundit, journalist or government official, who either does not agree that poverty, democratic deficit and some oppressive cultural legacies, e.g., in particular, the treatment of women, are indeed the root causes of most of the problems in the Islamic world, or does not wish to pursue policies to ameliorate them. Indeed, the Bush Administration has greatly augmented its development and economic aid package, changed the ways in which aid eligibility is being determined and in which aid is being distributed to emphasize the so-called good governance criteria, and is pushing hard to promote democracy, with a particular emphasis on the advancement of women's political and economic rights. While all of these steps are being taken, it is important to recognize that success is not going to be easy and will take a long time.

This brings us back to the issue of war fighting. Unfortunately, for many a European, although I would not put Pierre Hassner in this category, the root-cause discussion is usually followed by criticisms of particular American military strategies, and even of the entire American approach to war. Yet, I find it puzzling that Hassner's piece fails to acknowledge that most of Europe -- with a notable exception of Britain and France -- is utterly unserious about the serious business of war. The problem goes well beyond Europe's anemic defense capabilities, although these concerns are quite real (for example, the once mighty Bundeswehr can only be deployed for peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan by leasing Ukrainian aircraft) and the growing gap between the American and European military procurement and R&D. Most European writers evidence a profound distaste for war and a failure to appreciate the fact that, in a world where tyrants, rogue regimes and terrorist organizations are hell-bent on destroying the Western civilization and are willing to inflict horrendous levels of destruction on civilian populations, military force remains an indispensable instrument of statecraft. The failure of European will in this area is so profound that, even in its own backyard, it could not, on its own and without American involvement, defeat the militarily weak Serbia. What is even worse, many European leaders, in addition to being unwilling and unable to use force, are quite happy to handicap and constrain American military efforts, by devising impossible-to-comply-with rules governing who may order the use of force, under what circumstances it can be used and subject to what normative principles. Unfortunately, Hassner's discussion of the moral and legal issues involved in the war against terrorism, including his evident distaste for the anticipatory self-defense doctrine, squarely puts him within the European intellectual mainstream and represents a fundamental departure from the traditional jus in bello and jus ad bellum rules.

Intellectual merits aside, the practical implications of the European approach to the war on terrorism are quite troubling. The key cause of our victory in the Cold War was the U.S. ability to prevail in the economic and technological dimensions of the U.S.-Soviet arms race and win on the actual battlefields. Whether in Berlin or Cuba, because of the U.S. military opposition, Moscow proved incapable of altering the geo-political and military balance. With the notable exception of Vietnam, in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, U.S.-trained and equipped forces won, at least most of the time, over the Soviet surrogates and allies. The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was a culmination of this trend. Over time, the perceived U.S. military and technological superiority, together with intense effort to win the hearts and minds of the people living behind the Iron Curtain, contributed to the delegitimization of the communist ideology and the Soviet system among both ordinary people and the elites. Likewise, a decisive U.S. victory on the battlefields of today is a prerequisite for our ability to prevail in the ongoing war against the forces of radical Islam. The truth of this statement goes beyond the obvious point that defeating Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas and effecting a few needed regime changes, beginning with the one in Iraq, is the only way to protect the Americans as well as the Europeans against future horrendous attacks. The broader proposition here is that such military defeats would delegitimize militant Islam and would help impel the Arab and Islamic street to embrace democracy. Hence, under the normal paradoxical logic of strategy, robust war fighting doctrines and diplomatic/economic assistance programs actually go hand in hand.

David Rivkin is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Baker & Hostetler LLP. An expert on international law, he served in the Department of Justice and the White House in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations. He is also a past contributor to In the National Interest.