A Strange War

November 1, 2001 Topic: Terrorism Tags: Academia

A Strange War

Mini Teaser: The semantic contest to define the conflict that began, or rather became manifest, on September 11 started immediately: Would it be crime or war?

by Author(s): Eliot A. Cohen

The semantic contest to define the conflict that began, or rather became manifest, on September 11 started immediately: Would it be crime or war? Instinctively, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "You can be sure that the United States government will do everything to find the perpetrators of this cowardly attack against innocent people and bring them to justice." The President, however, seemed to frame the matter differently by declaring three days later at the National Cathedral that "war has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder." Despite the President's words, the truth is that this argument continues today, albeit in muted public form. But once the focus on Afghanistan has passed, once the targets become less clearly compelling to some and diplomatically more prone to cause allied dissensus, the argument will return. Indeed, in some measure it persists in the spontaneous remarks of all those who discuss the current crisis. Seemingly random choices of words reflect, in fact, profound differences over how the United States will approach what may be a protracted, and certainly a very dangerous, struggle. The case for considering the American reaction to the suicide hijackings of September 11 through the prism of police work is, on the surface, a strong one. Quite aside from the fact that it reflects the continuity of U.S. policy, no state claimed responsibility for these deeds, and most of the publicly available evidence (though not all of it) points to the operations of terrorist groups whose links with foreign states are not those of servant and master. Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda is a non-state organization, even if it has had working relationships with Pakistani, Iraqi or other nations' intelligence services. As ghastly as their consequences were, the attacks reflected the work of a small band of operatives--fewer than a score directly, with a supporting infrastructure of a few hundred at the most. These were not the uniformed representatives of another country, and their physical support and training came from within the United States and Europe, where they had dwelt, acquired many of the necessary skills, and whence they operated. Arguably, too, the attacks of September 11--although they slew almost three times as many people as perished at Pearl Harbor--could not have been countered or even pre-empted by American military power. The front-line forces on that day and in the months preceding consisted of airport security personnel, Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, FBI database managers and hosts of others whose concern is domestic security and law enforcement, not war-fighting. In months and years to come, such people will continue to be the most important line of defense for the American homeland, not the American military. Even abroad, secret agents and spies may play a more important role than soldiers or pilots. The day after the attack, despite the losses in Washington, the American military was essentially untouched: these were blows struck at American society, not its military. The Pentagon was as much a symbolic as a military target. And one might argue that as horrible as the events were, the attack, like most spectacular criminal acts, did little permanent damage. How, then, can this be a war? The language of "criminals" being "brought to justice" is, in the end, a comforting definition of a hideous problem. America's law enforcement resources are enormous and its bureaucracies for coping with homeland defense extensive, if ill-coordinated. It is reassuring to have "outlaws" as opponents, for it assumes that the civilized world--indeed, humanity itself--regards those who committed these atrocities as acting out of all norms of decent behavior. The language implies a comforting restriction on the threats we face, and therefore on the responses we must consider. All true--and all beside the point. September 11 marked a climactic battle in an ill-defined war, but a war nonetheless. The hesitation shown by some to fully embrace the language of war reflects a wish to define war narrowly and rigidly, as the kind of conflict the United States seemingly won so decisively against Iraq in 1991. That is to say, it is a definition of war that has neat beginnings and decisive endings, waged against a state, or more precisely, against its armed forces, accompanied by clearly defined objectives, "end states" and "exit strategies." This constricted understanding of war, which reflects both a lack of historical perspective and the post-Vietnam quest for simplicity and certainty in the conduct of armed conflict, is and has always been inadequate. Mankind has fought many different kinds of wars, and if this one looks strange to us, it is only because we have closed our eyes to the varieties of conflict that have long afflicted humanity. According to the standard, narrow definition, Vietnam was a strange war, hence the extreme and dangerous insistence of many strategic thinkers and senior officers in expunging its memory, save as a cautionary example of a kind of conflict never again to be fought. Strange, too, was the century-long contest between France and Great Britain for control of North America. To an even greater degree, so were the struggles of medieval Europe. Understandably, it is out of fashion to talk about the Crusades, but the truth is that, considered as an unfamiliar form of war, they have much to teach us. They combined both a "clash of civilizations", in Samuel Huntington's words, and more conventional interstate struggles. They involved armies as the recognizable forces of states along with a welter of entrepreneurs, religious orders and bandits. They saw strange and shifting alliances in which religious fanaticism could give way to cynical calculations of individual and state interest, only to be replaced once again by cultural and religious animosity of the most virulent sort. Above all, these were wars without end states and exit strategies, wars that resist the neat classifications of those who impart military doctrine at war colleges, or of politicians and generals who seek clarity and order when all is obscurity and confusion. This is, then, war, but it is a strange war. In this war, September 11 was one battle, and should be understood as such. It was a battle even though it was waged exclusively by civilians who never wore a uniform in their lives. "Battles", Winston Churchill wrote in his biography of the Duke of Marlborough, "are the principal milestones in secular history. Modern opinion resents this uninspiring truth, and historians often treat the decisions of the field as incidents in the dramas of politics and diplomacy. But great battles, won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres, in armies and in nations, to which all must conform." What are the new "standards of values", the "new moods" and "new atmospheres" for us today? The extraordinary success of the terrorists of September 11--their ability to operate undetected and to wreak tremendous damage--demonstrated, first and foremost, American vulnerability. An Egyptian journalist, writing in al-Ahrar, a newspaper of the Egyptian Liberal Party wrote: "Oh yeah, guys, they told us that he who stings America ends up in the grave. They told us that [America] protects the Arab royal families. They told us that [America] can find a black ant on a dark night in the parched desert; that it has the most powerful intelligence apparatus in the world that can detect what happens in our bedrooms--an apparatus that knows what kind of underwear the president of Iraq [wears]. . . . It has been proven that it was all an illusion." In theory, of course, everyone knew that an open society could suffer these kinds of attacks; few of the relevant experts thought that American intelligence and domestic security was so good that it could thwart every attack of this kind. But the vivid demonstration of American vulnerability has changed atmospheres and values. The success of the attacks and their reverberations throughout the U.S. economy and a stunned, and let it be said, frightened society have given a boost to America's enemies. (If they pay closer attention, however, they will have noticed as well the relative absence of panic, the extraordinary restraint and even sympathy shown in dealing with Muslim and Arab-American minorities, and the general note of quiet patriotism.) The world may not have changed in the most visible sense--the attacks will, for example, merely accelerate and deepen somewhat an economic slowdown that was already in train--but in mood and feeling it has. Many of America's enemies have drawn not merely delight but encouragement from this turn of events; some of its rivals may see opportunities; its people have begun to mobilize their spirits. In the realm of intangibles, which is where wars are shaped, a very great deal has changed in ways that we cannot hope to measure. September 11 marked a battle in another way, too. Crime has either the objective of illicit gain, or mere sadistic pleasure in seeing victims suffer. The latter certainly played a role here, but the terrorists clearly acted with political purposes in mind. These have been described clearly in the fatwa issued by bin Laden on February 23, 1998, called "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders." In order of importance, bin Laden's World Islamic Front views as casus belli the presence of the United States on the Arabian peninsula, the continued suffering of the Iraqi people from U.S. military and economic pressure, and American support for Israel. The purposes of his struggle are equally clear: "to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip . . . [to force] their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim." These may be unrealizable strategic objectives, but so are most objectives in wartime. The understanding of this conflict as war, therefore, should dominate our discussion of it. To wage it successfully requires clear and dispassionate thinking--always a scarce commodity in wartime. "The maximum use of force is by no means incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect", Karl von Clausewitz observed. Yet the many emotions stirred by war and loss, and the press of urgent business, means that clear strategic argument will be much rarer than one might hope--or than trusting citizens might think actually occurs. For senior decision-makers, judgments in wartime come in a flood of micro-decisions, reflecting assumptions and beliefs that receive little scrutiny once they have crystallized in speeches, briefings and memoranda. Yet the stakes are too large, the outcomes too potentially dangerous, to engage in decision-making by historical cliché or television sound bite. Three questions at least should be at the top of the strategist's agenda: Whence did this war come? What directions might it take? And how shall we adapt ourselves to it? The Origins of War In war it is often easier to know whom one is fighting than what one is fighting. Even World War II, seemingly a model of clarity in the matter of enemies, was more obscure than is commonly taught. That the Allies were fighting Germans and their proxies, everyone knew. But what was the enemy? Nazism? Hitlerism? Prussian militarism? A return in wrath of Germany's Griff nach der Weltmacht, the drive for world power that had failed in 1914-18? Defining the enemy made a difference not only in terms of the peace the Allies would seek, but in understanding it so as to defeat it. In the United States and Great Britain there were many who believed that the Germans were rigid and orderly Teutonic masterminds, formidable in preparing and executing elaborate nefarious schemes, but thrown off balance when one disrupted their plans. The truth was just the reverse: Nazi Germany was a chaotic welter of competing organizations, and its generals excelled in spontaneous reaction to unforeseen events. The relationships between officers and enlisted men may well have been easier and more informal in the Wehrmacht than they were in the U.S. Army. The real nature of the enemy was unclear, in many respects, until after the war was over--and is even today a matter of scholarly dispute. So, too, here. The who is, for the moment, clear: members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. But what is the United States fighting? Understandably, American political and military leaders feel a powerful urge to define the enemy as narrowly as possible. Thus, the enemy is "a fringe form of Islamic extremism", as President Bush and others have put it--an isolated, marginal and alien element in the Arab and Islamic worlds that is utterly at odds with their societies and the tenets of their religion. It is a belief reinforced by many voices in those worlds for a variety of reasons: genuine conviction, fear of the repercussions of a Kulturkampf between the West and Islam, or instinctive abhorrence when faced with the massacre of innocents. A narrow definition of what we fight as an illegitimate, crackpot splintering from sane and healthy religious and national communities may soothe consciences, serve short-term political ends and provide reassuring boundaries to our fears. But it is incorrect. Al-Qaeda draws upon much larger movements in the Arab and Islamic worlds, tapping artesian rivers of hatred and resentment that rush beneath the surface of controlled societies. It is neither easily isolated nor taken to be illegitimate to all but a few fanatics. Even a cursory look at the Arab press reveals spontaneous expressions of delight at the humiliation of the United States. The studious avoidance by many Islamic clerics of unconditional condemnation of such techniques of struggle is revealing. Osama bin Laden is by no means a figure of execration and revulsion throughout the Arab or the Muslim world--and as inconvenient a fact as that may be, a fact it remains. Normally, statesmen leave the sifting of the causes of war to historians--the wise do so because they know that they are too close to events to see them clearly, the more typical because they think they understand very well matters of which they often have but a superficial grip. In the current case, however, at least some kind of preliminary analysis is necessary. An understanding of causes may not tell us how to shape strategy, but it can help explain where a conflict may go, how long it may persist, and what turns it may take. So, for example, to know that World War II in Europe had a great deal to do with the psychopathology of Adolf Hitler on the one hand, and the sinister power of National Socialism as an ideology on the other, was not, perhaps, of much use in telling Winston Churchill whether to reinforce the Middle East in early 1941. But it surely shaped his view of how extensive the war might be, how long it might endure, and what kind of measures might be required to win it. Like some of the great wars of the past, the current conflict may be understood at three levels. The deepest causes of this war, which are also the most intractable, have to do with the long encounter between Islam and the Arab world to the one side and the West to the other. As many historians have noted, for nearly three centuries that encounter has taken place to the disadvantage of Muslims in general, and the Arab world in particular--and in ways for which neither faith nor the political experience of the preceding thousand years had prepared the peoples of the Middle East. The repulse of the Turks from Vienna in 1683 marked the true beginning of the long retreat of Islam from Europe, and the penetration--military, economic, political and even ideological--of the Islamic world by the West. It has been three centuries of barely mitigated humiliation, punctuated most recently by the success of the Jews--a despised if not always a severely persecuted minority--in creating and maintaining a state in the face of armed hostility from nearly the entire Arab world. This sense of historical dislocation and injustice animates the views of many in the Arab world, and to some extent in the non-Arab Muslim domains beyond it. The immediate cause of the war is, of course, the peculiar personality of Osama bin Laden and his associates, including fugitives from Egypt a nd Saudi Arabia who have helped him create a remarkably extensive and sophisticated coalition of terrorist networks. Bin Laden's story is well-known and needs no repeating here. It reminds us, however, of the importance of decisive personalities in history--a matter mostly forgotten in the recent decades of political mediocrity that have characterized the leadership of the Western world. We have seen, in a small way, what unusual leaders can do--a Margaret Thatcher or a Ronald Reagan, for example, who, though neither a Winston Churchill nor a Franklin Roosevelt, nonetheless transformed the spirit and outlook of their respective countries. Lee Kuan Yew is, as Henry Kissinger has observed, a statesman too large for his country; in a very different vein Saddam Hussein has, despite evidence of titanic miscalculations, some qualities of an evil genius. On the whole, however, while Americans have demonized some leaders (Ayatollah Khomeini, for example), and have reveled in the personal peccadilloes of others (Bill Clinton springs to mind), we have tended to underrate the role of individuals as a factor of importance in international relations. Bin Laden may change that. It is, however, the intermediate causes of this war that deserve closest scrutiny. They are, in no order of importance, the irruption of American power into the Arabian peninsula in 1990, the collapse of some states in the Middle East and South Asia, the failure of many others to provide decent governance, and the heightened visibility of the prolonged and increasingly bitter struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. The resulting frustration and embitterment of domestic politics and the mobilizing effects of new mass media (best exemplified by Al-Jazeera, the satellite broadcast system based in Qatar) mean that the other side is guaranteed a continuous supply of recruits and enthusiasts. It means, as well, that the sudden apprehension or killing of Osama bin Laden will not bring this war to an end. In the rush to respond to the attacks of September 11, members of the U.S. government were, understandably, in no mood to reflect dispassionately upon some of their own decisions that brought us to this pass. But it would be well to do so, if only because these events have resulted from two broad failures of policy and judgment in which Republicans and Democrats alike have shared. The first was the radically incomplete victory of the Gulf War, including the deliberate choice not to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, and the second a pervasive indifference to the forces of liberalism and modernity in the Arab world. Without facing up to these mistakes--which, though explicable, were grave indeed--the U.S. government can understand neither its current predicament nor find an adequate strategy for dealing with it. The failure to eliminate Saddam Hussein's regime when it was possible to do so--when the Iraqi military had crumbled and millions of Iraqis hoped for liberation from a brutal and catastrophic tyranny--bred a number of ills. One of these, of course, was Saddam's survival, and with it Iraq's sponsorship of terrorism and persistent efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The inconclusive finish to the Gulf War had three other equally troubling outcomes. It led to the permanent stationing of large, visible and obtrusive American forces in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia; it brought about enormous additional Iraqi suffering through the brutal suppression of the Kurds and Shi'a, as well as the combined effects of the Ba'athi regime and a prolonged economic embargo; and it undid, in some measure, the deterrent effects of the demonstration of American power. The failure to clinch the victory, even over the feeble protests of Arab allies, testified to the unwillingness of the Americans to see a job through to the end. That apparent softness encouraged others to see if they could find ways of outlasting or hurting the Americans enough to keep them out of their way. In Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic misjudged his own weaknesses and failed; in Somalia, Mohammed Farah Aideed got it right. From the remarks of Osama bin Laden since September 11, it is clear that he thinks he has got it right, too. The United States thus left Saddam's exceptionally dangerous regime in power--exceptionally dangerous because its leader has cunning, persistence and ruthlessness far beyond the normal lot--and at the same time planted itself in a region bound to resent the mere presence of American soldiers, especially its (by local lights) immodest women in the unnatural and even humiliating role of warriors. Perhaps worst of all, it played a visible role in prolonging the suffering of the Iraqi people who were, after all, Saddam's first victims. We may yet find the hand of Iraqi intelligence in the planning of the attacks of September 11, and the subsequent use of sophisticated varieties of anthrax in attacks upon governmental and media targets in October. If, as it now appears, a leader of the September 11 plot met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague, one must wonder why. But in any event, failure to finish off the Iraqi regime in 1991 has left a potent source of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an exceptionally ruthless regime. The error of leaving Saddam Hussein in power has persisted for one decade only; the other error--neglecting our natural allies in the Middle East--has lasted much longer. One could make the argument that moderate monarchy is the most decent available alternative in much of the Arab world. One could point to the phenomenon of "one man, one vote, one time", and suspect the consequences of introducing democratic forms into societies not inured to democratic habits of the heart. One could argue, as well, that (as in the case of the Iran-Iraq War) there has been little to choose politically between the two sides. By and large, however, American statesmen, and those who have advised them, have inclined rather to ignore the issue or dismiss it. Perhaps in Europe or even Asia the development of clean and reasonably free political institutions was a goal of American policy. In the Middle East, however, a combination of clientilitis, realpolitik and cultural condescension meant that there was no interest in (to take just one example) the courage of a Naguib Mahfouz as a spokesman for values that Americans share. The height, or rather the depth, of this short-sightedness can be found in the eagerness of both Republican and Democratic administrations to deal with a Palestinian Authority dominated by a corrupt and brutal clique. After thirty years of Israeli occupation, and in part because of it, Palestinian society has evolved a relatively well-educated civil society and an awareness of what democratic norms mean. Yet in all the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel neither the Americans nor the Israelis have much cared what that civil society could and should become. Yasir Arafat was the man who could deliver his people and state-in-making, and there was no point in being squeamish about his methods. Indeed, most American and Israeli politicians and bureaucrats preferred having a corrupt thug on the other side of the negotiating table because they were more concerned about his capacity to "deliver" than they were about what he could, or would, deliver. Israel is now paying a price for its lack of interest in the health of Palestinian civil society. To the extent that American leaders close their eyes to the realities of the sick and thwarted societies of the Arab and, in parts, of the larger Muslim world, they will fail to understand the essential nature of the war in which they find themselves engaged. Where Will the Conflict Go? The United States does not deserve the bulk of the blame for the sorrowful conditions of the Middle East: that rests primarily upon that region's own leaders and circumstances. The failures of American (and more broadly, Western) policy in the 20th century, however, coupled with the deeper troubles of a civilization that has not yet come to terms with modernity, has created an international system of exceptional volatility. This war, unlike most others, has the potential to take new and dangerous forms with great speed and little warning. Conceivably, of course, everything could break the West's way. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan could disintegrate and special forces units or aircraft tipped off by intelligence could eliminate Osama bin Laden and his key associates. The rage of the Arab street has always been a mercurial phenomenon; it could subside under a demonstration of American technical virtuosity, amplified by the power of conspiratorial paranoia that pervades both elite and mass thinking in the Arab world. The moderate but repressive regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt could choose a path toward reform, and, under astute American guidance and pressure, the Palestinian-Israeli dispute could give way to a new modus vivendi, if not a genuine peace. Such, at least, one may hope. The chances for such outcomes are not great, but the United States should be poised to exploit a lucky set of successes just as it should be prepared to cope with new waves of terror. Unfortunately, it is more likely that a quick or easy victory (a far from certain outcome) would not lead to any change in the behavior of states whose internal corruption has led so many of their citizens to choose fanatical faith. It is more likely that the stresses of this conflict will bring some regimes we call moderate to the breaking point. If Osama bin Laden can command the allegiance of millions of Muslims, he may well be able to throw counterpunches capable of wrecking states and broadening the levels of violence that have already bred deadly riots even in remote Kano, Nigeria. That the war will persist at home is certain. It may involve further large-scale losses of life, and almost certainly an erosion of Americans' carefree way of life. This has been a conflict made possible by cheap and easy international communications, by television, telephone, the Internet and even the U.S. Postal Service. The responses will similarly tap the information revolution: Americans have just begun to see the expansion of surveillance and monitoring that will include an ever greater pooling of security data in the hands of government. It is difficult to imagine, however, no matter what further assaults await us, that the fundamental institutions of this country will suffer radical or lasting damage. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; Wilson allowed a draconian stifling of dissent; Roosevelt imposed press censorship; Truman and Eisenhower presided over a system of loyalty oaths--but none of these lasted and none left our civil liberties permanently altered. The remarkable resilience and calm of the American people is, possibly, the least noticed feature of this crisis. There have been no riots, no breakdown of law and order, no pogroms against Arab or Muslim Americans, no fits of public hysteria. This is war, we should remember, waged by organizations and mobs that are alienated, frustrated and failed losers against the successful and wealthy societies of winners. We are the latter, and for good reason. Abroad, however, the possibilities are far more dire. Four possibilities at least deserve consideration: massive violence in South Asia; the collapse of an allied Arab state; the exploitation of the crisis by others; and metastasized terrorism on a global scale. For the moment, the Pakistani government looks secure; the degree of anger and hostility on the Pakistani street, however, and the inherent fragility of that state, may bring down the military regime of Pervez Musharraf. Should that happen, America would not only lose access to Afghanistan from the south, but a small trove of nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. Communal violence on a scale not seen on the subcontinent since partition could ensue as well. It is difficult to imagine that India could tolerate anarchy or a Taliban-type regime on its frontier, particularly after the nuclearization of Pakistan. Norcould Indian society--which has seen appalling amounts of intra-ethnic violence in recent years--escape the consequences of radical Islam in a neighboring society. The degree of bloodshed could be truly horrific; violence directed at tens of millions of civilians and, quite conceivably, the use of one or more nuclear weapons in anger for the first time since Nagasaki. At the moment, the Saudi and Egyptian regimes look solid, but so did the government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1978. In the nature of things, we will discover only too late the extent of rot in the security and military services of those countries; revolution is, by definition, always a surprise to the ancien régime. In these and other cases, an Islamist revolution would probably be accompanied by scenes of chaos and disorder, and in all cases the temptation for a new and shaky government to escape domestic discontents by joining a jihad against infidels. This would be particularly true if such acts could be directed against Israel. One could imagine, for example, the Egyptians announcing a militarization of the Sinai peninsula, or the Saudis firing one of their long range Chinese-made missiles at Israel. Either event would be certain to evoke a violent and dramatic Israeli response. For Israel, the stakes could soon approach life and death, and the fear of appearing weak would surely trump any plea by the United States for restraint. Most Israelis, across the political spectrum, believe that their precipitous withdrawal from Lebanon encouraged the Palestinian Authority (which interpreted it as a sign of weakness) to launch a small war, commonly mislabeled as a second intifada. Once again, the use of nuclear weapons, initially to demonstrate intent, cannot be ruled out. Other states may attempt to exploit the current crisis and thus inadvertently widen the war. Saddam, for example, seeing an opportunity to break loose from a U.S.-led encirclement, might attempt to provoke Israel with a few more missile shots at Tel Aviv. China might use the opportunity to resolve the Taiwan issue by threats or even

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