What War Means
Mini Teaser: What War MeansDimitri K.
What War Means
Dimitri K. Simes
The tragic terrorist attacks of September 11 are likely to have aprofound impact on American policy at home and abroad, not tomention on the American way of life. However, it is less thancertain that September 11 will truly become a transformationalevent with enduring consequences. Much depends on subsequentdevelopments, such as possible new terrorist attacks against theUnited States and the duration and relative success of the war onterrorism. Nevertheless, to ensure that September 11 has theappropriate impact on America, we have to be honest with ourselvesin assessing what went wrong. The purpose of such honesty is not tojustify the unjustifiable, to develop sympathy for our enemies, orto blame America for its own victimization. On the contrary, ourgoal in evaluating the past must be to ensure that it is we whowill shape the future.
A process of intense introspection is clearly in order, and severalquestions must be answered. At the broadest level, how could theUnited States have fallen so far, so quickly? In the space of onelate summer morning, Americans were forced to move from celebratingU.S. global political, military and economic pre-eminence and theadvancing triumph of democracy worldwide, to confronting a shockingvulnerability. More narrowly, how could 19 terrorists havepenetrated four layers of defenses designed to protect U.S.citizens-by receiving visas, organizing a substantial conspiracyundetected from within America, carrying crude but deadly weaponsthrough airport security, and seizing control of four hugepassenger jets? And what could motivate people to sacrifice theirlives to kill Americans? How could they have been unaffected byliving among us? How could they have failed to develop any empathyfor their future victims, to say nothing of some level ofidentification with the American people?
Rigorous, honest self-examination is not easy. Yet we must behonest with ourselves in understanding the complexities behind theattacks. It is emotionally satisfying to reduce the problem to oneof "right vs. wrong", as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Ricehas done. It is politically appealing to suggest that September 11represented an attack on the innocent citizens of eighty nationsrather than an attack on America-that the tragedy merely happenedto take place on American soil-as President Bush has said. Butthese answers are intellectually inadequate. While it is true thatOsama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network hate modern Westerncivilization, there is little doubt that they view America as themain obstacle to their objectives and therefore as their principaltarget. Bin Laden and his network were certainly prepared toinflict "collateral damage" on eighty countries, but the goal ofthe operation was to strike at the United States. Nineteenterrorists were willing to commit suicide to fulfill that mission.And the organization behind them was willing to risk devastatingretaliation in waging a war against the United States that it haddeclared publicly several years ago.
It well serves American purposes for the Bush Administration toframe the events of September 11 as an attack on eighty rather thanan attack on one at a time when Washington is attempting toassemble a broad international coalition. But useful diplomaticrhetoric and patriotic flag-waving must not blind us toreality.
Who We Are, What We Do
The big, the powerful and the wealthy are always resented to someextent, and America's essential defense of its interests-includingsupport for Israel and for moderate Arab states-could not but causesome hostility. But it is also clear that the propensity of thefirst truly post-Cold War U.S. administration for global socialwork-whether through diplomatic pressure, sanctions or occasionalcruise missile attacks-contributed to a worldwide backlash. TheClinton Administration explained growing anti-Americanism with anew theory: some hidebound foreigners resent America regardless ofwhat it does, because it is the most powerful nation committed toliberal democracy and free markets. This self-serving approach tothe problem of anti-Americanism allowed the administration toportray its efforts at nation-building and its intervention inother states' internal political disputes as relatively cost-free;the United States would have to shoulder only the modest expensesof the operations themselves, not the burdens of their largerconsequences.
Though this theory was eventually elevated to the status ofconventional wisdom among much of the country's foreign policyelite, it is demonstrably false. The entire history of terrorismcontradicts the notion that abstract issues of political philosophyare, by themselves, sufficient to trigger violent attacks. This hascertainly not been the case in Israel, where there is a clearconnection between terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor hasit been the case with respect to terrorist attacks in India, SriLanka, Russia, Spain or the United Kingdom, where particular ethnicor religious groups seek independence or even union with aneighboring country. Terrorism in Colombia and the Philippines hasbeen a product of rebel groups with very specific agendas, as hasterrorism by Islamist extremists in Algeria and Uzbekistan. Thefoiled plot to hijack a French airliner and use it to destroy theEiffel Tower was connected to France's relationship with theAlgerian government and the latter's war on domestic Islamistextremists. America's own experience with Middle East terrorism inthe 1980s was triggered by Palestinian anger at the United Statesfor its strong support of Israel and similar anger among LebaneseShi'a and their Iranian and Syrian sponsors over the U.S. role inLebanon's civil war.
Why should Al-Qaeda be any different? Al-Qaeda may have originatedin the Wahhabi branch of radical Islam-which rejects Westerncivilization-but it has not attacked targets in the Western worldat random. Nor has it concentrated its efforts against the mostsecular and permissive Western nations, which are in Europe, notNorth America.
On the contrary, bin Laden's terrorist network has been obsessivelyfocused on the United States. The reason is that specific U.S.policies are unacceptable to Al-Qaeda and threaten its perceivedcore interests and beliefs. First, bin Laden is clearly outraged atthe American military presence in Saudi Arabia, the site of Islam'smost holy sites. Second, and in practical terms perhaps mostimportant, he deeply resents American support for moderate Arabregimes, some of which, such as Egypt and Jordan, have cracked downon fellow radical Islamists. Finally, bin Laden opposes America'srole in the Arab-Israeli dispute. While this final issue may be lowon his list of priorities, and appears to be a relatively recentaddition to the list, there is no question that television imagesof wounded and dead Palestinians enrage radical Muslims and inspiremany to fight the United States.
This is not to say that the United States has been wrong to protectKuwait, to establish military bases in Saudi Arabia, to supportregional leaders such as Egypt's Anwar el-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak,or to support Israel, which is both the only true democracy in theregion and a key ally. But we should not pretend that there are noconsequences to the determined pursuit of U.S. national interests.The notion that particular U.S. policies and actions could havepainful consequences may contradict America's post-Cold Wartriumphalism, but no law of history says that good deeds gounpunished.
As the American public lost interest in international affairs inthe 1990s, narrow elites and special interest groups won increasinginfluence over U.S. foreign policy decision-making. Many suchgroups seemed to argue that commendable objectives-at least as theysaw those objectives-could be pursued at almost no cost because oftheir inherent virtue. Meanwhile, those who called for a morerealistic definition of American national interests, for theestablishment of priorities, or for difficult choices amongconflicting goals, were accused of indifference to American valuesby those parading their purportedly superior morality. Former HouseSpeaker Newt Gingrich once described himself as a "cheap hawk" tosignify that he was a hawk who nevertheless wanted to spend less ondefense. By the mid-1990s, "cheap moralists" joined the "cheaphawks" as principal architects of U.S. foreign policy.
The origin and shocking success of the September 11 attacks deriveprecisely from this fundamental contradiction between Americanpolicy, on one hand, and our national self-image on the other. Thecombination of what is perceived as hegemonic conduct abroad with aremarkable laxity in defending the U.S. homeland (with the notablebut insufficient exception of predominant U.S. military power) wasa prescription for disaster. Of course, in the absence ofintelligence information, no one could have predicted a terroristuse of commercial jets as weapons of mass destruction with suchdevastating success. But anyone who watched the United States danceon a global minefield during the Clinton Administration could haveseen that an explosion was in store.
The Clinton Legacy
One feckless military intervention followed another in the Clintonyears. Yet U.S. military power was used not against those whothreatened America or attacked its allies; instead, it was deployedagainst those whose practices we found disagreeable. In Somalia,for example, the Clinton team escalated America's involvement fromprotecting United Nations humanitarian aid to the destruction of aparticular warlord and an effort at nation-building. The result wasthe loss of American lives and a humiliating withdrawal. In Haiti,the United States invaded an island ruled by a corrupt andrepressive but basically friendly junta in order to restore powerto a corrupt and repressive left-wing priest. That priest, by theway, re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba immediately beforeleaving office, as if to tell Washington what he really thought ofits help.
In Bosnia, the United States eventually facilitated NATOintervention to protect the region's Muslims. The Muslims couldhave been protected more effectively, however, if theadministration had sought the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina-whichhad no history as an independent state-into three ethnicallyhomogeneous entities. This solution was clearly preferred by theSerbs and Croats, the majority of the republic's population, andresisted only by the Muslims, who, being a plurality of thepopulation, accordingly expected to dominate the government of anyunitary state. Despite this, the Clinton Administration rejectedthe Vance-Owen plan and all other proposals that could have endedthe civil war quickly and saved lives. The administration justifiedits position by arguing that it did not want to "reward Serbianaggression." Nevertheless, it never adequately explained why it waspermissible for Bosnia to withdraw from Yugoslavia, butimpermissible for the Respublika Srpska to secede fromBosnia.
In the case of Kosovo, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright-theadministration's principal champion of promiscuousnation-building-allowed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), earlierdescribed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, tomanipulate the United States into supporting an Albanian rebellion.In Paris, the Clinton Administration issued an unrealisticultimatum to Slobodan Milosevic, demanding that NATO troops begranted free passage and portage rights in Serbia proper, whichguaranteed a NATO-Serbia conflict. Widespread killings of Albaniancivilians did take place, but only after the newly energized KLAstepped up its activities, provoking a predictably brutal responsethat led NATO to announce plans to attack Serbia.
In addition to angering those on the receiving end of itscruise-missile diplomacy, the Clinton Administration successfullyalienated a number of important countries, including China andRussia, in the process. The Clinton team's response to itsinadvertent attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was cavalierin this context. Washington seemed unable to understand why theChinese were not satisfied with the explanation that the strike wasaccidental. At the same time, the U.S. media portrayed thewidespread indignation among Chinese students as totallyunprovoked. The best way to assess the Chinese reaction to thisincident may be to imagine the U.S. response had Chinaunintentionally bombed the American embassy in a relativelyfriendly country-Thailand, for example-during a bombing campaignthat proceeded over U.S. objections and without approval from theUnited Nations Security Council. In such a context, would we viewsuch an act as a simple accident?
Interestingly, in the one instance during its tenure in whichgenocide was unquestionably taking place, in Rwanda, the ClintonAdministration did worse than nothing, for it retarded the effortsof others to extend assistance. Rwanda was too far away, was not afeature of nightly news reports, and lacked a domestic constituencyin the United States.
Sanctions of various types also became a weapon of choice in U.S.foreign policy during the Clinton Administration, though theRepublican-controlled Congress-eager to make statements aboutforeign policy, but limited in its ability to shape it-also sharesresponsibility for this development. Between 1993 and 1998 alone,the United States imposed sanctions 61 times-out of a total of 125cases since World War I. Sanctions eventually targeted 75 countriesand some 42 percent of the world's population for reasons rangingfrom support for terrorism, proliferation of weapons of massdestruction or other sensitive technologies, to concerns over humanrights and the environment and even the mislabeling of tuna. Whileunilateral U.S. sanctions were described by one study as effectivein only 13 percent of cases, they were hugely successful ingenerating animosity toward the United States on the part ofgovernments and peoples around the world.
While not everyone who resents the United States is able andwilling to resort to terrorism against America, the ClintonAdministration acted as if the targets of its diplomacy of forcehad no means of retaliation. However, as history has shown,terrorism is the retaliatory weapon of choice among the weak. Yetthe Clintonites never made the struggle against terrorism a realforeign policy priority-even after the 1993 World Trade Centerbombing, which was quickly determined to have had the same ultimateobjective as the subsequent successful attack on the Twin Towers.The Clinton Administration did not make tolerance of and financialsupport for Wahhabi extremists a focal point in its discussionswith Saudi Arabia or Egypt. With respect to Pakistan, the UnitedStates concentrated its efforts on trying to dissuade Islamabadfrom developing nuclear weapons-something virtually inevitableafter its rival India had already done so. Instead, it should havebeen encouraging Pakistan to force Afghanistan's Taliban regime toend its support for bin Laden, a goal that was more important evenat that time, and certainly more achievable. The introduction ofsanctions against Pakistan in 1998 further limited Washington'sability to persuade Islamabad to put pressure on its Afghanclients.
During the 1990s, Moscow could also have been of help in dealingwith the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Russian troops were guardingthe Tajik-Afghan border and the Kremlin saw the Taliban as a threatto the stability of Central Asia as a whole. The Russian governmentalso claimed that a connection existed between bin Laden and atleast some groups of Chechen rebels, and called for cooperationwith the United States against Islamic extremism. All of this wascontemptuously dismissed by the Clinton Administration, which wasconvinced that Moscow merely sought to persuade the United Statesto turn a blind eye to Russian brutality in Chechnya and itsattempts to regain influence in the Caspian region. In 1999 and2000, the United States went so far as to discourage UzbekPresident Islam Karimov from working with Russia to help theNorthern Alliance.
The Clinton Administration's response to terrorist acts directedagainst others was deplorable both in its lack of understanding ofterrorism as a strategy and its lack of sympathy for victimizedsocieties. Despite an undeniable terrorist past, Yasir Arafatbecame a regular visitor to the White House, even as hisPalestinian Authority systematically disregarded its commitmentsunder the Oslo Accords. Similarly, Gerry Adams, leader of the SinnFein political wing of the murderous Irish Republican Army, wasalso received several times by President Clinton and treated as ifhis terrorist affiliations were no more than a minor blemish.
In the case of Chechnya, not only the Clinton Administration, butalso much of the Congress and the American political establishmentmore broadly, had no sympathy whatsoever for Russia's exposure toterrorism, even after bombings that leveled apartment buildings inMoscow and other cities. There were mitigating conditions: severalRussian liberals and media commentators argued that the explosionswere orchestrated by the Russian security services to justify thenew intervention in Chechnya, and to create a climate in whichBoris Yeltsin's hand-picked successor-former KGB Lt. ColonelVladimir Putin-would be more likely to be elected president.Strange circumstances surrounding the discovery of what seemed tobe explosives in a Ryazan apartment complex only added to theuncertainty.
Yet Chechnya was for all practical purposes an independent countryfrom 1996 to 1999. During that period, it became a lawless regionruled by warlords where the kidnapping and murder ofcivilians-including foreign aid workers-were common. What passedfor a legal system was based on Taliban-style sharia courts. In1999, Chechen rebels invaded the Russian region of Dagestan andoccupied several villages. The group, which included Arab andAfghan volunteers, was led by the Jordanian "field commander"Ibn-ul Khattab, who did not hide his connections to Osama bin Ladenand Al-Qaeda.
Not only the Russian government, but also liberal politicianscritical of the Chechnya operation-such as Yabloko leader GrigoriiYavlinskii-asked the United States to share intelligence onfinancial support to the Chechens and to apply pressure to Georgiato prevent the rebels from finding sanctuary across the mountainousborder between Chechnya and Georgia. The United States refusedthese Russian pleas; serious cooperation against terrorism andOsama bin Laden was never given a chance.
Even if the United States had conducted a prudent foreign policy,acting assertively only on matters truly important to America'sfundamental interests and values, America's role as the solesuperpower would surely have generated some opposition. But theClinton Administration's arrogant intrusiveness in other countries'affairs could not but strengthen the backlash while simultaneouslyweakening America's ability to manage it. Despite this, and despitethe February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the August 1998embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the bombing of theU.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor in October 2000, the administrationcontinued to act as if the United States led a harmonious globalvillage full of people eager to accept American guidance. To theextent that serious threats were recognized, the United Statesseemed to assume that they could be addressed by its superiormilitary power. To genuine homeland security it threw some moneyand gave much lip service. It was not enough.
Since September 11, there has been much justifiable criticism ofU.S. domestic security practices-and, clearly, it goes well beyondthe frailties of the Clinton Administration. It has been known forsome time that visas are issued at American consulates by the mostjunior, and often least promising, Foreign Service officers.Moreover, because consular officers are overworked, foreignnationals employed by U.S. embassies in their home countriesconduct most interviews of visa seekers. Within America, theImmigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol havebeen widely viewed as over-stretched and underfunded for manyyears.
Airport and airline security was also known to be weak. Numerouscommission reports, spot inspections, and television exposéspointed out long before September 11 that airport security waseasily breached, that underpaid and poorly trained securityscreeners are frequently not American citizens, and that manyscreeners do not even have proper documentation to work in theUnited States. Particularly in the wake of the foiled plot to crashan airliner into the Eiffel Tower, it should have been evident thatairlines needed better on-board security procedures, strongercockpit doors and more air marshals to complicate the plans ofpotential hijackers.
At the broadest level, too, coordination and information sharingamong U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies was also knownto be insufficient. Many reviews of the 1993 attack on the WorldTrade Center and other studies had concluded as much, and offeredpracticable recommendations for improvement.
Ultimately, most of these individual problems can be traced to onefundamental source: lax administration of security efforts, abettedby societal attitudes that have downplayed its importance. Everyoneknew that America's borders were porous. But few were willing tocall for heightened scrutiny of those entering the United States,either as immigrants or visitors, in the prevailing climate ofpolitical correctness and the undifferentiated celebration ofethnic diversity. None of these problems could be properlyaddressed in a context where any important ethnic constituencycould complain that its members had been unfairly singled out.Criticism of profiling by police and other security agencies becameso intense that it became impossible for U.S. government agenciesto approach particular groups of visitors or immigrants withspecial vigilance. Such constraints remained essentially unchangedeven after investigations into the 1993 World Trade Center bombingmade clear that Islamic extremists driven out of the Middle Easthad begun to seek asylum in the United States in fairly largenumbers. Our permissiveness allowed some of them to use ourterritory to conspire not only against America's moderate friendsin the Middle East but against the United States itself.
Win the War
At this fateful juncture, evaluating our past shortcomings shouldhelp us to take purposeful action, some immediately, some in duecourse. The first order of business now, however, is to win thewar. Taking into account that our enemies have demonstrated bothbrutality and effectiveness-and that they are not a conventionalpower with which compromise might be possible if we desired it-theymust be destroyed. Further, time is of the essence. While there areobviously advantages to proceeding carefully, to building acoalition, and to avoiding collateral damage, these considerationsmust be measured against the overriding need to eliminate asquickly as possible a foe that has demonstrated the capability andthe willingness to kill thousands of Americans.
Similarly, these considerations must also be weighed against thedanger of appearing irresolute to not only our foes, but also ourfriends. There is little doubt that displays of strength will havea greater impact on our enemy-and in much of the Arab world, wheresympathy for America is limited and unlikely to increase-thandisplays of humanity. To some extent, the same is also true offriendly governments in the region, to whom the sense that Americawill follow through and do what is necessary to destroy its enemiesis at least as important as the visibility of our efforts toprotect the innocent.
There are, of course, both moral and practical reasons for theUnited States to make efforts to limit civilian casualties. But weshould not make the mistake of guaranteeing to our enemies that wewill pursue our objectives in a strictly calibrated fashion. TheUnited States should not be motivated by lust for revenge, but noless should we forget what has been done to us in striving toensure that it can never happen again. A visit to Ground Zero inNew York makes clear what is at stake.
The first principle of the American response to September 11 mustbe to recognize that we are at war, and to adopt a war-fightingmentality. The scale of the loss of life and destruction surelyjustifies this, as does the knowledge that our opponents declared"holy war" on the United States years ago. Clearly, adopting awar-fighting mentality bears several implications. Unlike criminalinvestigations, for example, war requires no evidence that aparticular bullet from a particular gun killed a particularindividual. It is difficult not to wonder whether the United Statesmight now be better off if it had struck immediately at Al-Qaedaterrorist training camps and Taliban headquarters and residencesbefore they were evacuated.
Another element of a war-fighting mentality is the fact that inwar, victory is the paramount objective. This applies both toconventional military attacks and to whatever response the UnitedStates may take if it is determined that the wave of anthrax-ladenletters directed at prominent individuals and institutionsoriginated abroad. In the latter case, it has always been the U.S.position that we would rule out nothing, including nuclear weapons,in responding to an attack on America with chemical or biologicalagents. While nuclear weapons should obviously be used as weaponsof last resort, and only against those whom we are convinced areour enemies, we should be ready to deploy them if we reach aninformed conclusion that a state has sponsored chemical orbiological attacks against the United States, or provided chemicalor biological weapons to terrorists who have done so. Governmentsfacilitating such attacks should not be allowed to hide behindtheir civilian populations any more than Nazi Germany and ImperialJapan were allowed to do so. While the United States should striveto limit innocent deaths to the extent possible, our war-fightingstrategy must be defined primarily by the need to prevail.
There is, however, another side to the coin of being prepared to besevere, and even ruthless, in dealing with adversaries. The UnitedStates also needs to be flexible, creative and realistic inestablishing its priorities and addressing seriously the unpleasantbut inevitable trade-offs that arise among conflicting policyobjectives. In a certain sense, it is fortunate the United Stateswas in this instance attacked for doing important things, such asprotecting Kuwait and Israel, rather than as a result of one oranother of the Clinton Administration's capricious militaryescapades. September 11 should be a powerful reminder topolicymakers to avoid exposing Americans to another major terroristattack on account of secondary or tertiary goals.
Similarly, given the priority of the present campaign againstinternational terrorism, it would be unwise to be too particularabout the motives of those ready to support America in thisstruggle. We ourselves have not been above hypocrisy in dealingwith terrorism; Presidents Clinton and Bush each coached Israel notto "overreact" to terrorism and to make deals with the PalestinianAuthority, which has harbored the terrorists attacking Israel.Though some such hypocrisy may be necessary if we are to includemoderate Arab states in a U.S. coalition against Islamic extremism,we should at a minimum avoid sounding too pure in passing judgmenton the motives and priorities of others.
If anything, the fact that leaders such as Russian PresidentVladimir Putin, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and PakistaniPresident Pervez Musharraf have been much more willing to supportthe United States than their respective populations should callinto question another pillar of conventional wisdom: thatdemocracies are invariably America's best friends. Mature andstable Western democracies that share our values are surely amongthose closest to the United States. But new and unstabledemocracies with different historical traditions, virtually nomiddle class and an underdeveloped or maimed civil society caneasily be subverted or captured by nationalists or extremists withdangerous consequences for themselves and others.
Russia is a case in point. It goes without saying that PresidentPutin has self-serving motives in supporting the U.S. campaignagainst Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, including encouraging a moreunderstanding U.S. attitude toward Russian policy aims in Chechnya.Yet, at no small political risk to himself, Mr. Putin seems to havemade a strategic decision to join the war on terrorism as America'sjunior partner. It is in America's interest to demonstrate toPresident Putin and to the Russian people that helping the UnitedStates is the right choice. This does not mean assisting Russianforces in Chechnya or abandoning the commitment to missile defense.What is required is a new understanding of Russia's concerns andpriorities-an understanding not so different from that which we aretypically prepared to offer to other important states, not least,say, Saudi Arabia. Those who demand immediate improvements inRussian human rights practices should ask themselves why they havenot made the same demands of Turkey, which has often dealt harshlywith its Kurdish minority and has suppressed some religiousfreedoms. Encouraging another state to act as a friend requires, ata minimum, not treating it as an adversary.
It has yet to be established whether the outcome of the warinflicted upon us will be a tougher and stricter America, morerealistic, more focused and more prepared to put an end to itssecurity permissiveness at home and its exhibitionist posturingabroad. America has reached a new moment of truth. While findingterrorist cells may be difficult, no nation that harbors them isoutside America's reach now that the end of the Cold War hasdeprived them of a superpower protector. Responding selectively butresolutely to September 11 will likely allow us to destroy ourenemies, enhance our global leadership and preserve thefundamentals of our way of life. America should not settle forless.