Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The War on Terrorism

Peter has enjoined us to not dispute today how we make war on our enemies but he has also advised us that our proper anger be directed into trying to prevent a recurrence of an attack such as that we suffered on 9/11. It seems to me that there is an opening between the injunction and the advice and I will pass through it to post the following.

Eric Claeys recommends below that we read both Podhoretz and Codevilla to understand the war on terrorism. He should add Helprin, also in the Claremont Review, to the list because all three authors agree on the same fundamental and mistaken point. All three believe that states are at the core of the war on terrorism.

The attack on 9/11 did not require state support. In the future, if not already, devastating attacks on the United States with weapons of mass destruction will be possible without state support. Donations, the principle way al Qaeda financed itself, or the drug trade, which finances many terrorist groups, supply more than enough financial resources. The principal arguments and advice offered by Podhoretz, Codevilla and Helprin are irrelevant to the real fight. They are the rhetorical equivalent of ceremonial cannon fire.

To a degree that neither Codevilla nor Helprin will admit, the Bush administration’s strategy also assumes that destroying states will destroy terrorism. The Bush administration’s approach makes sense only to the degree that destroying regimes leads to democracy and democracy leads to an end to terrorism. The connections here are so uncertain in general and with regard to Islamist terrorism in particular that the administration’s strategy must be considered a gamble of historic proportions. To say the least, it is not the only way the war could be fought.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Could you follow up on this? What way do you think it should be carried out?

I think part of the longer term goal of establishing democracy (what Podheretz talks about) is not just to affect the state leaders but also to initiate social change, such that there would be less support from the populace. This may be a virtuous change, wherein they condemn and renounce this repugnant violence, or, what may be more likely, is a ’decadent’ change as well, wherein the people (or at least the youthful ’sons of pride’) are more concerned with material life, not with carrying out suicide attacks.

The "realist" approach of destroying unfriendly states might motivate the thugocracies into clamping down on terrorism in their states (or at least make every effort to appear to do so so), but that’s not going to change any values or support from the populace.

In that sense, the regime change (not just changing one thug for another - same regime, different leader) addresses the issue of non-state sponsored terrorism, but the problem is that it may be overly idealistic and too much of a gamble.

What do you have in mind by means of a 3rd way (or 4th,...) of dealing with this threat?

I think Tucker has put his finger on the ultimate nightmare scenario, which may be far more likely than we want to admit--certainly than our political leaders want to admit even as critics like Helprin and Codevilla rail against them as a way of distracting themselves from some terrible realities and prospects that may well not be under our or our leaders’ control.

Even if we get rid of all the world’s rogue nuclear or would-be nuclear states (e.g., North Korea, Iran, and let’s not forget our "ally" [sic] Pakistan), there will still be enough nuclear material available for theft and smuggling to make building a dirty bomb or maybe even a suitcase nuke a feasible proposition for any number of terrorist groups.

The former USSR alone has dozens of portable nuclear generators lying around remote areas where these devices once powered small navigational beacons for Soviet submarine forces. Each beacon is about as big as your home water heater and contains a flashlight-sized hunk of Cesium or Strontium-90 that is big enough to form the core of a very nasty radiological bomb.

Suppose we democratize the Middle East and/or get most "bad-actor" regimes like the Saudis to crack down on instead of play double games with their homegrown terrorists. Even then some will slip through the cracks and some crazed "sons of pride" will remain.

There will always be residues of people even in stable and democratic lands who for one reason or another will feel intensely disgruntled by modernity or the end of historyor whatever else you want to call it.

Terrorism will always be attractive to some people of this sort precisely because it is such a perfect "weapon of the weak" by means of which small knots of angry irreconcilables can gain "voice" all out of proportion to their numbers.

Even a high-functioning democracy will have people of this stripe in it (remember Tim McVeigh?).

I suspect Tucker is right: The arguments about "large-scale" issues of democratization, regional policy, etc., may be irrelevant. The whole 9/11 plot took less than a million dollars (chicken feed to any number of Saudi princes) and the efforts of only a few dozen people over several years. The sobering fact is that you don’t need a mass movement to mount a lethally effective terror attack.

Since the end of the Cold War, mass violence has slipped outside the control of nation-states. Converging with that process and heightening its dangers is the technological fact of more accessible and portable WMDs. If we were still living in the dynamite age, terrorism would be no more than a nuisance. But we’re living in the nuclear/chemical/germ age instead, and there is the awful rub.

The other horrible question hanging over all this is: What can or will we do if we get hit by WMDs? Will we even be able to trace the source of the materials used? Three years later, FBI is still trying to figure out who mailed the anthrax--is someone testing us?

What if we can trace the WMD materials and we find out that they were stolen from Russia or Pakistan or a number of other countries with civilian nuclear industries by a cobwebby, stateless terror group with no fixed address and members from and murky ties to a dozen or more countries? What if we find further that they these materials were smuggled across whole a bunch of international borders before they reached our shores?

If I were an international terrorist bent on mounting difficult-to-answer WMD strikes against the US, I’d try to be as diffuse as possible in my sourcing, membership, and movements, precisely to muddy up the waters and preemptively baffle and complexify any American riposte.

In such a hazy scenario, what rational and proportionate response options will we have? What would a WMD strike or strikes on and around DC do to our national intel and response capabilities?

And if we can’t frame a targeted and proportionate response, what will the fearsome "demonstration effect" of that first WMD strike be? Once all our enemies around the world see that you can waste an American city and leave Uncle Sam floundering to respond, we may be a in true Armageddon-type situation where we have no choice but to incinerate whole societies merely on suspicion (our sub fleet alone could do that terrible work in a few hours) or else resign ourselves to stand by helplessly and wait for a second, a third, a fourth, and so on "WMD sack of Rome" and the new Dark Age that will follow.

BTW, Helprin does suggest steps that could help make a WMD attack easier to stop, whereas Codevilla doesn’t even bother and seems to view even the notion of defensive homeland security as a joke. On that ground alone I find Helprin a better counselor, and I think it marks a difference between the two men that Tucker should acknowledge.

To prevent 9-11s:

(1) Admit to ourselves that commerce and travel have largely eliminated the utility of a single country’s borders, and limited government means commerce alone (globalization) will incite the frustrated (note that if just the U.S. border was enforced, it would be such a large and unequal tax on U.S. trade that our own quality-of-life would certainly fall behind all other countries that do not labor under the same burden.) (2) Which really means that everyone is now our next-door neighbor. So, why don’t we worry about the house next-door firing a mortar in our direction? Not because of mortar control laws (or self-protecting SUVs that won’t allow a mortar barrel to be set up and fired out the sun roof), but because (3) we have a civil society with a rational expectation of good behavior with punishment that removes and deters the miscreants. And, given the ever increasing availability of very destructive materials, and the every decreasing expertise required to assemble and use them to create mass havoc (if not mass destruction), we have no alternative (as the oldest boy on the play-ground) but to (5) demand civil society everywhere (as Gaddis writes, a "Jeffersonian foreign policy").

All of which leads to us having a number of non-negotiable demands under the heading of "you’re either with us or against us" including (6) "You’re cooperative and transparent in the policing of your borders, including flows of people, things, money, and communications, and especially WMD." (7) "we will all trust but verify" - meaning open skies, no more denied areas, no more denial-and-deception. "Or else." And (8) "our mutual interest in civilization’s survival requires individual and community frustrations to be vented at a ballot box, as well as a civil-society where rights of the minorities are protected, not through force-of-arms, intimidation, or terrorism."

Where a mix of sticks and carrots will be used to motivate these changes. Remember that punitive offense that deposes leadership is much cheaper than any alternative (consider the difference in safety and costs of living in NYC between David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani). We (the U.S.) are fortunate because we’re rich enough to do this with a minimum of additional harm to the non-combatants (ie. we attempt to help a country back up onto its feet, vs just emptying the chairs and saying "good luck, we’ll be back in six months if we need to delouse again.").

Civilization has always fought with the humanity it could afford, and we may not be able to always be so gentle (i.e. we have bled all over the world for our friends, and we even bleed to minimize the casualties of our enemies). At the moment our leaders appear to think we’re rich enough (or the long term return will outweigh the debt incurred) to take a given "country of concern" and nurse it towards its own path to democracy and self-rule (vs frequent delousing and its costs to non-combatants). Why democracy vs "just" delousing repeatedly? Perhaps because we idealists and we can. Or perhaps a Rumsfeld-type has done the calculation and determined it’s actually less expensive to do the hand-holding, and they think they know how to succeed without it corrupting into welfare (i.e. the difference between dependency/victimhood and the increasing acceptance of the importance of individual responsibility that drove the 90s restructuring of the U.S. welfare system).

A discussion for another day is the appropriate role of the federal government, and how governance should be as close to the governed as possible (for cost, corruption, and survivability reasons). Certainly the only job the federal government MUST do itself is insure our safety from those outside this country that would do us harm. Just about everything else can be done closer to the citizen, and/or by the market. With this in mind, I’d expect the defense of the U.S. to be similar to property insurance. Where the yearly premium is, say, 1% of the NPV of the assets being insured. For the U.S. that’s about a 1T$ yearly premium. Where we should expect ~89% spent on punitive offense (especially in a time of apocalyptic extremists, ie. there’s no hope of negotiation, similar to several situations in WW2), 10% (100B$) to go into "intelligence" (the only actual defense that works, by defining the targets for punitive offense), and 1% (10B$) into "homeland defense" - which establishes palliatives (if not placebos) for citizens’ anxieties (because humans have a very hard time differentiating risk from anxiety). i.e. given the Moore’s-law-driven destructive power available to ever-fewer bad-actors (exceeding what nation states could do less than a century ago), it makes no sense to armor the tops of homes and buildings from some disaffected group firing mortars out the sun-roof an SUV. Nor can we search every SUV, nor remove mortars from the world, nor hold building owners or SUV builders responsible for threats that did not exist 20 years ago.

The afternoon of 9/11/01, I declared that I no longer cared if others loved us, I didn’t even care if they did not respect us, but I insist that they fear us.
Bandits must never again be allowed to hide behind sovreignty. A nation that shelters terrorists must never again be allowed the privileges of nationhood. Quarantine their asses, cut them off from commerce, make them rot in their own shit until they become civilized.

MV: see "After a Year of the War on Terror, Time for a New Strategy,
Editorial, September 2002" on the Ashbrook web page for my description of an alternative strategy.

PJC: I am happy to acknowledge the difference between Helprin and Codevilla that you mention.

Thank you, Dr. Tucker.

To follow up on what I said about those Soviet-era devices (technically known as Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs) that could provide sources for dirty bombs, here’s a background-info link:

According to the article, 134 of these things have been built and used in the US over the decades, and only 47 are currently accounted for. The former USSR is thought to have more than 1,000 still out there today.

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