Despite some absurdly bellicose rhetoric and impossible goals I don’t know many people who think terrorism and evil can be wiped out once and for all U.S. leaders have so far moved with a certain amount of deftness in the wake of the September 11 atrocities. But while some sort of military or paramilitary action is probably inevitable in the coming months or years, it might be useful to come up with a different word than war to describe what this country is about to undertake.
A war on terrorism? Terrorism is a tactic. It’s intellectually incoherent to declare war on a tactic. A war requires enemies, preferably of the nation-state variety, along with a set of objectives to define victory and an exit strategy once the objectives have been achieved. One might argue that Osama bin Laden’s organization (assuming it really is responsible for the attacks) is something of a quasi-state in that it relies on force and belief to sustain itself and uses force and terror to get its way. But it’s not quite the same as a state and it will have to be countered in a different way.
I’ll leave "permanent war for permanent peace" to those who thought George Orwell’s dystopian vision in "1984" was a Jim-dandy way to run a society. At least the administration abandoned the code name "Operation Infinite Justice." But whoever came up with that grandiose tribute to arrogance should be sent to an agricultural station in Guam.
SEEKING BETTER DESCRIPTIONS
"Campaign," which some leaders have used, might not be a bad term. "Long-term-struggle" might work. "Project" might be accurate but it doesn’t exactly make people stand at attention and salute. "Protracted struggle?" "Long twilight struggle?" I’m not sure what the proper term might be, and I’m trying to start discussions here, not end them.
But "war" is an unfortunate concept that brings with it unfortunate consequences, from self-righteousness and calls for a bogus unity on the part of leaders to justification of mass slaughter to loss of liberty. And a war won’t work against this particular problem, although certain essentially military actions might be called for.
If the goal understanding, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remarked that it’s unlikely we can change human nature in a fortnight is to minimize or reduce terrorism by changing the conditions that breed it, we need to be prepared to discuss some aspects of American policy that contribute to creating terrorists. I don’t think the creation of terrorists is an intended consequence, but it’s usually the unintended consequences that come back to bite you.
A LITTLE SELF-HELP
Some things we can begin to do for ourselves. Radio talk show host Lowell Ponte has argued that decentralization is not only the way a lot of Americans prefer to live, it is something of a defense against certain kinds of terrorism. His column appears on www.frontpagemagazine.com. He did a rather nice one last week, analyzing Osama bin Laden’s place in the history of Islam and other topics.
So resist centralizing initiatives in most instances to minimize attractive targets.
AVOIDING UNNECESSARY ENEMIES
Other ideas will be more controversial. In a paper done for the Cato Institute some three years ago, defense policy studies director Ivan Eland notes that a 1997 study by the National Defense Panel on the importance of homeland defense "notes that historical data show a strong correlation between US involvement in international situations and terrorist attacks against the United States."
You don’t have to be a conspiratorialist or an America-hater to recognize that the more we meddle in quarrels that are irrelevant or marginal to our core national interests, the more terrorist incidents we are likely to experience. (The Cato main page features several thoughtful discussions of terrorism past and present.)
Eland doesn’t call for complete American withdrawal from overseas involvement. He thinks it is appropriate for the US to be ready for "safeguarding US trade on the high seas and intervening in Western Europe or East Asia as a ‘balancer of last resort.’" But he argues that interventions in places like Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and to some extent in the Middle East and, I would add, more recently Kosovo vitiate American power and create unnecessary enemies.
"The United States should openly declare what limited set of interests it considers vital instead of deliberately remaining vague in the vain hope that ambiguity will deter all aggressive adversaries everywhere," Eland writes. He views the prescription not as appeasement but as common sense.
So if we’re serious about a long-term strategy to deter or reduce terrorism, some changes in U.S. foreign policy should at least be on the table for serious discussion.
DRUGS AND TERRORIST FINANCING
Another major policy reorientation that should be up for discussion is the drug war. It has been known for some time that many terrorist groups, including the KLA in Kosovo, and guerrillas in Colombia, finance much of their activity through illicit drug trafficking. In a recent article, Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen in Canada summarizes much of the more academic work that has been done on the topic in readily accessible form.
Gardner interviewed John Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute, a Canadian think tank that studies terrorism and organized crime. Thompson noted that it used to be mainly nation-states, like the former Soviet Union, that financed and sponsored terrorist activities. "But as the Soviet Union weakened in the 1980s, more and more insurgent groups, terrorist groups, started to resort to organized criminal activities to pay their bills," Thompson told Gardner.
Now there are still some state sponsors left, though most try to hide their activities. And a few wealthy individuals like Osama bin Laden finance terrorist activities and groups. But for the most part, Thompson said, "The big money earner for most of them seems to be narcotics. And as early as 1994 Interpol’s chief drugs officer, Iqbal Hussain Rizvi, said that "drugs have taken over as the chief means of financing terrorism."
PROHIBITION FEEDS TERRORISM
Drugs are as profitable as they are almost entirely because of prohibition. If we’re serious about reducing terrorism, or at least reducing the resources terrorists have available for their dastardly activities, we need to think about de-profitizing the drugs trade by ending drug prohibition, or at least substantially altering the way the government approaches the many aspects of drug use.
It isn’t just the money that drives terrorists and drug traffickers into one another’s arms. Terrorists and drug traffickers have similar needs untraceable cash, weapons, safe hiding places, secure infiltration routes, ruthless associates who have little incentive to help authorities and thus have been and are natural allies.
If terrorism is to be the main focus of the Bush administration’s attention for the next few years, it is reasonable to argue that resources devoted to the drug war should be reoriented toward the main goal, as Steve Trinward has argued in a recent issue of SierraTimes. And the national debate on drug decriminalization, which would carry myriad benefits in the realms of restoration of freedom, reduction of corruption, sensible priorities in law enforcement and reduction of violent crime, should be intensified.
Decriminalize drugs to fight terrorism? It might be the single most effective step that could be taken.
KEEPING OUR FREEDOM
If the goal is to reduce terrorism understanding that there is no utopia on this earth and complete elimination is unlikely to be in the cards these and other policy proposals need to be on the table. If the real goal is to increase state power and government control over our lives, of course, discussion of the full range of conditions and incentives that feed terrorism will be resisted.
Free societies in which most people most of the time are able to move around pretty much at will and have commerce with whatever partners are willing will always be vulnerable to terrorist thugs. As we should have learned from the failure of the Soviet Union, however, free societies also have qualities of resiliency and flexibility that promote long-term stability and remarkable staying power. Looking at immigration patterns, it seems free societies are attractive to a wide range of people born into a staggering array of cultures.
That very fact that freedom is so attractive to so many human beings is one of the reasons terrorists who long to impose their narrow views on others by force find America so threatening. We shouldn’t give up the freedoms that have made this country such a beacon to liberty lovers the world over especially given the strong likelihood that while expanding freedom might still feed resentment, it could make it more difficult to recruit people willing and able to commit unspeakable crimes.