Reality-Based Recommendations

On September 11, 2001 the United States was attacked – assuming U.S. intelligence assessments and admissions/boastings by Osama bin Laden are correct – by an action arm of the kind of decentralized, stateless terror network that defines the most notable threat facing this country in the current era. It is a profound understatement to say that the United States has not redeployed its available forces to be able to counter this kind of threat in a manner appropriate to the nature of the threat.

Instead, our political leaders have chosen, for various reasons, to recast their perception of the threat in more familiar state-to-state confrontation terms, some specific to the Cold War era. To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail, and with the most advanced and capable military on the planet, U.S. leaders have chosen to see problems as amenable to solution through military force. Unfortunately, those decisions have done little to counter the real threat and may well have helped it to grow in virulence and effectiveness.

It is obvious to an increasing number of people that the invasion of Iraq has not only bogged the U.S. military down in what may or may not be a civil war, it was a profound strategic mistake. In his new book, “Winning the Un-War,” former Cato Institute and congressional military analyst (and columnist) Charles Peña includes an incisive chapter on the war that summarizes, with appropriate documentation and footnotes, the hollowness of the various justifications for the invasion. The war on Iraq has been an expensive and ineffective detour from the mission of neutralizing the terrorists who attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001. Some 130,000 troops are still tied up in that country, taking daily casualties, and the promise of a model democracy in the Middle East seems a distant dream.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and, while there has not been a subsequent attack in the United States, there have been terrorist attacks in Madrid, London, Morocco, Bali and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda appears to be still viable, Muslims living in Europe are increasingly restive, and anti-Americanism is growing around the world.

But Peña goes well beyond criticizing the war; his purpose is to outline a new strategy appropriate to the real threat or threats most currently abroad in the world. He seriously advances the discussion by outlining a strategy for confronting the real threat of al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups that still pose a serious danger to the United States.

He explains why al-Qaeda, as a stateless terrorist network rather than a hierarchical structure, poses challenges that the United States still doesn’t seem to know how to handle, perhaps because massed military power, at which the United States excels, is unlikely to be able to defeat an enemy that has no fixed base of operation, no capital and no land mass to invade. He sees al-Qaeda as a network of networks rather than a conventional organization.

His passage on basing national security strategy on whether other countries are democratic or not is worth quoting at some length: Noting that at least 20 countries in the world can be classified as undemocratic by a dictionary definition, he continues:

“Whether any of these countries is a threat to the United States, however, is not a function of whether they are democracies. It is true that almost all democratic governments in the world are friendly to the United States. But the fact that a military government rules Burma does not make that country a threat to America. Threats are defined by hostile intentions and military capability. And U.S. national security is based on being able to counter (either by deterring or defeating) direct threats. Thus, the litmus test is not whether a country meets U.S.-imposed criteria of democratic government, but whether it has hostile intentions and real military capability to threaten the United States directly.

“The Bush administration’s national security strategy correctly recognizes the threat posed by al-Qaeda: ‘Our priority will be first to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations of global reach and attack their leadership, command, control, and communications; material support and finances’ (al-Qaeda is the only such group to demonstrate global reach). But in many ways the guiding principle seems to be ‘to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients [which are not the same as ‘terrorist organizations of global reach’] before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.’ Clearly this was the administration’s rationale for its war against Iraq.”

However, “since al-Qaeda is not a client of a rogue state, focusing U.S. national security strategy on rogue states will not address the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda, Moreover, no evidence suggests that rogue states with (or seeking to acquire) WMD will provide them to terrorists. Thus, the administration’s national security focus on rogue states passing WMD to terrorists is based on speculation rather than any historical precedent.”

Much of what Peña recommends will seem obvious. Better intelligence, with an emphasis on human intelligence, is a must. Cooperation with the intelligence services and governments of other countries – al-Qaeda is said to operate at some level or another in 60 countries – will be crucial. If intelligence is improved, there should be opportunities for actions to kill or capture leaders and operatives, some carried out by special forces, some done by police.

All of this will have to be done with concern for the sensibilities of countries in which our operations take place; some will have to be quite clandestine, while others can be public and accompanied by publicity for propaganda purposes. Despite differences over the Iraq war the United States can work with and learn from European countries that have faced terrorism on their own soil for much longer than we have.

The most path-breaking aspect of the book is the contention that without changing U.S. foreign policy such actions are likely to be ineffectual. Peña documents that Islamist terrorists move against the United States not because they hate free elections and Hollywood movies (though they may) but because of what we do in Muslim countries. Bin Laden has been shrewd enough to pick up on the fact that all Muslims, not just extremists, were offended by U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and now in Iraq, and to use U.S. actions as a recruiting tool.

Peña argues that most of the far-flung commitments of U.S. troops are hangovers from the Cold War. The fact that they stretch military resources thin, provoke anti-Americanism and diffuse our focus on the real threat simply strengthens the case that we should start withdrawing from Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Europe and a hundred other places. As challenging as that assertion may be to some, this is a work of clear-headed analysis characterized by temperate and well-considered language and thorough documentation rather than a polemic.

Peña widens his argument to suggest that almost every aspect of the effort to face the threat the Bush administration characterizes as the “war on terror” will be improved by changing U.S. foreign policy. Even in his perceptive chapter on homeland security, where he has constructive suggestions about cost-effectiveness and priorities, airline security, and securing other potentially vulnerable resources – along with admonitions about the impossibility of obtaining absolute security even by curtailing civil and other liberties, he closes thus:

“The paradox of homeland security is that we must build defenses against terrorist attacks, but defending against terrorism is a Maginot line: a determined terrorist will eventually find ways to circumvent the defenses. And it is unrealistic to believe that we can kill each and every al-Qaeda terrorist. These two realities accentuate the imperative to change U.S. foreign policy. If the United States does not change its policies to stem the growing tide of anti-American sentiment overseas – particularly within the Islamic world – all the time, effort, and money spent on other aspects of homeland security will be wasted because the pool of terrorist recruits will grow and the United States will continue to be a target. No matter how successful the United States is in homeland security and dismantling al-Qaeda, it will not stop terrorism unless its foreign policy changes. More than anything else, U.S. foreign policy is the cause of the virulent anti-Americanism that is the basis for terrorism. Changing U.S. foreign policy may not guarantee victory in the war on terrorism, but not changing it will certainly spell defeat.”

That is reality-based advice. Highly recommended.

I’m not much for fiction, but sometimes it can be not just pleasant or entertaining to read but informative, especially insofar as the author actually knows something about the milieu in which the story is set and provides the kind of details and atmosphere that even the best non-fiction descriptions may fall short of offering. I confess that much of what I think I know about Asia was picked up not just from people like Robert Elegant, talking to travelers, reading history and travelogues and doing a little traveling myself, but from James Clavell’s novels. I’ve had to revise only a few of what seemed like insights garnered from his books.

Blood Money, by Azam Gill, a Pakistani transplanted in France is one of those novels that impart an authentic flavor to the spy thriller genre. Mr. Gill was an officer in the Pakistani army, where he was both a company commander and an intelligence officer. As a member of the French Foreign Legion, “I lived and worked with people whose backgrounds included clandestine work, criminal activity, and intellectual pursuits, what Len Deighton describes as ‘a fiction writer’s dream.’” He went on to get a PhD from and teach at Grenoble University. His varied experiences inform his fiction deeply.

Gill’s story about a young Englishman who musters out of the Foreign Legion and finds himself entangled in the machinations of an international Western intelligence organization centered in France, for which he eventually agrees to undertake a dangerous mission against an ambitious jihadist overlord, is fiction. But it has the ring of authenticity. There is a beautiful and highly intelligent young lady spy, of course, and a dollop or two of steamy sex. The descriptions of carrying out his operation sound as if they were written by someone who has planned and carried out risky missions himself.

The story moves along at a rapid pace that will intrigue most readers while offering what seem to be authentic and plausible details about how intelligence organizations and espionage organizations work. The recent history coincides nicely with real history and creates a strong sense of the challenges posed by Islamist jihadism to the West. This is the kind of fiction that evokes a stronger sense of how the world really works than any number of the kind of history and foreign policy analysis books that are more often on my nightstand. Fun and informative.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).