James Fallows has a fine piece in the new issue of The Atlantic, Declaring Victory:
Osama bin Laden’s public statements are those of a fanatic. But they often reveal a canny ability to size up the strengths and weaknesses of both allies and enemies, especially the United States. In his videotaped statement just days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, bin Laden mocked the Bush administration for being unable to find him, for letting itself become mired in Iraq, and for refusing to come to grips with al-Qaeda’s basic reason for being. One example: “Contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom, let him explain to us why we don’t strike, for example, Sweden?” Bin Laden also boasted about how easy it had become for him “to provoke and bait” the American leadership: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there.”
Which sums up the problem with the so-called One Percent Doctrine advocated by Vice President Dick Cheney, which is that if there is even the slightest chance some terrorist attack could occur the United States must prepare for it as though it will occur. Terrorism is the political tactic of disrupting society through random-appearing acts that keep all citizens in fear of death or injury when engaged in normal day-to-day activities. The One Percent Solution makes us run wild in response to not two terrorists, but even notes and intercepted communications that suggest an attack that will never actually happen. Fallows continues:
“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents. Kilcullen, who as an Australian army officer commanded counter-insurgency units in East Timor, recently served as an adviser in the Pentagon and is now a senior adviser on counterterrorism at the State Department. He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).
“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.
Fallows’ argument leads us to conclude that the Administration is our worst enemy due to its intransigence in the face of reality, because al Qaeda has already lost the battle. Bin Laden and his central command are constantly fleeing, there is no command center as there was before Afghanistan was occupied and the only robust environment for recruitment are regions where the United States has military involvement. Their only continued success is in keeping Americans and their allies off balance.
I saw former President Bill Clinton speak on Monday. He suggested reading Ron Suskind’s book, The One Percent Doctrine, pointing to this problem without naming it as clearly as Fallow has. Assuming every threat is dire only keeps Americans from being calm and thoughtful in the face of a psychological onslaught. Redefining the entire argument as “al Qaeda has already lost,” which would allow a return to a different (than life before 9/11) but more normal American existence, one that didn’t allow for the suspension of laws and liberties we hold dear.
Fallows’ analysis, which is based on extensive interviews with security, terrorism and Middle East experts, is exactly what the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, John Kerry, suggested when he characterized the terrorist threat as a “police problem.” President Bush and his campaign excoriated that position, but it was the right one. Politics overwhelmed any debate about the sense of either Bush policy or Kerry’s suggestion. Suskind concludes his book, writing:
A delusion of fierce partisanship is the view that political opponents are so utterly bankrupt of good sense, of basic human feeling, that for one to be defeated will not only mean diminution for oneself, but disaster for an unwitting country.
The strident posture of self-defense that stems from this kill-or-be-killed idea flows directly inot an infallibility trap. Mistakes can’t be publicly acknowledged; certainty, even in the face of countermanding evidence, becomes a surrogate for courage; will stands in for earned—and regularly tested—conviction.
The question underlying this book is whether the country’s political dialogue can act nimbly enough to meet the challenges in the ensuing campaigns, the next chapters in the battle against ardent and empowered enemies, rising, perhaps, on the updraft of history.
The success of a society based on liberty and law over a terror campaign was assured, according to Fallows argument. Indeed, history seems to show that Fallows strategy is correct, as every terrorist movement in Europe has failed, the success of Israel as a nation proves it, as well. Bush, Cheney and company are not making the mistake of the good scout being over-prepared. They are keeping us off balance. The good scout prepares appropriately, taking the right supplies not all the possible supplies they might need—you don’t take firewood for a trip into the forest, for example, but the one percent doctrine would have you prepare for unexpectedly finding a desert where you camp—our leaders should take a lead from that good sense.
The only question it turns out, was how long the Bush Administration will find it politically advantageous to continue the crisis, and we still haven’t seen where they believe that ends.
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