Chapter 5: The Terror Trap

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Chapter 5: The Terror Trap
President George W. Bush called his response to the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 the Global War on Terror. If he had called the response a war on radical Islam, he would have alienated allies in the Islamic world that the United States badly needed. If he had called it a war on al Qaeda, he would have precluded attacking terrorists who were not part of that specific group. Bush tried to finesse this problem with semantic sleight of hand, but as we have just seen, this left him open to political and strategic confusion.
President Obama dropped the term “War on Terrorism,” and rightly so. Terrorism is not an enemy but a type of warfare that may or may not be adopted by an enemy. Imagine if, after Pearl Harbor, an attack that relied on aircraft carriers and fighter planes, President Roosevelt had declared a “Global War on Naval Aviation.” By focusing on terrorism instead of al Qaeda or radical Islam, Bush elevated a specific type of assault to a position that shaped American global strategy, which left the United States strategically off balance.
Obama may have clarified the nomenclature, but he left in place a significant portion of the imbalance, which is an obsession with the threat of terror attacks. As we consider Presidential options in the coming decade, it appears imperative that we clear up just how much of a threat terrorism actually presents, and what that threat means for U.S. policy.
According to the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, war is a continuation of politics by other means. Victory in World War II did not consist of compelling Japan to stop using aircraft carriers. Victory meant destroying Japan’s ability to wage war, then imposing American will—a political end. If a President is to lead a nation into war, he must crisply designate both the enemy and the end being sought. If terror was the enemy after 9/11, then everyone who could use terror was the enemy, which is an awfully long list. If, for political reasons, a President cannot clearly identify who is to be fought and why, then he must carefully reexamine whether he can win, and thus whether or not he should engage. If the cost of naming the enemy is diplomatically or politically unacceptable, then the war is not likely to go well.
Despite Bush’s decision to focus the war on terror, the Islamic world knew that the real enemy being targeted was radical Islam. This was the ground that al Qaeda had sprung from and Bush was not going to fool anyone into thinking otherwise. When he could not truthfully and coherently explain his reason for invading Iraq, the strategy began to unravel.
Bush’s semantic and strategic confusion intensified when his War of Terror expanded to include the effort to unseat the Iraqi government. Saddam Hussein, targeted by that effort, was a secular militarist rather than a religious Islamist, and he was no friend of al Qaeda. He had not been involved in al Qaeda terrorism prior to the invasion of Iraq, but he and al Qaeda did share a common enemy, the United States. For this reason, Bush felt that he could not discount the danger of an alliance of convenience between the rogue state—Iraq—and the stateless radicals—al Qaeda. His solution was to make a preemptive attack. Bush and his advisers reasoned that destroying Saddam’s regime and occupying Iraq would deny al Qaeda a potential base, while gaining the United States a strategic base of operations of its own.
Nonetheless, inasmuch as the larger strategy had been identified as a war on terror, and inasmuch as Saddam had not recently engaged in terrorism, the invasion of Iraq appeared unjustified. If the war had been more clearly focused on al Qaeda as the enemy, then the invasion would have appeared much more plausible, because a war against a specific group would have included hostility toward that group’s allies and potential allies.
None of this is to say that the war in Iraq was wise or that it was well executed. I am simply pointing out that in a democracy, the foundation of public support is a clear picture of the enemy’s threat and of one’s own purpose in confronting that threat. Such clarity not only mobilizes the public, it provides a coherent framework for communicating with that public. Truman’s Presidency never recovered from his use of the term “police action” to refer to the Korean War, a conflict in which 30,000 Americans died. Roosevelt’s war against Germany, Japan and Italy, on the other hand, survived endless subterfuges, attacks on the innocent, and alliances with the truly evil, because Roosevelt made it clear who the enemy was and why we had to fight and defeat it.

The Significance of Terror

By declaring a War on Terror, the United States signaled that it regarded this single threat as transcending all others. Protecting the United States against terrorist acts became the central thrust of American global strategy, consuming enormous energy and resources. But terrorism as practiced by al Qaeda does not represent a strategic danger to the United States. It can and will at times kill perhaps thousands of Americans, and it will cause pain and generate fear. But terrorism in and of itself cannot destroy the material basis of the American republic.
Because terrorism—including nuclear terrorism—does not represent a plausible, strategic threat to the United States, a foreign policy focused obsessively on terrorism is fundamentally unbalanced. The lack of balance consists of devoting attention and resources to a frightening but not entirely real peril, while not controlling other threats that are of far greater significance and danger. This is not an argument to ignore terrorism, but rather an argument that terrorism is at most one issue that needs to be considered within the context of national strategy. This is where George W. Bush got trapped, and where his successors run the risk of falling into the same snare.
Like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan, Bush had to manage the psychology of the country while pursuing his strategic end, but two phenomena proved to be his undoing. First, the more successful he was at blocking al Qaeda, the more the psychological trauma faded. The public moved from demanding the most extreme measures, to being shocked at the measures being taken. Bush should have anticipated this, but by fixating on the war on terrorism as an end in itself, he lost his sense of its place in the general scheme of things. Second, he was not able to shift his focus in keeping with the shift in public opinion, because he did not understand the purpose of his own Global War on Terror. That purpose was not to defeat terrorism, but to satisfy the psychological needs of the public, yet he continued at full bore long after the country no longer felt at risk.
In being fixated on terrorism as a free-standing strategic goal, he devoted huge resources to battles he couldn’t win and to theaters not really connected to terrorism in the first place. In fighting a Global War on Terror, he not only lost perspective, he forgot to manage the full range of other U.S. strategic interests. He was so obsessed with the Islamic world, for example, that he didn’t devote the attention and resources necessary to control the re-emergence of Russia.
The President’s job is to align with public opinion and to tack with it, while quietly pursuing his own moral and strategic ends. The problem that President Obama and other Presidents will face in the next decade is to place terrorism and al Qaeda in perspective while redefining American interests in the Islamic world. This needs to be done in such a way that the public doesn’t turn on him, particularly when the inevitable terrorist attacks do occur. He must satisfy public opinion both when it is terrified and outraged by attacks, and when public opinion turns blasé about terrorism and is shocked at the things that have been done to assuage their terror and their outrage. Above all, the President must deal with the Islamic world as it is, without allowing public passion to influence his ultimate intentions.
This is not an argument for complacency. Even though the risk is small, the consequences could be enormous. Because the threat from weapons of mass destruction is extremely small, and the ability to block other terrorist weapons is extremely limited, our counter-terrorism effort must be focused against the terrorist, not the weapon. That does indeed mean war, covert or overt, and war involves costs and commitments that run the risk of outstripping the threat.
The President must, as we have said, always soothe the nerves of the public, and must always show his commitment to stop terrorism. At the same time, he must resist the temptation to try the impossible, or undertake actions that are both costly and ineffective. He can lie to the public, but must never lie to himself. Above all, he must understand the real threats to the country, and act against those.
Apart from the killings at Fort Hood in 2009, September 11th was the only successful attack in the United States during ten years of war. Those coordinated attacks on New York and Washington were the result of a multi-year, intercontinental operation that cost al Qaeda 19 of its most committed operatives. Two major office buildings were destroyed in New York and, in Washington, the Pentagon suffered extensive damage. Three thousand Americans were killed, but for a nation of 300 million people, the material consequences of the attack were, in fact, minimal.
This is not meant to trivialize the deaths, or to dismiss the horror that Americans experienced on that dreadful day. My point is merely to emphasize that while you and I are allowed the luxury of our pain, a President isn’t. A President must take into account how his citizens feel and he must manage them and lead them, but he must not succumb to personal feelings himself. His job is to maintain a ruthless sense of proportion while keeping the coldness of his calculation to himself. If he succumbs to sentiment, he will make decisions that run counter to the long term interests of his country. A President has to accept casualties and move on. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, FDR called for vengeance but privately decided to focus on Germany and not Japan. He understood that a President could not allow himself to craft strategy out of emotion.
The purpose of war, according to von Clausewitz, is to impose your will on another nation by rendering that other nation incapable of resisting. The primary means for doing this is to destroy their military, or to undermine the larger population’s will to resist. Instilling terror can destroy an army, just as the Mongols paralyzed their enemies with the knowledge of their blood lust and ruthless cruelty. Yet the Greek City States fought to the bitter end, spurred on by fear of the slavery that awaited them if conquered. So the net effect of terror is hard to predict.
During World War II, neither the Germans nor the British made any bones about the purpose of what the British called “nighttime, area bombing.” The targeting of civilians was a tactic designed to generate terror among the public, in the hope that the civilians would, at the very least, become less effective in running the wartime economy, and at the extreme, possibly rise up against their own regimes. In Japan, the Americans pursued the same ends using incendiary devices, taking advantage of the fact that most Japanese buildings were made of wood. In three days of conventional bombing over Tokyo, U.S. air forces killed one hundred thousand Japanese civilians, more than were killed at Hiroshima. Yet until the introduction of the atomic bomb, the terror strategy failed, just as it had failed in both Germany and Britain. Rather than destroying faith in the government, the bombing of civilian areas rallied the public to support the war effort. The barbarism of the attacks inspired outrage, while also making it easy for the governments to portray the consequences of defeat as being too horrible to even contemplate. If during a war the enemy was willing to go to such lengths to divert resources simply to kill civilians, imagine what they would do when the war was over. Terror made it easy to demonize the enemy and made surrender unthinkable.
In conventional warfare, terror is delivered by massed force. But terror also can be delivered through a covert operation by a very small number of individuals—a commando attack. These operations were once generally confined to assassinations, but after the invention of high explosives—and force multipliers for high explosives such as airliners—commando terrorism focused on civilian targets with the goal of producing casualties as an end in itself.
It is important here to distinguish carefully between commandos whose goals are military, and those whose targets are civilian and whose purpose is terror. The French Resistance in 1944 attacked German transport facilities in an attempt to directly undermine their invader’s ability to wage war. The terror commando’s goal, however, is not to harm the enemy’s military, but to undermine enemy morale by generating a psychological sense of vulnerability. Sometimes the audience isn’t even the target country, but public opinion elsewhere, as with the attacks of September 11th.
By generating fear, helplessness and rage, terrorism transforms public opinion, which then demands that the government provide protection from terrorists and punish such people for their actions. The more effective the terror attack, the more frightened the population, the more compelled the government is to respond aggressively and visibly. Once again, in the face of terror, the President must convince the public that he shares their sentiments, while taking actions that appear to satisfy their cravings both for security and for revenge.
One such largely symbolic action taken since 9.11 has been the attempt to bolster the airport security system. Despite billions of dollars and untold measures of passenger frustration, a terrorist with training can still devise any number of ways to get explosives or other devices through the system. Some terrorists might be deterred, and the system will find others. But while ramped up airport security can decrease the threat, it cannot stop it.
There is simply no security system that is both granular enough to reliably detect terrorists, and efficient enough to allow the air transport system to function. El Al is frequently held up as an example, but El Al has 35 planes. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the American air fleet has nearly 8,000 planes and over 26,000 take-offs a day. The Transportation Security Administration says it screened 1.8 million passengers a day on average in 2009. These are staggering numbers.
What the limitations of airport screening tells us is that if al Qaeda failed to strike the United States again during the first decade of the 21st century, it was not because of security precautions per se. It is even doubtful that the people who design the airport security system expect it to work. Their real objective is to calm the public by ostentatiously demonstrating that steps are being taken. The greater the ostentation and inconvenience, the more comforting the system appears.
But the increasing sophistication of explosives makes it possible to kill dozens of people with a device carried by an individual, hundreds of people with a device hidden in a car or truck, and thousands of people with an aircraft that acts as an explosive. The world is awash in such explosives, and the borders of the continental United States are about 9,000 miles long. The United States is also a trading country, and ships and planes and trucks arrive daily. Any one of those conveyances could contain people and explosives prepared to kill other people. It is also true that among 300 million Americans, there could be any number of home-grown terrorists preparing to strike at any time.
For these reasons, true homeland security in a country like the United States is impossible and the task will remain impossible into the next decade. There are no silver bullets. Eliminating Islamic terrorism is similarly impossible. It is possible to reduce the threat, but the greater the reduction you hope to achieve, the greater the cost. Given unlimited possibilities and limited resources, it is safe to say that there will continue to be terrorist attacks on the United States regardless of the efforts being made.
The President of the United States must know this with crystal clarity, and he must always act on the basis of what he knows, but he must never admit these limits to the public. He must constantly demonstrate that he is doing all he can to destroy the enemy and to protect the homeland, and he must always convey a sense that the elimination of Islamic terrorism is possible, all the while knowing that it is not.
As we embark on the policy decisions of the next decade, the larger point is that turning all American resources to an end that is unobtainable, against a threat that can and will have to be endured, is not only pointless, but something that can create windows of opportunity for other enemies and other assaults.
While terrorism can kill Americans and can create a profound sense of insecurity, the obsessive desire to destroy terrorism can—as it already has—undermine the United States strategically. This is an important point for the leaders of the next decade to consider. This is why even though thousands of Americans might be killed by terrorists—myself and my loved ones among them—terrorism should not be elevated to the status of an issue towering above all others. At all times, strategy must remain proportional to the threat.

Terror and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Another unpleasant reality that will loom over the next ten years, and needs to be considered separately, is weapons of mass destruction. The existence of such weapons will cause, occasionally, severe responses from the presidents who lead us. The damage that a nuclear device might do would dwarf conventional terrorism. Where conventional terrorism is rarely strategic, weapons of mass destruction can have a profound effect on the material and psychological condition of the country.
Turning our attention back to Bush, there was, in fact, more to his response than cowboy justice and a sop to public fears. After 9/11, the Bush administration received intelligence that a nuclear device, a Soviet era suitcase bomb, to be specific, had been stolen and might be in the hands of al Qaeda. Thus the specter that haunted the Administration in the closing months of 2001 was that at any moment, an American city might be destroyed by a nuclear weapon.
It was this threat that defined the Bush administration’s initial efforts. The President and Vice President were never in the same city at the same time, and all intelligence and security services were directed to find the weapon. It would appear they never found it, or it may have never existed. After years of mishandling it may have malfunctioned, or it may have been intercepted and the government chose not a to reveal its existence.
Regardless, weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear devices, represent a class of threat that cannot be tolerated. It would take many nuclear weapons to actually destroy the infrastructure and population of the United States, but a single attack by a nuclear weapon could destabilize public morale to such an extent that it would paralyze the country. In strategic terms, then, that single attack could indeed achieve the effective destruction of the United States.
In a small terrorist attack in which dozens die, like the suicide bombings in Israel, the probability of any individual out of a population of 300 million being a victim is small. The probability of dying from an ordinary accident or from disease in the next year is far higher than that of being killed in a suicide bombing. The events of 9/11 distorted the perception of danger for a while, and people avoided flying, and perhaps avoided crowded places and landmark buildings. But as time passed, the sense of being subject to attack declined. The danger was on most peoples’ minds when they went to the airport, and perhaps when they entered the Sears Tower, or the Empire State Building, or the Capitol. But over time, the perceived risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time was assimilated into the general background noise. It was as this happened that, for many people, the demand that all steps be taken to guard against terror turned to dismay at what they regarded as excesses, inconveniences, and intrusions. The willingness to countenance violations of human rights decreased as the fear of dying decreased.
With weapons of mass destruction, the probabilities and the persistence of fear are different. Assume that an American city were destroyed by a nuclear device. Once a WMD attack had destroyed one city, the number of targets a terrorist might want to hit next would be relatively small, but for anyone living in one of the top ten cities, there would be the immediate, reasonable fear that the enemy had more such weapons and that at any instant they might strike again—annihilating both you and your family.
From a terrorist’s perspective, wasting a nuclear weapon on Spokane, Washington or Bangor, Maine makes no sense. It is the top ten cities that are the centers of political, economic and social life. For them to be evacuated by frightened citizens would bring not only chaos but abandonment of entire economic and communications systems, while millions of refugees fled to nowhere in particular. It is this response to the fear of mass annihilation from a completely random threat that would be the ultimate objective of terrorism using WMDs.
Terrorists of many stripes—Palestinian, European, Japanese—have been operating since the late 1960s, and most of these groups would have jumped at the chance to inflict the kind of damage a weapon of mass destruction could. Many of these groups were far more sophisticated technically than al Qaeda. So why has there never been an effective attack with a weapon of mass destruction?
The simple answer is that while constructing, deploying and using a WMD attack is easy to imagine, it is very difficult to execute. The weapons are relatively few, heavily guarded, difficult to move, and likely to kill the terrorist well before they get a chance to kill anyone else. There have been many reports of Soviet era nuclear weapons, or biological and chemical weapons, being available on the black market, but most of these offers were made by intelligence agencies trying to lure terrorists into a trap. If you were a terrorist offered a suitcase nuke by a former Soviet colonel, how could you possibly tell if what you were looking at was the real thing, or just a metal tube stuffed with wires and blinking lights? The same uncertainty would have to hold for chemical or biological weapons as well. Intelligence services don’t have to know who is selling real WMDs in order to scare away the customers, and the allure of acquiring these weapons contracted considerably when the number of intelligence officers offering them for sale as entrapment outnumbered legitimate offers by 100-1.
There is, of course, the option of making such a weapon yourself, and every year some undergraduate posts a diagram of how to build a nuclear device. Between that sketch and success are the following steps: acquiring the fissile material, along with all the necessary circuitry and casings; acquiring the machinery needed to machine the fissile material to the precise tolerances needed in order to detonate it; engaging the experts who could actually do these things once you had the material and the equipment; finding a very secure facility where these experts could work and live—and so on.

The chances of being detected are compounded at each stage of this torturous process. Even if one could acquire the highly guarded fissile material, the machines needed for producing a nuclear weapon are highly specialized, and their manufacturers are few and far between. When a private individual shows up with his American Express Card to order one of these machines, the chances of being detected are very good indeed.

With biological and chemical weapons you add to these same risks the likelihood that the only person you’ll kill will be yourself and your immediate accomplices. Chemical and biological weapons carry an extra layer of complexity in that they have to be dispersed. When a Japanese group released Sarin, an extremely deadly nerve gas, in a Tokyo subway, the contamination remained localized, and only a few people were killed, not the massive numbers the terrorists had hoped for. People always speak of how a spec of this or that could wipe out an entire city. Certainly—but first you have to figure out how to spread it around.
Only one country ever produced a nuclear weapon from scratch, and that was the United States. The British got their nukes in compensation for their contribution to the American research effort. The French also received the technology as a gift from the Americans, which they then regifted to Israel. The Russians stole the knowledge from the Americans, then transferred it to both the Chinese and the Indians. As an afterthought, the Chinese gave the technology to Pakistan. Point being: The development of these weapons through an independent research program is enormously difficult, which is why Iran is still struggling and North Korea has never gotten it quite right.

There are ultimately two problems with the war on terror. First, it is impossible to win that war. Regardless of the resources committed, the Islamic world is vast and U.S. power is limited. There is no way to stop the formation of terrorist organizations, and terrorists will inevitably be able to penetrate American security. Even Rome could not impose its will everywhere. Second, by devoting all available resources to this battle, the United States loses its ability to influence and control events in other parts of the world.

Just as the financial crisis has created a domestic imbalance in the United States; September 11th has generated a strategic imbalance. This will have to be addressed in the next decade, and difficult decisions will have to be made. A strategy designed to prevent regional hegemons from threatening American interests is a balance of power strategy. It requires an American presence in multiple regions. The next decade, therefore, will be about redefining American strategy so that it can pursue these interests. That will mean moving beyond the war on terror, and redefining interests throughout the region as well as the world. A good place to begin thinking about this is Israel.

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