The three-year-plus war that began on September 11 is the strangest conflict in our history. It is not just that the first day saw the worst attack on American soil since our creation, or that we are publicly pledged to fighting a method–”terror”–rather than the concrete enemy of Islamic fascism that employs it.
Our dilemma is that we have not sought to defeat and humiliate the enemy as much as wean a people from the thrall of Islamic autocracy. That is our challenge, and explains our exasperating strategy of half-measures and apologies–and the inability to articulate exactly whom we are fighting and why.
Imagine that a weak Hitler in the mid-1930s never planned conventional war with the democracies. Instead, he stealthily would fund and train thousands of SS fanatics on neutral ground to permeate European society, convinced of its decadence and the need to return to a mythical time when a purer Aryan Volk reigned supreme. Such terrorists would bomb, assassinate, promulgate fascistic hatred in the media, and whine about Versailles, hoping insidiously to gain concessions from wearied liberal societies that would make ever more excuses as they looked inward and blamed themselves for the presence of such inexplicable evil. All the while, Nazi Germany would deny any connections to these “indigenous movements” and “deplore” such “terrorism,” even as the German people got a certain buzz from seeing the victors of World War I squirm in their discomfort. A triangulating Mussolini or Franco would use their good graces to “bridge the gap,” and seek a “peaceful resolution,” while we sought to “liberate” rather than defeat the German nation.
So to recap: The real enemy is an Islamic fascist ideology that is promulgated by a few thousand. They wear no uniforms and are deeply embedded within and protected by Muslim society.
Beyond the terrorists, a larger percentage of Middle Easterners, if it cost them little, gain psychological satisfaction when fellow defiant Muslims (terrorists or not) “stand up” to Westerners, who enjoy power, status, and wealth undreamed of in the Middle East.
Even if they would hate living under Taliban-like theocrats, millions at least see the jihadists as about the only way of “getting back” at the Western world that has left them so far behind. This passive-aggressive sense of inferiority explains why millions of Muslims flock to Europe to enjoy its freedom and prosperity, even as they recreate there an Islamist identity to reconcile their longing and desire for what they profess to hate.
Still, most in the Middle East wish simply to embrace the human desire for prosperity, freedom, and security within the umbrella of traditional Muslim society–and will support American efforts if (a) these initiatives seem to be successful, and (b) are not seen as American.
Consequently, the United States has not been able to bring its full arsenal of military assets to the fray. It is nearly impossible to extract the killers from the midst of civilian society. Too much force causes collateral damage and incites religious and nationalist anti-American fervor. Too little power emboldens the fascists and suggests America (e.g., Nixon’s “pitiful, helpless giant”) cannot or will not win the war.
Like a parent with a naughty child, a maddening forbearance is the order of the day: They burn American flags, behead, murder, and promise death and ruin to Americans; we ignore it and instead find new ways of displaying our sensitivity to Islam.
Although the enemy is weak militarily and its nihilist ideology appeals to few, it still has powerful ways to meet our own overwhelming military power and economic strength.
First is the doctrine of the deniability of culpability. In the legalistic world of the United Nations and international courts, Islamists depend on their patrons’ not being held responsible beyond a reasonable doubt for the shelter and cash they provide to those who kill Westerners. Elites in Syria or Iran deny that they offer aid to terrorists. Or if caught, they retreat to a fallback position of something like, “Do you really want to go to war over our help for a few ragtag insurrectionists?”
A second advantage is oil. A third to half the world’s reserves is under Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States, Iraq, and Iran. None until recently were democratic; most at one time or another have given bribe money to terrorists, sponsored anti-Americanism, or survived by blaming us for their own failures.
These otherwise backward societies–that neither developed nor can maintain their natural wealth–rake in billions, as oil that costs $2-5 to pump is sold for $50. Some of that money in nefarious ways arms terrorists. Should an exasperated United States finally strike back at their patrons, we risk ruining the world economy–or at least so it will be perceived by paranoid and petroleum-dependent Japan, Europe, and China. Without an energy policy of independence, this war will be hard to win, since Saudi Arabia will never feel any pressure to purge its royal family of terrorist sympathizers or to cease its subsidies for Wahhabist hatred.
A third edge for the terrorists lies in the West itself. After 40 years of multiculturalism and moral equivalence–the wages of wealth and freedom unmatched in the history of civilization–many in the United States believe that they have evolved beyond the use of force. Education, money, dialogue, conflict resolution theory–all this and more can achieve far more than crude Abrams tanks and F-16s.
A bin Laden or Saddam is rare in the West. In our arrogance, we think such folk are more or less like ourselves and live in a similar world of reason and tolerance. The long antennae of the canny terrorists pick up on that self-doubt. Most of the rhetoric in bin Laden’s infomercials came right out of the Western media.
As September 11 fades in the memory, too many Americans feel that it is time to let bygones be bygones. Some now consider Islamic fascism and its method of terror a “nuisance” that will go away if we just come home. We are a society where many of our elite believe the killer bin Laden is less of a threat than the elected George Bush. Al Qaeda keeps promising to kill us all; meanwhile Ralph Nader wants the wartime president impeached for misuse of failed intelligence.
Fourth, in an asymmetrical war the cult of the underdog is a valuable tool. Europeans march with posters showing scenes from Abu Ghraib, not of the beheading of Daniel Pearl or the murder of Margaret Hassan. They do not wish, much less expect, al Qaeda to win, but they still find psychic satisfaction in seeing the world’s sole superpower tied down, as if it were the glory days of the Vietnam protests all over again. How else can we explain why Amnesty International claims that Guantanamo–specialized ethnic foods, available Korans, and international observers–is comparable to a Soviet Gulag where millions once perished? So there is a deep, deep sickness in the West.
In response, we have embarked on the only strategy that offers a lasting victory: Kill the Islamic fascists; remove the worst autocracies that sponsored terrorists; and jump-start democratic governments in the Middle East.
Our two chief worries–terrorists and weapons of mass destruction–wane when constitutional societies replace autocracies. Currently few democratic states harbor and employ terrorists or threaten their neighbors with biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, even if they have ample stockpiles of each.
Where will it all end? Our choices are threefold.
We can wind down–essentially the position of the mainstream Left–and return to a pre-September 11 situation, treating Islamism as a criminal justice matter or deserving of an occasional cruise missile. This, in my view, would be a disaster and guarantee another mass attack.
Or we can continue to pacify Iraq. We then wait and see whether the ripples from the January elections–without further overt American military action into other countries–bring democracy to Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf States, and eventually the entire Middle East. This is the apparent present policy of the administration: talking up democracy, not provoking any who might disagree. It may well work, though such patience requires constant articulation to the American people that we are really in a deadly war when it doesn’t seem to everyone that we are.
Or we can press on. We apprise Syria to cease all sanctuary for al Qaedists and Iran to give up its nuclear program–or face surgical and punitive American air strikes. Such escalation is embraced by few, although many acknowledge that we may soon have few choices other than just that. But for now we can sum up the American plans as hoping that democracy spreads faster than Islamism, and thus responsible government will appear to ensure terrorists and WMD disappear.
The above, of course, is what we plan, but gives no consideration to the intent of the enemy. As we speak, he desperately searches for new strategies to ward off defeat as jihad seems more likely to lead to ruin than the return of the caliphate.
For now Islamic fascist strategy is to make such horrific news in Iraq that America throws up its hands and sighs, “These crazy people simply aren’t worth it,” goes home, snoozes–and thus becomes ripe for another September 11.
–Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.