A Framework for Victory

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 4.26

by Arnold Kling

September 13, 2001

There are few things worse than fighting a war that fails to accomplish any objective. One of the dangers of responding too hastily to the September 11 attacks is that we may prosecute a war without first having a clear objective.

The purpose of this essay is to set out a few ideas about the objective of the war against terrorism. Clarifying the objective will help to reduce the risk of fighting a war that proves ultimately futile.

The Opposite of Defeat

One way to think about victory is that it is the opposite of defeat. Along those lines, what would constitute defeat in the war against terrorism?

We would be defeated if we lost the will or capacity to defend our way of life. The larger risk is that we will lose our will. This would happen if we became divided or demoralized.

In order to avoid defeat, we must remain united. In that regard, it is worth remembering that:

So far, the terrorist attacks have had their most divisive effects in the Moslem world. Many Muslims have made a point of denouncing terrorism.

Elements of Victory

A victory in the war against terrorism would do two things:

  1. Minimize the operational capability of terrorists.

  2. Guarantee our right to pursue our way of life. Today, there are religious and political organizations that refuse to accept our right to pursue our way of life. Their leaders advocate violence and terror against us. Such groups either must be induced to change their behavior or face eradication.

Strategic Implications

The first objective is to minimize the operational capability of terrorists. It seems to me that this requires infiltration and surveillance.

Currently, when we think about surveillance and privacy, the focus is on various methods of gathering information. Is it legitimate to tap a phone line? To use a video camera? etc.

In this sense, our debate tends to be techno-centric rather than people-centric. If it were people-centric, I think that we would focus on:

A surveillance effort that is launched in the name of preventing terrorism by illegal immigrants could end up nailing a lot of people who are failing to pay social security taxes for their houseworkers. Would that be a positive outcome?

The other element of victory is increasing the extent to which other countries respect our way of life. This requires a balanced, assertive approach, in which we are neither so weak that we invite aggression nor so aggressive ourselves that we create justifiable animosity.

The strongest support for our way of life comes from people who practice it. We should strive for secular, constitutional government everywhere. To make exceptions in the Middle East or Africa is to succumb to the "soft bigotry of low expectations," to borrow a phrase.

It is debatable whether or not we should impose different regimes on other countries. But where we choose not to alter an authoritarian regime, we will have to set clear limits on behavior and enforce those limits.

We tend to overlook the many religious and secular leaders who call for violence against America. I believe that it is a mistake to let this pass.

Probably the biggest error in the Oslo "peace process" was the fact that Israel and the United States chose to overlook the steady drumbeat of incitement and demonization that took place in the Palestinian media. Rather than preparing its people for eventual peace, the Palestinian Authority was building an arsenal of hatred.

A key strategic element in the war against terrorism will be to confront the arsenals of hatred and get rid of them. We cannot ignore them. We cannot appease them. We should not bother to psycho-analyze them. We need to eliminate them.

Tactical Issues

Two of the important tactical questions concerning the war against terrorism are:

From a moral perspective, my inclination is to use what one might call the Patton Principle to evaluate these tactical possibilities. I believe it was General Patton who said that "The objective of war is not to die for your country. It's to make the other bastard die for his country."

In other words, I am not squeamish about either tactic. In particular, if it came down to a choice between a bombing campaign that cost many innocent lives in another country or a ground war that cost the lives of American soldiers, I would prefer the bombing campaign.

To me, the case for assassinations seems to be almost totally compelling. Innocent people can avoid injury by choosing to stay away from terrorists and from the instigators of terrorism.

One major problem with assassinations is that they violate current U.S. law. This law ought to be changed. Assassinations should be legal, but with strong controls over how targets are selected and strong guidelines about implementation that are designed to minimize the loss of innocent life.

Historically, there was a case against assassination on the grounds of "what goes around, comes around." However, I do not think that applies in this case. My guess is that assassinating terrorists serves to decrease rather than increase the probability that they will assassinate our leaders. They already have the motive to assassinate our leaders. All we can do is try to take way the means.

The case for bombing is much less clear. Bombing seems to lead to disappointing results more often than not.

We tend to assume all to easily that bombing will alter behavior. For example, you might think that if we bomb Kabul, then the government and the people will give less support to terrorism.

In practice, the results can be mixed. Bombing can strengthen the resolve of the victims, as it has in the United States. When I think about the "precision" strikes that we have made in the past, the metaphor that comes to mind is an attack on a hornet's nest that kills exactly one hornet.

Another issue related to bombing is whether it affects behavior in more than one country. Would bombing Kabul change behavior in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, and so forth?

Thinking about these examples, one is struck that at best it is the threat of bombing that can work. If other countries will respond to a credible threat to bomb by changing behavior in the way that we want, then there is no need to bomb. If they will not respond to a credible threat to bomb, then bombing alone probably will not be effective.

It would appear that the optimal approach is to make credible threats to bomb, without ever having to carry out those threats. Of course, one way to make a threat credible is to carry it out. However, we first should seek other means of making the threat credible.

It is important to note that some of the key actors on the terrorist stage are unlikely to feel threatened by bombing. In my mind, those key actors are:

One can argue that there is an indirect way in which bombing can be used against instigators. That is, although instigators may have little to lose from bombing, the governments where they reside have something to lose. Therefore, we can induce governments to take action against instigators by threatening to bomb.

There may be some merit to the argument that we can reduce instigation by threatening to bomb. However, my guess is that there are other tactics that would be more effective and less crude. We could start slowly, by having the State Department publish a list of instigators, and then experiment with various diplomatic and military means for dealing with them.


It is barely 48 hours since the attacks took place. It is unlikely that all of the ideas in this essay will prove useful. My main point is that we ought to think carefully and act with a clear purpose, rather than seek immediate gratification.