The War on Terrorism: a Strategic Survey

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 5.09

by Arnold Kling

June 7, 2002

Complacent Winners, Sore Losers

Strategic analyst Eliot Cohen does not like the term "war on terrorism." In November, he argued that a better term would be World War IV (treating the Cold War as World War III). In a talk, Cohen also gave what I think as the most useful formulation of the war:

This is a war between the complacent winners and the sore losers.

The winners are Western democracies, particularly the United States and Israel. For the world as a whole, the United States is the leader in freedom, prosperity, and military strength. Relative to its neighborhood, Israel is the most advanced country.

The losers are characterized by what Ralph Peters in 1998 called Seven Signs of Non-competitive States. As Peters wrote,

These key "failure factors" are:

The result of these factors--which are most notably prevalent in the Arab world--is underdevelopment and backwardness.

Some recent political alignments reflect the winner/loser dichotomy. People who tend to identify more with the losers have been much less enthusiastic about fighting terror. Ethnic minorities and left-wing intellectuals are inclined to resent the U.S. and Israel and to promote "understanding" of Arabs and Islam. Conservatives, who look more favorably on winners, tend to be solid in their support of the U.S. and Israel, with an inclination to confront Arab states over the issues of anti-semitism, support for terrorism, and internal shortcomings on human rights.

The rise of European anti-semitism and anti-Americanism fits the sore loser paradigm. Some of it comes from a downtrodden immigrant Muslim population. Some of it comes from adherents of socialist policies which have proven less successful than America's more free-market economics.

However, there is as much insight to be gained by examining the adjectives "complacent" and "sore" as by examining the nouns "winner" and "loser." Complacency and soreness are major factors in determining the dynamics of this war.

Complacency means a tendency to believe that we are not vulnerable, and that the worst things will not happen. Complacency means that we think that we can avoid painful confrontations and difficult decisions.

For example, consider the current round of recrimination over the "intelligence failure" that preceded the 9-11 attack. Any suggestion that all we need to do to defend against terrorism is improve our intelligence co-ordination is ludicrous.

First of all, the failure to "connect the dots" itself reflected complacency. Most people, even within the intelligence community, did not believe that such an attack was likely to occur.

However, suppose that the 9-11 plot had been uncovered ahead of time and stopped. It seems likely that had we been fortunate enough to prevent the hijackings, we would never have gone to war against the Taliban and Al Queda in Afghanistan. In the absence of the destruction and death that we suffered, we would have been too complacent to undertake such an attack.

We have seen this sort of complacency recently in Israel. Terrorists made two attempts to cause massive casualties. One attempt involved trying to bomb a large office building in Tel Aviv. Another attempt involved setting off a bomb at a fuel depot. Had either attempt succeeded, Israel probably would have launched a severe military operation. However, because both attempts failed, Israel restrained its military.

On June 6, we saw another instance of this restraint. A raid-and-retreat at Arafat's compound,the result of which would seem to be to create a sense that he is invulnerable.

The fact that the losers are "sore" also affects the dynamic. Not all losers are sore, and not all people who are sore are losers. In fact, many of the world's poorest people are not inclined toward violence. Many of the terrorists come from middle-class or well-to-do families. They are affiliated with loser movements, but they themselves are more sore than they are losers.

However, the fact that the losers are "sore" means that for them violence is as much an end as a means. If the goal for the Palestinians is to achieve an independent state, it seems irrational to engage in violence rather than accept what has been offered to them diplomatically. Even if their ultimate goal is to take over all of Israel, it might seem more rational for the Palestinians to pursue a short-run peace agreement. But they are too sore to make that assessment.

The most notable precedent for a sore loser is Germany under Hitler. Hitler could not be appeased. He could not be persuaded to surrender, even when the military situation was hopeless. If this precedent is valid, then only an overwhelming military victory can quiet a sore loser.

The Homeland Defense Theater

On June 6, President Bush announced a proposal to create a cabinet-level department of Homeland Defense. Like the outcome at Dunkirk, this can be compared with alternative scenarios that are worse. But wars are not won by re-organizations. The President, who holds an MBA, now is behaving like one, reminding me of Chris Locke's Titanic Deck Chair Rearrangement Corporation.

I expected that it would take a long time for America to become effective at homeland defense. I based this on the analogy with Pearl Harbor, after which we continued to suffer humiliating defeats until we eventually were able to shake off our lethargy and naivete.

The initiatives undertaken thus far in the name of homeland defense have certainly done nothing to exceed my expectations. In a story in the Christian Sciene Monitor, Israeli analyst Shlomo Dror put it this way

Israeli specialists have a low regard for American security searches. They say they tend to cause unnecessary discomfort for travelers, while being prone to missing potential assailants. "The United States does not have a security system, it has a system for bothering people," Dror says.

"The difference between the Israeli and American systems is that we are looking for the terrorist, while the Americans look for the weapons," he adds.

I would list the following as major shortcomings of America's homeland defense approach.

  1. Our focus is too target-centric.

    In basketball, where the net is the only target you have to defend, a zone defense can work. With terrorism, when there is an endless list of potential targets, you have to play man-to-man.

    Much of our effort on security is focused on creating visible checkpoints at specific target areas, such as airports. This is an exercise in symbolic reassurance. It makes it appear that we are doing a lot to stop terrorism. However, in the grand scheme of things, these defensive measures are futile. Even if they reduce some forms of terrorism, it is impossible to deny opportunities for terrorism by trying to defend targets.

    Instead, we need to assign responsibility for monitoring specific terrorist organizations, suspicious groups, and suspicious individuals. Target-specific defense measures can supplement and co-ordinate with the function to monitor potential terrorists, but it is the latter effort that will determine the success or failure of homeland security.

  2. We have failed to move in the direction of increased mutual surveillance.

    We need to limit the extent to which individuals can maintain anonymity in this country. At the same time, we need to design and implement foolproof oversight mechanisms over government agencies to ensure that power is not abused and that individual rights are protected.

    Instead, what we are seeing is the opponents of transparency digging in harder. On the one hand, the people that I call Privacy Luddites are opposed to any technologies that would make it easier to track individuals. On the other hand, the Bush Administration constantly resists oversight by Congress and public transparency.

    Those in charge of homeland defense should be pro-actively promoting new forms of oversight and audits for the FBI and other security agencies. Every increased power that is requested for domestic surveillance should be accompanied by a mechanism to audit and control the use of that power.

  3. American Muslims need to be part of the solution.

    Other ethnic groups take responsibility for reining in and ostracizing violent extremists. If a Jewish extremist group were to attack American Muslims, Jews would excoriate the extremists and come to the defense of the Muslims.

    In the wake of September 11, Muslims in America should be going out of their way to reassure the rest of us of their loyalty to our country and its values. They should be undertaking soul-searching, self-policing, and sorting out the terrorists from decent citizens.

    Stories of Islamist indoctrination in American Muslim schools should lead to strong condemnation from the Muslim community. The diversion of Islamic charitable funds to support terrorism should outrage Muslims.

    Our leaders have reassured American Muslims of their right to be treated like other Americans. They also need to be aware that they have a responsibility to behave like other Americans.

The Military Theater

Compared with homeland defense, the military has done a better job of earning our confidence. The United States has destroyed terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Victory in Afghanistan was achieved much more efficiently than many pessimists (myself included) thought possible. Military attacks against concentrations of terrorists seem to be effective. Israel has reduced the number of suicide bombings. It is when Israeli forces retreat that terrorist attacks resume.

In a conventional military confrontation, we appear to have a strong advantage in weapons. The spirit, morale, discipline, and cohesion of our military forces appears to be high.

A reasonable assessment is that the complacent winners have the power to crush the sore losers. However, we have to be concerned about dealing with the aftermath of a decisive military action:

Of course, all of these problems are present in any war situation. We dealt with them at the end of World War II.

Military action can make it more difficult for terrorists to organize and operate. If all of the "above-ground" support for terrorists were destroyed, it would be difficult for terrorists to mount dangerous attacks. They would find it harder to obtain funding, engage in training, and share knowledge.

In short, the military approach has achieved positive results thus far. However, it always is used with great reluctance and only after a major catastrophe.

The Diplomatic Arena

The diplomatic arena finds us on the defensive. The United Nations is completely under the control of the sore losers. The European Union seems much more aligned with sore losers than is the European public as a whole.

Terrorists have fomented conflict with Israel and India, with great success. They have been able to use these conflicts to distract the United States from a focus on terrorists and the states which back them.

The strategy of creating a coalition against terrorism is a shambles. I thought that the goal was to force countries to choose sides. The idea would be to articulate to other countries exactly what they must do to be considered on our side. Countries who fail to agree to fight terror, block funding for terrorists, distance themselves from hate rhetoric, and so forth, would be considered enemies. We would accept no excuses and make no exceptions.

Instead, we have seen a disconnect between rhetoric and action. President Bush's statements have been bold assertions of moral clarity. Meanwhile, our policies toward Arafat, Musharraf, and the Saudis have been timid exercises in moral weakness.

Our diplomats believe that we must compromise our standards or risk losing our allies. We are choosing compromise. We shall have no reliable allies.

Bobos in Wartime

Last July, I read David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise, and I wrote an essay that expressed my concern with the mindset of the bourgeois bohemians that he aptly describes. I said,

The over-arching commandment of Bobo-ism is "Thou shalt not confront." A Bobo does not want to confront a disruptive child, a villain who claims membership in a victim class, someone whose sexual behavior is damaging, or a government that expands its power in the name of fulfilling a parental mission.

Looking over the various weaknesses and shortcomings in the war against terrorism, all of them seem to stem from this "thou shalt not confront" principle. In particular, this principle can be blamed for:

President Bush generally speaks with greater moral clarity than one finds in the Bobo mindset. However, the actions of the United States seem to flow out of a Bobo culture of tentativeness, wishful thinking, and a willingness to compromise our core values to avoid clashes.

Let's Roll

To win the war against terrorism, we need to summon a greater willingness to confront. We need more assertive diplomacy, more aggressive surveillance of potential terrorists, and more use of military power.

We should be willing to fight against the sore losers. We can sympathize with Muslims, Arabs, and other groups that are disproportionately poor. However, the causes of those people are not served by terrorists, Islamists, and dictators. The problems of Palestinians and other distressed populations are not going to be solved by Yasser Arafat, Osama Bin Laden, or Noam Chomsky. The underdogs of the world need our leadership and our strength, not our accomodation to demagogues who claim to speak on their behalf.

We should publish a clear set of standards that governments must meet in order to be in compliance with our campaign against terrorists who target the United States. For example, governments must

To demonstrate our national determination, Congress should authorize the use of force against any state that fails to comply with these standards. When countries aggressively flout these standards, we should conduct war against their governments.

The demagogues who pose as leaders of the sore losers are like adolescents whose parents tell them to clean their room. They do not want to be told how to behave, and they have an answer for everything. They do not want to be confronted, and they will try to frighten us with their anger. It is tempting to take the easy way out and to back down. What we need is the discipline and strength to press ahead, and to use force when necessary. Let's roll.