The Long View 2002-10-10: Diversions & Obfuscations

It seems like John was dancing around an idea here that I want to expand upon. Near the end of the piece, he says:

On 911, the least of calamities occurred. There was an attack on American soil, but the state sponsor was weak; it did not have the ability to threaten massive retaliation against the US or its allies if the US tried to remove its government. This will soon no longer be true of Iraq and a class of other countries. Nonetheless, large sections of the American political class are still trying to retreat into their delusions. They talk about the eternal effectiveness of deterrence. They argue that 911 was an anomaly. Some acknowledge the threat in principle, but say that it is crowding out an equally important social-welfare agenda.

I think this is half-right, in that weak states have allowed terrorism to flourish. What I think John missed [along with almost everyone else] is that terrorism post 9/11 really has nothing to do with states any longer. Sure, Wahhabism is funded by Saudi oil money, but the Saudis do that to keep themselves in power, not because they are interested in it. All that money goes to fund young men making trouble somewhere else. ISIS operates in the power vacuum created by the weakness of Syria and Iraq. They are small and weak in their own right. Boko Haram only has a few thousand fighting members, in a country with a population of 177 million.

The real question is why do such small groups seem to wield such power? Partly, this is due to the attention the Western media provides them, but it also has something to do with the incompetence of the states involved. I think this is difficult for Americans to grasp. The NYPD alone is a big enough army to deal with Boko Haram. In an actual shooting war, it would be simple for the Federal government of the United States to suppress such a small group of insurgents, given sufficient political will. In most of the world, it is not will, but capability that is lacking.

Groups like ISIS and Boko Haram probably share more in common with the kind of bandits and barbarians that have always lived on the fringes of society than with the politically motivated terrorists of the Cold War era. As we move towards the imperial future, this sort of thing is going to spread. When you hear that Brazil is the country of the future, remember that means a decent country with terrible inequality that lacks the power to police everything inside its borders. That is a metaphor for the world our grandchildren will live in.

Diversions & Obfuscations

 

No truer word was ever spoken than that US Iraq policy is a long tale of diversion and attempts to change the subject. The Bush Administration does have something to answer for on this score. However, the charge that the Administration is trying to divert attention from pressing domestic issues actually reverses the truth.

The American political class spent the 1990s refusing to acknowledge the sort of world in which the United States lived. Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 by promising to pay less attention than his predecessor to foreign policy. When the Clinton Administration did think about foreign policy, it strove mightily to treat it solely in economic terms. Its preferred theme in military reform was gender equity. When it had to use force, as in the Balkans and in response to actual attacks on US military assets, it avoided drawing strategic inferences. The Clinton Administration actually won a significant war, against Serbia, but could barely be induced to discuss the matter.

To some degree, that Administration knew abut the impending era of globalized terror, and what it would mean when sovereign hosts for the terror system acquired weapons that could deter retaliation. The subject seems to have occasioned some long, purposeless seminars in the late Clinton White House. Perhaps the president's notes can be found on the back of pizza boxes awaiting cataloging at the National Archives.

The Republicans, to the extent that they were able, were no better. In some ways, they were worse. Their tax-reduction fetish overrode whatever interest they had in strategic issues. Certainly they never gave any thought to adjusting their fiscal policy with an eye to national security concerns. For the most part, their approach to foreign policy was just as economistic as the Democrats'. (The exception was China, with which they kept trying to pick a fight by joint resolution.)

Then there was the persistent personal hounding of President Clinton personally. No doubt he deserved this, karmicly and maybe legally. There was great reluctance to belittle the presidency for partisan purposes during the Cold War, even with regard to Richard Nixon. The consensus was that the United States could not do without a 24/7 president, even a bad one. In the 1990s, people thought that mere statecraft was so obsolete that the Executive Branch could be taken out of service and disassembled over the course of a year or two. This was a mistake, particularly with Bill Clinton, who was too easy to distract in the first place.

The Administration of Bush the Younger came in with much stronger military and foreign policy teams. Quite early on, and long before 911, they realized the sort of dangers the United States would be facing in the early 21st century. They took some serious steps toward planning for a difficult future. However, the Administration does not seem to have taken its own sound analysis altogether seriously. Again, Republican fiscal policy and Republican foreign policy were never introduced. The Administration did talk about the threats of the new era, but not enough, and not as insistently as should have been done. George Bush entered office knowing that his Administration was likely to be chiefly concerned with strategic issues. He might have acted on that surmise before events forced him to do so.

On 911, the least of calamities occurred. There was an attack on American soil, but the state sponsor was weak; it did not have the ability to threaten massive retaliation against the US or its allies if the US tried to remove its government. This will soon no longer be true of Iraq and a class of other countries. Nonetheless, large sections of the American political class are still trying to retreat into their delusions. They talk about the eternal effectiveness of deterrence. They argue that 911 was an anomaly. Some acknowledge the threat in principle, but say that it is crowding out an equally important social-welfare agenda.

To humor these people would be a lethal error.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly


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