Saturday, October 27, 2007

Winning the War on Terror

Philip Gordon's got a provocative new piece over at Foreign Affairs on victory in the war on terror. Are we fighting the right war? Here's the introduction:

Less than 12 hours after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush proclaimed the start of a global war on terror. Ever since, there has been a vigorous debate about how to win it. Bush and his supporters stress the need to go on the offensive against terrorists, deploy U.S. military force, promote democracy in the Middle East, and give the commander in chief expansive wartime powers. His critics either challenge the very notion of a "war on terror" or focus on the need to fight it differently. Most leading Democrats accept the need to use force in some cases but argue that success will come through reestablishing the United States' moral authority and ideological appeal, conducting more and smarter diplomacy, and intensifying cooperation with key allies. They argue that Bush's approach to the war on terror has created more terrorists than it has eliminated -- and that it will continue to do so unless the United States radically changes course.

Almost entirely missing from this debate is a concept of what "victory" in the war on terror would actually look like. The traditional notion of winning a war is fairly clear: defeating an enemy on the battlefield and forcing it to accept political terms. But what does victory -- or defeat -- mean in a war on terror? Will this kind of war ever end? How long will it take? Would we see victory coming? Would we recognize it when it came?
Gordon compares the war on terror to the Cold War, which lasted decades. Gordon notes that victory in the Cold War was unanticipated by experts and layman alike. He argues, however, that the United States is unlikely to face annihilation at the hands of transnational terrorists today, and current policy in the war on terror amounts to overkill. Here's the key argument:

Terrorism...has been around for a long time and will never go away entirely. From the Zealots in the first century AD to the Red Brigades, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army, the Tamil Tigers, and others in more recent times, terrorism has been a tactic used by the weak in an effort to produce political change. Like violent crime, deadly disease, and other scourges, it can be reduced and contained. But it cannot be totally eliminated.

This is a critical point, because the goal of ending terrorism entirely is not only unrealistic but also counterproductive -- just as is the pursuit of other utopian goals. Murder could be vastly reduced or eliminated from the streets of Washington, D.C., if several hundred thousand police officers were deployed and preventive detentions authorized. Traffic deaths could be almost eliminated in the United States by reducing the national speed limit to ten miles per hour. Illegal immigration from Mexico could be stopped by a vast electric fence along the entire border and a mandatory death penalty for undocumented workers. But no sensible person would propose any of these measures, because the consequences of the solutions would be less acceptable than the risks themselves.

Similarly, the risk of terrorism in the United States could be reduced if officials reallocated hundreds of billions of dollars per year in domestic spending to homeland security measures, significantly curtailed civil liberties to ensure that no potential terrorists were on the streets, and invaded and occupied countries that might one day support or sponsor terrorism. Pursuing that goal in this way, however, would have costs that would vastly outweigh the benefits of reaching the goal, even if reaching it were possible. In their book An End to Evil, David Frum and Richard Perle insist that there is "no middle ground" and that "Americans are not fighting this evil to minimize it or to manage it." The choice, they say, comes down to "victory or holocaust." Thinking in these terms is likely to lead the United States into a series of wars, abuses, and overreactions more likely to perpetuate the war on terror than to bring it to a successful end.

The United States and its allies will win the war only if they fight it in the right way -- with the same sort of patience, strength, and resolve that helped win the Cold War and with policies designed to provide alternative hopes and dreams to potential enemies. The war on terror will end with the collapse of the violent ideology that caused it -- when bin Laden's cause comes to be seen by its potential adherents as a failure, when they turn against it and adopt other goals and other means. Communism, too, once seemed vibrant and attractive to millions around the world, but over time it came to be seen as a failure. Just as Lenin's and Stalin's successors in the Kremlin in the mid-1980s finally came to the realization that they would never accomplish their goals if they did not radically change course, it is not too fanciful to imagine the successors of bin Laden and Zawahiri reflecting on their movement's failures and coming to the same conclusion. The ideology will not have been destroyed by U.S. military power, but its adherents will have decided that the path they chose could never lead them where they wanted to go. Like communism today, extremist Islamism in the future will have a few adherents here and there. But as an organized ideology capable of taking over states or inspiring large numbers of people, it will have been effectively dismantled, discredited, and discarded. And like Lenin's, bin Laden's violent ideology will end up on the ash heap of history.
I agree that radical Islamism will some day be marginalized. But Gordon's comparison between America's fight against terror and the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union is selective. You'd think nary a shot was fired before the Berlin Wall fell and the Eastern European dominoes toppled, throwing off the yoke of totalitarianism.

Sure, a smart war on terror will combine all the tools available from America's strategic portfolio - military, intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic, etc. But the argument against Frum and Perle is a strawman, deployed to discredit a robust military component in defeating the terrorists.

Certainly, the Soviet Union's new leadership in the 1980s - motivated by international norms of comprehensive security and human rights - contributed to the final end of the Cold War crisis. But it would be completely remiss to discount American military power as a key factor in the final defeat of the Soviets.
The Reagan administration's military defense build-up was especially important to American victory in the Cold War.

Gordon's right, though, that Al Qaeda can be beaten. See Audrey Kurth Cronin's excellent article, "How al-Qaida Ends" (pdf), for a more comprehensive analysis of how terrrorist groups can be defeated.