Monday, April 21, 2008

The War Nobody Wanted


“No nation ever benefited from prolonged warfare.” The author of this wisdom was Sun Tzu, Chinese military strategist in his often-quoted treatise, “The Art Of War.” What’s so remarkable about this quotation is that it was written in the sixth century B.C., at a time when the weapons of warfare were horse-drawn chariots, javelins and primitive body armor.

Throughout history, military leaders have followed Sun Tzu’s precepts with success. Hitler’s conquest of the Low Countries and France took only six weeks. After initial prolonged aerial bombing to soften up Iraq’s infrastructure as a prelude to the Gulf War in 1990, coalition forces needed a mere one hundred hours to overwhelm Saddam’s forces and liberate Kuwait, sending Saddam’s army reeling back to Iraq in defeat and disarray.

Without paying much attention to the wishes of the public, one month ago, on March 20, 2008, the Bush administration entered its sixth year of war in Iraq. Military thinkers are now girding for a much longer war than anyone originally anticipated in 2003.This should come as no surprise to those who follow military affairs. We had portents that the Pentagon had recognized the changed reality as early as the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which noted: “The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war.”

The Pentagon later shifted to predicting "an era of persistent conflict" rather than using the term "long war," a phrase implying a military-dominated struggle with distinct battlefields and a clearly defined end. "Persistent conflict” is "the new normal," General George Casey, the Army's chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee last September.” The Army must remake itself with that in mind,” he added. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, told an audience at a town hall meeting in Derry, N.H., that he was comfortable with American troops staying in Iraq for a hundred years.

For five long and painful years, we have been told a series of lies whose sole purpose has been to prolong the war. The first big lie was the Bush administration’s insistence that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program, the principal reason for going to war, when the U.N. inspectors had found no evidence of such a program. Vice President Cheney still refuses to acknowledge this.

The second big lie was treating terrorism as a comparatively new phenomenon and calling our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan part of our “global war against terrorism.” Terror has been a weapon employed against authority for millennia. The Jewish fighters who bedeviled the Roman Empire and sacrificed themselves at Masada were terrorists in Roman eyes.

It is a war only because George W. Bush--who likes to refer to himself as “a wartime president”--says it’s a war, but word has not reached most of the country. From a military point of view, Iraq and Afghanistan could better be described as quick military campaigns that were followed by long, untidy occupations for which our military was woefully unprepared.

The third big lie is the President’s claim that the events of 9/11 happened because bin Laden and al Quaida “envy our freedoms.” This is a pure, unadulterated fabrication. They don’t give two hoots about our freedoms. Osama bin Laden quite clearly stated his complaints against the United States in a widely publicized message in 1998 and has frequently reiterated them since. Because these are essential to an understanding of events of the past decade, here are the six points of Osama bin Laden’s indictment of U.S. policies:

(1) U.S. presence in the Arabian peninsula;
(2) U.S. military presence in other Muslim lands;
(3) unqualified U.S. support of Israel;
(4) U.S. failure to condemn the actions of countries such as Russia, China and India that repress their Muslim populations;
(5) theft of Muslim oil; and
(6) failure to protest tyrannical behavior of Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia against their own Muslim populations.

The fourth big lie--also a favorite of the President—is, “We’re fighting the terrorists over there so that we don’t have to fight them over here.” A more honest appraisal of the situation would be to say; “We’re fighting them over there because they object to our being over there.” If “over here” is his worry, one might ask, “Why are the borders still so porous?” There is little danger of an attack by terrorists from abroad today. But the longer our troops remain over there, the more likely that homegrown terrorists will be spawned over here.

The most sophisticated analysis of the homegrown terrorism threat to be published came out last year. Surprisingly, it emanated not from Washington—but from the New York City Police Department. Its release should have spurred the federal government to have more faith in the public's ability to digest serious information, but it did not. Entitled "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," the 90-page report is available on the Internet and is fascinating. Its authors are Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division.

Suspecting that there might be patterns shared by the terrorist groups and the ethnic street gangs that infest America’s cities, they traveled to countries that had experienced home-grown terrorist incidents and spent months systematically analyzing the facts: Who participated in foiled or successful plots against the West? Where did they meet? What motivated them? And what caused then to change from ordinary people, often citizens of Western nations, to violent radical extremists?

The report makes several important and underappreciated points: First, no profile exists to predict who will become radicalized. Most would-be terrorists are "unremarkable men" living "unremarkable lives," who lack criminal histories and do not always frequent mosques. Second, they follow curiously similar behavior patterns, seeking a cause to associate with. Participants in 11 anti-Western terrorism plots analyzed in the report all went through four stages on the path from unremarkable to violent behavior: (a) pre-radicalization; (b) self-identification; (c) indoctrination; and (d) jihadization.

Residents of New York City and the millions who visit there each year will be comforted to know that since 9/11 the NYPD has built up one of the world’s most impressive intelligence organizations, with officers stationed in the U.K., Israel, and other countries. It also has hundreds of linguists who speak Farsi, Arabic and Urdu. David Cohen, a former intelligence officer who spent 35 years at the CIA, leads its intelligence division.

“This was a triumph of sensible men working very, very hard to get a good understanding of how this process works and determined, despite the risks, to get it out into the public," says Brian Jenkins, a veteran counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, and also a consultant on the report. "Too much of the message to the American people has been a message of fear, without explanation. In order to really get this, we have to educate, engage and enlist the citizens."

No sooner had the NYPD made its findings public than the broadcast media began to exaggerate and distort the report. Certain TV news shows, whose stock in trade is fear, went into their usual "be afraid, be very afraid" scare routine, claiming the report described two dozen active sleeper cells in the U.S. It does no such thing. It is a detailed analysis of past homegrown plots around the world, and nothing like the vague warnings of imminent doom issued by the federal government in the past.

At the press conference announcing the findings, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s pride in the report was evident. But repeated questions from the media forced him to keep stressing the thrust of the report. Reporters asked Kelly how many terrorist cells the NYPD was watching in the five boroughs, and how frightened we should be. "That's not what this report is about," he said, exasperatedly.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was right when he warned: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” To which one might be tempted to add, “And the fear-mongering TV news.”

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