“There is one thing above all that bin Laden can feel relieved about,” Caleb Carr told me. “It’s that we have never stopped to reassess our situation. We have been so busy reacting that we have not yet said, ‘We’ve made some mistakes, we’ve done serious damage to ourselves, so let’s think about our position and strategies.'”
Seizing that opportunity can give America its edge.
Here is something I never expected. When I began this reporting, I imagined that it would mean a further plunge into current-events gloom. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri might be under siege, but they had spawned countless imitators. Instead of having one main terrorist group to worry about, the United States now had hundreds. America’s explicit efforts to win the “war of ideas” for support from the world’s Muslims were being drowned out by the implicit messages from Afghanistan and Iraq and Guantánamo (and from the State Department, as it rejected requests for student visas). Our enemies were thinking in centuries-long terms, while we were living election to election—and with the results of the 2004 presidential election, anti-American sentiment hardened among Muslims worldwide. Sooner or later our enemies would find one of our vulnerable points—and then another, and another.
To some degree, many of these discouraging possibilities are likely to come true. Hostile groups and individuals will keep planning attacks on the United States. Some of the attacks will succeed. Americans—especially those who live in Washington, New York, and other big cities—will share a reality known for many years to residents of cities from London to Jerusalem: that the perils of urban life include the risk of being a civilian casualty of worldwide political tensions.
But the deeper and more discouraging prospect—that the United States is doomed to spend decades cowering defensively—need not come true. How can the United States regain the initiative against terrorists, as opposed to living in a permanent crouch? By recognizing the point that I heard from so many military strategists: that terrorists, through their own efforts, can damage but not destroy us. Their real destructive power, again, lies in what they can provoke us to do. While the United States can never completely control what violent groups intend and sometimes achieve, it can determine its own response. That we have this power should come as good and important news, because it switches the strategic advantage to our side.
So far, the United States has been as predictable in its responses as al-Qaeda could have dreamed. Early in 2004, a Saudi exile named Saad al-Faqih was interviewed by the online publication Terrorism Monitor. Al-Faqih, who leads an opposition group seeking political reform in Saudi Arabia, is a longtime observer of his fellow Saudi Osama bin Laden and of the evolution of bin Laden’s doctrine for al-Qaeda.
In the interview, al-Faqih said that for nearly a decade, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri had followed a powerful grand strategy for confronting the United States. Their approach boiled down to “superpower baiting” (as John Robb, of the Global Guerrillas blog, put it in an article about the interview). The most predictable thing about Americans, in this view, was that they would rise to the bait of a challenge or provocation. “Zawahiri impressed upon bin Laden the importance of understanding the American mentality,” al-Faqih said. He said he believed that al-Zawahiri had at some point told bin Laden something like this:
The American mentality is a cowboy mentality—if you confront them … they will react in an extreme manner. In other words, America with all its resources and establishments will shrink into a cowboy when irritated successfully. They will then elevate you, and this will satisfy the Muslim longing for a leader who can successfully challenge the West.
The United States is immeasurably stronger than al-Qaeda, but against jujitsu forms of attack its strength has been its disadvantage. The predictability of the U.S. response has allowed opponents to turn our bulk and momentum against us. Al-Qaeda can do more harm to the United States than to, say, Italy because the self-damaging potential of an uncontrolled American reaction is so vast.
How can the United States escape this trap? Very simply: by declaring that the “global war on terror” is over, and that we have won. “The wartime approach made sense for a while,” Dearlove says. “But as time passes and the situation changes, so must the strategy.”
As a general principle, a standing state of war can be justified for several reasons. It might be the only way to concentrate the nation’s resources where they are needed. It might explain why people are being inconvenienced or asked to sacrifice. It might symbolize that the entire nation’s effort is directed toward one goal.
But none of those applies to modern America in its effort to defend itself against terrorist attack. The federal budget reveals no discipline at all about resources: the spending for antiterrorism activities has gone up, but so has the spending for nearly everything else. There is no expectation that Americans in general will share the inconveniences and sacrifice of the 1 percent of the population in uniform (going through airport screening lines does not count). Occasional speeches about the transcendent importance of the “long war” can’t conceal the many other goals that day by day take political precedence.
And while a standing state of war no longer offers any advantages for the United States, it creates several problems. It cheapens the concept of war, making the word a synonym for effort or goal. It predisposes us toward overreactions, of the kind that have already proved so harmful. The detentions at Guantánamo Bay were justified as a wartime emergency. But unlike Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of martial law, they have no natural end point.