Interviews September 2006

Endgaming the Terror War

James Fallows talks about the surprising strides we've made against al-Qaeda—and why declaring victory will make us safer

Can you explain what makes this a more appropriate time to declare "mission accomplished" than three and a half years ago when Bush stood aboard that aircraft carrier? Has the landscape changed so much in three-and-a-half years that we are now actually in a better position to make such a pronouncement?

Bush was talking about a different war from the one I'm discussing. He was referring to the war in Iraq!! Let's set aside the question of whether that war was or was not a sensible extension of the "Global War on Terrorism."  My view, as is obvious, is that it was at very best a diversion, and at worst a profound strategic mistake. But whatever your view of it, President Bush was saying that the "major combat efforts" in Iraq had come to a successful close. That is true only if you define combat as meaning tanks moving forward over the ground—and exclude the insurgency and "asymmetric efforts" that are a large share of modern war.

A lot has happened in three and a half years—which is, in fact, two thirds of the total time that has passed since 9/11.  The impact of the crackdown on "al-Qaeda Central" has become more evident. The shift from al-Qaeda as an organization to al-Qaeda as a symbol has also occurred. As noted in the article, the emergence of "self-starter" terrorist groups is a problem—but it's a different problem from the one Osama Bin Laden posed in his prime. Also, the follow-up attacks in Madrid, London, Mumbai, and elsewhere have occurred. They have shown what the self-starter groups can do—but also how the societies that endure the attacks can respond without losing all sense of their larger strategic purpose.

As the Supreme Court noted in its ruling about the Guantanamo detainees, the passage of time itself has an effect. The post-9/11 war has now gone on longer than the U.S. Civil War did, and longer than it took to conquer Germany and Japan after Pearl Harbor. (Yes, the Cold War went on for decades, but not with the open-ended emergency approach to spending, civil liberties, and executive power that have applied in this case.) So differences in degree can become differences in kind.

You seem to support David Kilcullen's opinion that our reaction to al-Qaeda's provocations is what got us into this current mess and that, had we reacted differently, we might be better positioned today. In retrospect, do you think our invasion of Iraq was an "overreaction" to the 9/11 attacks or simply misguided? What would have been the appropriate response to such provocation?

Long as my last answer was, this would take even longer to answer. Indeed, I tried to do so in one very long article in the magazine: "Bush's Lost Year," which was published nearly two years ago. I might as well mention that it is one of five Iraq-related articles from The Atlantic included in a new paperback, Blind into Baghdad, published in August.

If you could appoint a leader throughout history (dead or alive) to finish the job in Iraq and destroy al-Qaeda and win the "war of ideas," who would it be? Do you think any former U.S. president could get the job done?

Trick question! As soon as you name any particular figure from history, you're asking for rebuttals based on the known weak points of that character—or you're seen as indulging in "What Would Jesus Do?"-style wishful thinking. The names Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan illustrate the first point. (Their supporters believe that the strengths of each those presidents would hold the answer to the current Iraq-and-terrorism nightmare. Their detractors can immediately reel off all the reasons either of the presidents would fail.) The names John Kennedy or George Kennan illustrate the opposite problem. These are of course only from the American context; to start down a list of foreign leaders would invite even more rosy-scenario thinking. 

It would be unchivalrous to argue that the current president represents the opposite extreme, but the historical record is that the current situation evolved purely on his watch, and for reasons that can be linked more or less directly to decisions that he and his advisors made. (The most eye-opening document I have recently read about these decisions and their consequences is the forthcoming Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a detailed, understated, but devastating account of the workings of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post.)

If absolutely forced to name a previous leader, my nominee would be Dwight Eisenhower.  He knew first hand the capability and the limits of U.S. military power. He similarly understood the strengths and liabilities of coalitions, and the things that the United States could and could not control. Also, he gave us the post-Sputnik science boom, a national-investment counterpart to what I wish we had seen after 9/11. But that's a different topic.

Okay. So what if we fail to make good in Iraq and the country succumbs to a theocratic or despotic rule. Would the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein then be considered a failure? Is a democratic Iraq the only acceptable measure of "success"?

We're beyond the range of my expertise here. Moreover, I think I'm not just illustrating the limits of my diplomatic sophistication when I say: there's going to be nothing quite as clear as overall "success" or "failure" ahead. Every sane person on earth agrees that the removal of Saddam Hussein's torture chambers, secret police, reign of terror, and so on is a huge step forward in human dignity. No reasonable person can be sure how Iraq will look twenty—or even two—years from now. A relatively stable society that will look back on the chaos of 2003–2006 as a difficult birthing process? An out-and-out failed state? Many people can predict and guess now, but no one can know.

So I fear that we're left with trying to limit the obvious problems that are emerging in post-war Iraq, and to encourage the positive developments. The elimination of Saddam Hussein and his family is in itself a benefit to Iraq and the world. The net benefit (or harm) of the entire operation is still to be determined—though to me, personally, the balance so far is negative. (Compared with what, you might ask? Compared with continuing the "containment" regime while letting weapons inspectors crawl over Iraq, and taking the time to prepare for a more broadly supported, better prepared invasion and occupation is necessary.)

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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