Letters to the editor

Declaring Victory?

James Fallows’s article (“Declaring Victory,” September Atlantic) is an extended take on the “police problem” theory of terrorism. Various bad actors have violated international law and need to be rounded up or suppressed. We have done that. End of story. Declare victory. We just need to cope with the residual terrorism that may continue, just like we cope with any other kind of crime.

It is certainly true that we have successfully degraded al-Qaeda. If the problem were only as Fallows describes it—“terrorists” and “hostile groups”—we would indeed be able to declare victory in the war on terrorism. However, nowhere in the article is the real issue ever mentioned—state sponsors of terrorism.

Terrorist groups take on the capabilities to harm us in substantial and sustained ways only if they have state sponsorship. Before 9/11, there were four contiguous state sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East: Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan (going from west to east). Two were gone by 2003. Since then, our performance has been less impressive. The current “failure” in Iraq is not because “we are vulnerable to the kind of warfare jihadists wage best,” but because two flanking state sponsors of terrorism, Syria and Iran, have been able to act within Iraq—in terms of providing organization, logistics, supplies, and even personnel for terrorist acts—with complete impunity. Had we secured Iraq’s borders in 2003, Iraq would be stable today. An indigenous insurgency could not have sustained itself without outside support and safe havens.

Current events are not kind to Fallows’s police-problem thesis, especially in light of what has taken place in Lebanon. Why is Hezbollah a problem, and what kind of problem is it? From where did it obtain its 13,000 missiles, several thousand of which it fired into Israel? What about its military training and other weapons, like the sophisticated antitank rockets? The answer: From two state sponsors of terrorism, Iran and Syria.

During the Sandinista reign in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, almost every terrorist group in the world had an office there, including the PLO, the ETA, and the IRA. Anyone counseling that terrorist groups should not be lumped together would have a hard time explaining their presence. They were, in fact, components of the Soviet foreign legion brought together by their common antipathy for the United States. They could be dealt with “locally” as individual problems only after the Soviet Union met its demise. The same is true of terrorist groups today. Remove the state sponsors, and the problem shrinks to the size suggested in Fallows’s article. (That can be done by a variety of means—political, economic, diplomatic, etc.—short of military.) But to pretend that that has already happened and that we should declare victory is a dangerous delusion.

Richard R. Reilly
Former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan
Vienna, Va.

James Fallows correctly points out that “the U.S. military has been responsible for the most dramatic recent improvement in American standing in the Islamic world” because of its efforts on behalf of tsunami victims, but he fails to mention that this has occasioned new strategic thinking at the Pentagon itself. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recently released a “National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism,” which found that American humanitarian assistance is “key to demonstrating benevolence and goodwill abroad, and countering ideological support for terrorism … the enemy’s center of gravity.” Pentagon officials involved in writing counterterrorism strategy publicly acknowledged that “the American military’s efforts to aid tsunami victims in Indonesia and to assist victims of Pakistan’s earthquake did more to counter terrorist ideology than any attack mission.” And the Navy’s highest-ranking officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, has stated that the change in Muslim public opinion as a result of American aid is nothing less than “one of the defining moments of this new century.”

Citing the “lessons learned from tsunami relief, General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently announced the Navy’s launch of the dedicated hospital ship Mercy to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangla­desh on an unprecedented, entirely humanitarian mission. The Mercy will be a free-floating medical clinic for the Muslims of Indonesia, who remain favorably disposed to the United States—a direct and lasting result of the American tsunami aid delivered more than a year ago.

Ken Ballen
Terror Free Tomorrow
Washington, D.C.

James Fallows replies:

As Ken Ballen notes, the uniformed military has become highly attuned to the practical importance of cultural, political, and humanitarian gestures. After five years in Afghanistan and nearly four in Iraq, military leaders now emphasize paradoxes like those described in the Army’s newly drafted Counterinsurgency Manual: the most effective weapon is the one that is not used; it is better to lead by example than by force; the more you protect yourself the more vulnerable you become; and so on.

It may simply be that combat leaders have more leeway to make such soft-sounding points than do ordinary civilian politicians. Dwight Eisenhower, who had commanded the greatest fighting force the world had ever seen, could more easily warn about the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell speech than, say, Bill Clinton could have. This is the same logic by which John McCain is the most effective critic of torture and open-ended detention, and Colin Powell—if he had made his private doubts public—would have been the most influential critic of the plans to invade Iraq.

As for Richard Reilly, first let’s separate his claims from what my article actually said. My point was not that “war” was never a proper response to terrorism. Rather, the argument was that five years on, an open-ended state of war did more harm than good—by uniting rather than dividing the enemy; by magnifying rather than diminishing terrorism’s ability to distort our domestic life; and by increasing the chances of our reacting in ill-considered, self-destructive ways. The tools Reilly derides as police work—surveillance, penetration, cultivation of sources—were the ones that allowed British authorities to thwart the attempted airline-bombing plot this summer.

About his broader emphasis on the importance of state sponsorship: Sure, but how does that make a permanent state of war more sensible? Of course terrorist groups are more menacing if they have a government to protect them and to offer them a safe haven for operations. That is why it was important to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan and therefore deny al-Qaeda its home base. But either we think that invasions are the right way to deal with problematic states or we don’t. If Reilly is suggesting that other regimes on his state-sponsor list, including those in Iran and Syria, should also be removed by force, then the wartime concept makes sense—but nothing else about the proposal does. If, on the contrary, he is suggesting that such regimes should be undermined in the long run through means other than invasion, then we’re back in the realm of using all the tools of national influence in a sustainable way, which is what my article discussed, and which shouldn’t be given the label war.

A further word on practicalities: Reilly says the Iraq effort would have worked fine if only the borders had been sealed. This is one of a very long list of “if only” statements about the war—f only U.S. troops had stopped the looting, if only they’d kept an eye on what was happening at Abu Ghraib, if only they’d had enough interpreters, if only they’d hired professionals rather than political hacks for the occupation staff, etc. Here are two hard questions about the war’s execution, one flip, one not. The flip question is whether a group of infiltrators, having seized control of the U.S. government with the intent of harming America’s reputation and interests as profoundly as they could, would have conducted the invasion and occupation of Iraq any differently from the way our real government has. The serious one is how the Bush administration, having placed such diplomatic, military, and political emphasis on a successful transformation of Iraq, could have gone about the job so haphazardly.

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