Up From Naivete


"It is not hard to defeat Arab countries, but it is mostly useless. Violence can work to destroy dangerous weapons but not to induce desired changes in behavior," - Edward Luttwak, in one of his predictably stimulating essays.

Reading Luttwak, one is struck by the near-impossibility of getting "Iraq" to function as a normal society or country in any feasible time-frame. If we'd done it right, we'd still probably have needed 400,000 troops to keep order, and 20 years to build a real nation. This was easily my biggest error with respect to Iraq. I wasn't in any serious way skeptical enough of the potential for normalcy, let alone democracy, in what Luttwak tartly calls "backward societies whose populations can sustain excellent insurgencies but not modern military forces." Sure, I never expected the "just-enough-troops-to-lose" policy of Bush and Cheney. I believed the WMD claims. I was genuinely shocked by the secret torture policy. I still find the recklessness and incompetence hard to fathom. But I can't blame my naivete about Iraqi sectarianism and Arab culture on the Bush administration. And I should have seen the obvious insurgency potential - with all its nihilistic, self-defeating, brutal murderousness. I mean: had I never heard of the West Bank? This is one thing Arab culture does very well: self-destruction as protest.

Luttwak is also shrewd about the following:

Then there is the new light cavalry of Iranian terrorism that is invoked to frighten us if all else fails. The usual middle east experts now explain that if we annoy the ayatollahs, they will unleash terrorists who will devastate our lives, even though 30 years of "death to America" invocations and vast sums spent on maintaining a special international terrorism department have produced only one major bombing in Saudi Arabia, in 1996, and two in the most permissive environment of Buenos Aires, in 1992 and 1994, along with some assassinations of exiles in Europe.

The great unanswered question of our time is: why have we not had another major terror attack since 9/11 in America? I don't know the answer. Although I'm sure the CIA has foiled some plots, our knowledge of the competence of the federal government should inhibit us from assigning them too much credit. Perhaps serious global jihad is indeed the province of a few wealthy and motivated religious fanatics, and not the widespread threat we fear. Perhaps Arab culture is unproductive even when it comes to murdering innocents. Perhaps we've been lucky. I certainly don't buy the idea that the war in Iraq is somehow preventing them from attacking us here. You can't find 19 true-believers to get on a plane while you're pursuing a classic Arab insurgency? The point of terror on a 9/11 scale is partly to get us to over-estimate the strength of the enemy. Maybe they succeeded. And maybe, as a result, we're trapped.

(Photo: The Iraqi national flag flutters over the remains of a wrecked vegetable stall destroyed when a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad's al-Bayaa district, 30 April 2007. One person was killed and two others were wounded in the blast. At least 11 people were killed in attacks across Iraq today, including two car bombs that targeted Iraqi police, security officials said. by Wisam Sami/AFP/Getty Images)