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

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush stood aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and, in front of a large banner that read "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED," proudly declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. But as the search for weapons of mass destruction floundered and violence and casualties surged, the widely publicized photo-op quickly became a mockery, inspiring headlines of disdain and a heated blame game over responsibility between the White House and the Navy for months to follow.

Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows is no stranger to such Bush Administration debacles. Author of acclaimed criticism such as "Blind Into Baghdad" and "The Fifty-First State," Fallows has been consistently quick to point out America's mistakes in its war on terrorism and operations in Iraq. Five years after 9/11, Fallows once again takes stock of the nation's performance—though this time from the perspective of al-Qaeda. What, for example, might an al-Qaeda strategist say if asked to brief Osama bin Laden on the current state of affairs? What has gone better than expected? What has gone worse? "Could bin Laden assume, on any grounds other than pure faith," he asks, "that the winds of history were at his back?" Fallows approaches these questions with the same characteristic open-mindedness, imagination, and judicious eye that have marked his previous critiques, and this time arrives at a surprising conclusion: from the enemy's vantage point, America actually looks pretty good—so good, in fact, that the United States can now truly declare "mission accomplished" in the war on terrorism.

Could this be true? Has the landscape changed so much in three-and-a-half years—a period riddled with its own share of blunders and missteps—that President Bush could utter those two words today without engendering the same ridicule? Indeed, Fallows asserts, and the essence of the change is this:

Because of al-Qaeda's own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda's ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.

This is not to say, of course, that America has waged a perfect war. A precipitous leap into the morass of Iraq, and excessive spending on security are two major mistakes Fallows feels that we've made, along with a failure to engage al-Qaeda in a serious "War of Ideas." "America's glory has been its openness and idealism, internally and externally," he writes. "Each has been constrained from time to time, but not for as long or in as open-ended a way as now." Considering that America is much richer and stronger than it was fifty years ago, why are we not "waging peace" more effectively?

Drawing perhaps from his experience as a speechwriter for former President Carter, Fallows suggests a new public relations strategy for the nation: declare victory in the war on terrorism so that the country can move to its real work—domestic protection, worldwide pursuit of al-Qaeda's lingering elements, and an all-fronts diplomatic campaign. And in the meantime, Fallows suggests, how about a new message that gives us a clearer-eyed understanding of our current—non-dire—situation? He offers a few words for President Bush to borrow:

"My fellow Americans...

The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges—and opportunities. With quiet pride, we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face."

James Fallows is currently in Shanghai. We communicated by email on July 22nd.

Abigail Cutler

The overarching thesis of this piece—that there is a real case to be made for declaring victory in the war on terrorism—seems like a departure from the tenor of your previous articles. You acknowledge that this realization came as a surprise to you. Do you have any doubts as to whether this is the best new approach?

A journalist who doesn't have doubts about anything he's found has not spent enough time in this business. Everything we do is tentative—the best version of the facts and the related concepts that we can put together in real time. (It's so much easier to know how things will turn out when you're looking back on them, as historians do!)

But with that caveat, I thought the case for declaring victory was a powerful one, as I heard it. If I had to boil it down to three crucial propositions, they would be these:

First, what we went to war to avenge—and prevent—was a large-scale, devastating, indiscriminate, civilian-slaughtering attack on our homeland. Al-Qaeda's errors and internal friction, along with the efforts of the U.S.—yes, the Bush Administration—and its allies, have made this kind of attack much less likely. (The exception, of course, is the risk of rogue nuclear weapons—but we can undertake an all-out effort to contain that specific risk.) Therefore, the U.S. could plausibly declare "mission accomplished" about the original cause of war.

Second, the real strategic threat from al-Qaeda is its ability to provoke us toward actions that hurt us in the long run. (See: war in Iraq.) This, by the way, was a point I had not focused on before doing the reporting, but which ran through many of the interviews.

Third, we are most likely to avoid overreaction—and to continue the long-term efforts to win the "war of ideas"—if we move off a wartime footing. For reasons I lay out in the piece, an open-ended war makes it harder to do a lot of things we should do, and makes it more likely that we'll make strategic mistakes.

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.)

You note that the majority of experts you spoke to agree that the United States should not withdraw from Iraq anytime soon. Yet there is a vocal minority that believes we should set a timeline for withdrawal—if not pull out immediately. Do you think there is a case to be made for leaving now?

The problem here is that there is a case to be made for almost any approach you can think of. That's why the decision is so hard. The case for staying is that the most likely consequence of a U.S. pullout is a further collapse of public order—and a perceived and real victory for anti-Western terrorists who have indeed made Iraq their battlefield. They would portray this as a humiliation of the United States, comparable to the punishment inflicted on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and they would have a point. They might also have an Afghanistan-style base for future terrorist operations (though some people argue that Sunni Iraqis would not allow this to happen).

The case for leaving is that the U.S. presence is not making things any better, and that the trend is such that the U.S. will have to flee at some point, so why wait? The more nuanced (and fatalistic) argument is that, by the simple hydraulic laws of U.S. politics, whichever president follows George Bush will run on an out-of-Iraq platform, so our strategic minds should be concentrated on the reality of a two-year window on U.S. influence. This is not even to mention the vociferous argument within the U.S. military about how long it can sustain a large presence in Iraq.

I find this genuinely the hardest question in the whole Iraq topic: we can't stay, and we can't go. I hope you'll forgive my pointing out that the likelihood of such a dilemma was one reason I opposed the invasion in the first place.

Surprisingly, there seems to have been a lot of agreement among the experts you consulted. What was the most significant point of disagreement among them?

Probably the emotional tone with which they described the likelihood of future terrorist attacks in the United States. Some people said another attack, large or small, was inevitable some day—and that was a sign we were "losing." Others looked at the same probability and said it was something that a great nation had to take in stride and not go crazy about.

You point out via Peter Bergen that al-Qaeda's current reliance on the Internet is less a boon than a burden. But many would argue (and have, in these pages) that the Internet has become a vital new weapon in the terrorist arsenal—particularly as regards recruiting. In light of such trade-offs, do you think the Internet is a blessing or a curse for the U.S. struggle against al-Qaeda?

This takes us again into the realm of partial victories and partial defeats. Certainly the Internet opens many possibilities to al-Qaeda and related groups. My friend Gabriel Weimann, of the University of Haifa, has argued and demonstrated this in his recent book, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges. But the point Peter Bergen makes is that a tradeoff has been forced upon al-Qaeda: they can't (easily) meet in person anymore, but they can make contact electronically. I was impressed by the argument that, all in all, that tradeoff has put al-Qaeda at a disadvantage.

I also found the reference to Leninism/Marxism quite interesting. What are the chances, you think, of al-Qaeda becoming a mere philosophy? Given the tenacity and longevity of other terrorist groups, any guess as to how much longer al-Qaeda will operate as an organization before it becomes extinct?

I can't even hazard an opinion here, since this is exactly the kind of question that, as a reporter, I'd be asking actual experts on al-Qaeda. I will say that the Marxist/Leninist difference, which I quote from Caleb Carr, is a valuable and provocative one.

You write that most experts believed that "another shocking, large-scale, 9/11-scale coordinated attack was probably too hard for today's atomized groups to pull off." Why is this true? Maybe the more pertinent question is, what constitutes a 9/11-scale attack? Earlier in your piece, you write that most authorities also believe that "some attempts to blow up trains, bridges, buildings, or airplanes in America will eventually succeed." Couldn't these potential attacks—which require no more than a few people willing to die for the cause—qualify as "9/11-scale"?

You never want to say "never" or "impossible." One aspect of a "9/11-style" attack seems virtually impossible to repeat, by definition. Much of the shock of 9/11 was precisely its shock value. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened before in America. Anything that happens again simply could not have a comparable "first ever" effect—unless it moved onto the plane of a nuclear detonation, which as previously discussed requires separate consideration (and policy).

So if and when another attack is committed on U.S. soil, what should be the country's response according to this new strategy?

According to the people I interviewed, other kinds of attacks—on buses, tunnels, ports, shopping malls—are likely to succeed sooner or later. These will be terrible and tragic and disruptive, and we should continue doing everything we can to fend them off—forever, if it can be done. But if and when they occur, the question is whether they will drive us crazy. Britain took extremely serious police action after the terrible 7/7 bombings of its subway system. But it also prided itself—and this was clear in its press—on returning to normal civic life as soon as possible. Impressively, the same seems to have been true in India after the terrible Mumbai train bombings. The following two ideas sound contradictory in the modern United States but are accepted as part of mature life in some other societies: that there are enemies of public life who will try to harm civilians, and sometimes will succeed; and that there is independent value nonetheless in preserving normal, proportionate, brave, unpanicked life. Israel—at its best, though not always—has exemplified this approach.

In the meantime, how necessary is it to spend so much money on creating what you refer to as "security theaters"—ostentatious displays of security measures that don't necessarily do much in terms of safety, but that make citizens feel better about flying? What would be the implications of not creating this façade? A bad economy? Low morale? And does this mean that, in fact, we don't really need airport screenings?


Pitfalls of the Air Defense Identification Zone
A consideration of the "preposterousness of the regulations."

I have such a bad attitude about the whole TSA-era approach to airline safety that I probably shouldn't even start on this topic. I will say that the single stupidest thing the U.S. government has done in the name of homeland security involves one aspect of aviation "safety."  (By the way, this is not the single most destructive thing the U.S. has done, which is the crackdown on visas for foreign graduate students. Nor is it the single greatest missed opportunity, which is the failure to mobilize any kind of real national effort after 9/11.) But for sheer stupidity, you can't top the establishment of an "Air Defense Identification Zone" in a couple-thousand-square-mile plus area around Washington, D.C. I will spare you the details—more can be found here. Suffice it to say that many aspects of the security theater of air safety will look strange in retrospect—like the "duck and cover" drills of my elementary school days, in which we were taught to hide under school desks to "protect" ourselves against a nuclear blast.

You write in the piece that recruitment of self-starter cells within the U.S. is thought to have failed so far. How do you reconcile this with recent reports that homegrown terrorism is on the rise?

It's another one of these partial-victory, partial-success stories. Compared with a few years ago, there is an increased threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States. (For perspective: there's also a threat of terrorism from right-wing fundamentalists, of the Timothy McVeigh variety; from enviro-extremists and anti-abortion extremists; from Luddites like the Unabomber; and several times a year from deranged teenagers who go into schools with guns.) But compared with most societies of Western Europe, there's less of a threat in the United States.

You also point out that Arab-Americans are far better assimilated than their European counterparts. Does this hold true for Muslim-Americans as well? Could it be true that the wealthiest, most assimilated Arab-Americans are in fact Christian? And if so, do you think this may alone explain the difference across the Atlantic?

The United States differs from much of Europe in that a larger share of "our" Arab-Americans are Christians, originally from Lebanon. But the best data I've seen indicates that Muslim-Americans as well are better assimilated than their counterparts in Europe. Also, we would expect this to be so, since—as all of the non-American experts I spoke with pointed out to me—the United States is simply more successful as an assimilation machine than is any part of Europe.

During the research process, what most inspired the change in your perspective/thesis?

When my wife and I first visited China 20+ years ago with our two elementary-school-aged sons, Chinese people would sometimes ask us, "Which is your favorite?" We'd try to explain how they both were number one in our eyes. Something similar is true of the reporter and his sources. They're each the most valuable, helpful, and interesting in my eyes! And, joking aside, reporters live or die by the willingness of others to talk with them, so I am deeply grateful to those who keep communicating with me.

What was more fun—the reporting or the writing?

Reporting is always fun; writing never is.

You're in Shanghai now and will be out of the country for a while. What will you miss most about the States?

Mike Fallows
Mike Fallows

In several "what have we done??" moments before we left D.C., my wife and I reminded ourselves that we were casting aside a very, very nice life there: friends of a lifetime's standing, close colleagues at work, daily routines and household setups that we had adjusted to exactly suit our preferences over the years. Tiny examples: the C&O Canal in D.C. is one of the world's best places to go for a run; I am a beer devotee and know where to get just the kinds I want at the best price in the greater Washington area; we had the world's best cat and had to find a home for him; and all that is to say nothing of being in frequent touch with our parents and children. (Our kids have to fend for themselves, but our cat Mike now has a wonderful new home.) I could go on. And we were trading this for a city of 18 million where we started out not knowing a single soul.

On the other hand, we've been through this kind of complete-uprooting experience before—when moving to Japan, Malaysia, Texas, Seattle, Berkeley, and during jaunts elsewhere—and have found it to be stimulating, enriching, and memorable after a while. We just haven't reached the "after a while" stage yet.