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.

When North Korea Falls

For Robert Kaplan to echo Japan’s right-wing nationalists by citing Japanese claims that Japanese colonialism doubled the average Korean’s life expectancy (“When North Korea Falls,” October Atlantic) is akin to quoting neo-Nazi claims that the Nazis improved trains and sanitation in occupied Europe. The assertion ignores the larger picture of suffering, degradation, and bestial cruelty inflicted on Koreans by the Japanese, and it insults the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Korean men, women, and children murdered, raped, and tortured by the Japanese colonial authorities.

Furthermore, Kaplan does not mention one of the more fascinating aspects of China’s relationship with both Koreas. Much of today’s Manchuria and part of Siberia once belonged to a powerful Korean kingdom, Koguryo. Had it not been for a military alliance between the Chinese kingdom of Tang and a rival Korean dynasty that ultimately bartered away all that land in exchange for Tang’s help in defeating Koguryo, Manchuria might today still be Korean land.

Manchuria also harbors nearly 2 million ethnic Koreans, and would have even more were it not for China’s brutal policy of deporting North Korean refugees back to North Korea. These facts may explain why China has blocked access to historical sites attesting to Manchuria’s Korean past and rewritten its histories to recast Koguryo as a part of China, despite the fact that even Zhou Enlai acknowledged that Koguryo was a Korean kingdom.

While these details may seem like arcane history to the West, Kaplan himself notes that the United States has a long record of underestimating historical-ethnic disputes. Spurred by new books and films on Koguryo, today’s South Koreans, including the younger military officers, are surprisingly well aware of Korea’s old stake in Manchuria. Should North Korea implode, China will have even more motivation to preempt Korean nationalism by creating a more malleable North Korean puppet state.

Clara Kyim
London, England

Brains by the Numbers

The graphics accompanying Richard Florida’s “Where the Brains Are” (October Atlantic) are a textbook example of how to lie with statistics. Side-by-side color-coded maps of the United States show, for each county, the deviation from the national average in the number of college graduates per 100 residents in 1970 and in 2000. If the deviation had been given in percentage points, the graphic might—or might not—give honest visual support to Florida’s contention that graduates have migrated to select cities.

Instead, the deviation has been measured in number of graduates per 100 residents. In the map for 1970, when the national average was eleven per 100, counties are colored the darkest shade of red only if they had nearly double the national average (twenty-one or more), and the palest hue if the number was one per 100 (only 9 percent of the norm) or fewer. In the map for 2000, when the national average had risen to twenty-four, the darkest gradation represents less than 150 percent of the national average (thirty-four or more per 100), and the lightest represents counties that have 58 percent of the average (fourteen or fewer). Not surprisingly, the first map has a nearly uniform healthy tan, while the second seems to show a draining of the nation’s lifeblood to a few tiny spots.

When it comes to misleading readers, a single graphic can do the work of a thousand words.

Susan Williams
Professor of Mathematics
University of South Alabama
Mobile, Ala.

The editors reply:

Richard Florida wrote the article “Where the Brains Are,” but our staff designed the graphics for the piece. One of the key concepts in the article is the importance of the density of highly skilled people within a geographic region to that region’s economic growth. The more well-educated people, and the tighter they are packed, the faster a region grows. What’s more, the returns on density do not appear to be constant; they seem to be increasing—that is, each skilled worker adds more to a region’s overall growth potential than the last.

This means that showing the difference between cities as a constant proportion, as Susan Williams suggests—saying one city has twice as many graduates as another, for instance, without comparing the absolute density of graduates in each place—would mislead the reader as to the economic gaps between different cities and regions over time. For instance, if one city has five college graduates per 100 residents, and another has ten, the character and growth prospects of the two places are likely to be broadly similar. But two cities with twenty and forty graduates per 100 residents respectively are likely to be fundamentally different places. The percentage gap is the same in both cases—but it’s the absolute gap that matters.

In any case, let us allay any doubts about whether college graduates are indeed flocking to a select number of cities: they are, disproportionately and incontrovertibly, no matter how one chooses to parse the data.

Running to the Center

Juliet Eilperin’s excellent “Running for Their Lives” (November Atlantic) vividly describes the growing “hyper-partisanship” of American politics. But in addition to legislative redistricting reform—whose effects wouldn’t be felt until after the next census—America’s fifty states should enact a far more innovative reform: they should abolish the partisan political primary.

Instead, states should give every voter in every district an identical primary ballot, regardless of the voter’s party registration—or lack thereof. No party would be guaranteed a nominee in November. But every candidate—including minor-party candidates, or outright independents—could compete, from the beginning, for all voters. The top two vote getters would then advance to the November general election—again, regardless of their party affiliations.

Partisan elections aren’t mandated by federal law or the U.S. Constitution. And since the U.S. Supreme Court has declared state political parties “private organizations,” why should all taxpayers continue to finance these members- only nominating contests? Especially when they’re so poorly attended: primary- election turnout during the 2006 cycle has hovered between 10 percent and 25 percent of registered voters in most states.

Party leaders and extremists, of course, would hate an open primary. It would dilute their disproportionate influence, by which the politics of the passionate periphery frame the policy agenda, and the vicious tactics of personal destruction increasingly dominate both our campaigns and governing chambers. For most voters, though, politics is broken—and it’s time to change the rules.

Phil Keisling
Beaverton, Ore.

Religion on Trial

In “Prophetic Justice” (October Atlantic), Amy Waldman describes the intrusion of Islam into recent court trials and concludes that “such a thorough judicial disquisition of a religion has no modern parallel in America.” She is incorrect. Substitute Wicca for Islam and you have a description of what the Neopagan Witchcraft community of the United States has been going through for decades. From the infamous murder case of the “West Memphis Three” to innumerable child-custody disputes going on all over the country, Wiccan beliefs are put on trial almost every day. Jurors know little about Wicca and cannot distinguish between the accurate testimony of a defense expert who is dismissed by the prosecution for being a practitioner and the biased testimony of a prosecution “expert” who is a born-again Christian with an anti-Wiccan agenda.

The backlash against the American Muslim community since 9/11 has drawn America’s attention to just how unfairly we can treat a religious minority. America’s Wiccans, victimized and persecuted for decades in the land of “freedom of religion,” are wondering why it has taken the public so long to notice this.

Donald H. Frew
Berkeley, Calif.

How Bad Is Bush?

Jonathan Rauch is right that it will take time to fix the horrendous mistakes of George W. Bush (“Unwinding Bush,” October Atlantic). But some of his statements seem open to serious challenge. For example, he writes that Ronald Reagan “rebuilt U.S. strength.” Isn’t the contrary true? Reagan gave us increased deficits and national debt, greater domestic income inequality, and a shift of the relative tax burden from the very rich to the middle and working classes.

Rauch writes that “Carter’s weak leadership drained American confidence and prestige.” Yes, the Iranian hostage crisis cost Jimmy Carter a second term, but to accuse him of “weak leadership” does him an injustice. Carter gave us strong environmental legislation; deregulation of the trucking, airline, rail, finance, communications, and oil industries; the Camp David accords; the Panama Canal treaties; full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China; and the negotiation of the SALT II treaty.

Rauch also suggests that “the [Iraq] gamble might still pay off.” What has he observed that the rest of us have not? By all accounts Iraq is a quagmire, one into which we are falling deeper by the day. If it is a “gamble,” the odds of success are virtually nil.

Finally, Rauch estimates that the unwinding of Bush will take “more than a decade, but less than two.” Given the damage that Bush continues to wreak on international institutions that took half a century to put in place, and rule-of-law principles that took centuries to evolve, I think that even five decades is a conservative estimate.

L. Michael Hager
Washington, D.C.

An Army of Everyone

In the excerpts from the Aspen Ideas Festival (October Atlantic), the historian David M. Kennedy is quoted as follows: “Another asymmetry of very troubling proportions, it seems to me, is [in] the nature of today’s armed forces; 42 percent of today’s Army enlistees are ethnic or racial minorities—42 percent.”

Kennedy should be aware that the census shows that among U.S. residents under age forty, nonwhites are approximately 40 percent of the population. Since most members of the military are under forty, the “nature of today’s armed forces” does reflect the population at large, rather than a disproportionate number of “minorities.”

Mike Burns
Bakersfield, Calif.

Advice and Consent

I realize that Ryan Lizza’s profile of Barack Obama (“The Natural,” November 2004 Atlantic) was first published in 2004, and republished recently only on your Web site, but I write for the sake of historical accuracy in your publication. I join Lizza in celebrating our senator, but your author should not have attempted to diminish my Senate election as a “fluke” without checking the actual voter numbers. I won a primary election against an incumbent senator. In the general election, I won more votes in Illinois than did Bill Clinton, with 2,631,229 votes to the president’s 2,453,350. “Bill Clinton’s coattails” is therefore not an accurate description of my victory in that election. I remain the first woman and the first African American elected statewide by the people of Illinois, and the only woman of color to have ever served in the U.S. Senate.

Carol Moseley Braun
Former U.S. Senator
Chicago, Ill.