Ephemerides (September 2003)
September 23, 2003
It's too early to form a firm opinion about General Wesley Clark's Presidential qualifications. My first impression, however, is that he is as odd a duck as Ross Perot. Did he really mean to say that he would be a Republican (and therefore, presumably, a supporter of President Bush's War on Terror policies) if only Karl Rove had lavished more attention on him? Whether The Weekly Standard is right in its contention that "Clark Never Called Karl" is of secondary significance. What shines through is comical self-absorption. Add to that his charges that the White House tried to persuade CNN to fire him (for which he admits to having no evidence) and lobbied him through third parties to link Saddam Hussein to 9/11 (almost certainly false), and a pattern starts to emerge. Let's see how many weeks pass before the general is muttering about "the vast, right wing conspiracy".
But assuming that these odd statements are aberrations attributable to neophytism rather than emanations of an unbalanced mind, the most important question is how General Clark would address the Islamofascist jihad against the Western world. Does he view it as a genuine threat, and, if so, does he regard NATO's intervention in the Balkans as the template for a response? Brendan Miniter ("Tinkerer, Taylor, Soldier, President?") has read an advance copy of his new book, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire, and is not optimistic.
General Clark argues . . . that wars today must be fought much like he fought Kosovo. American (or coalition) aircraft should pound the enemy from above. Ground troops should not move in until the enemy is largely defeated, and then an "internationalized" force should sweep in for relatively minor operations and peacekeeping missions. In the Clark view, the United Nations or some other multinational body should then administer the conquered territory.
As a strategy for defeating al-Qaeda, that sounds about as effective as punting on third down. The distinguishing feature of the Kosovo operation was that the U.S. had almost nothing at stake and fought primarily to save its NATO allies from an humiliating climb-down. American intervention covered up the sad fact that Western Europe's combined military might could not overpower internationally isolated, internally divided Serbia. We deferred to our allies and to the U.N., because our major goal was to make them look important, not because that was the most effective way to fight a war. (General Clark's earlier book, Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo and the Future of Combat, portrays the confusion and inefficiency of divided command in the Balkan campaigns.)
What distinguishes the War on Terror is, first, that America was the direct target of the first major strike and, second, that the enemy relies on non-state apparatuses, such as al-Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for offensive action while sympathetic but nominally noncombatant nation-states furnish bases and support. Many of our traditional allies are determined to be bystanders, fancying that they will thereby escape the terrorists' attention. Giving them a major role in decision making is tantamount for forgoing all initiative and condemning ourselves to passive defense. Even without that impediment, destroying terrorist gangs by air power alone is a daunting task; depriving them of their sanctuaries is impossible if, as General Clark apparently recommends, we reject preemption and refrain from fighting any country that hasn't either overtly attacked us first or managed to incur the unanimous hostility of Russia, China and France.
Appearances could deceive, but Wesley Clark's "war on terror" looks a lot like Bill Clinton's: a succession of irritated gestures tied together by no coherent grand strategy. Perhaps that approach was adequate in the halcyon era before September 11, 2001. Today it is dangerously complacent and naive.
September 13, 2003
Shortly after the Argentine invasion of the Falkand Islands, The New York Times ran an editorial under the headline "1,800 Hostages". Its burden was that the lives of the 1,800 British inhabitants of the islands were in jeopardy should the Queen's government carry out its threat to meet force with force. The prudent approach was to negotiate and arrive at a compromise.
Margaret Thatcher ignored such counsel, the British Army and Navy recaptured the Falklands, and the "hostages", though not very considerately treated by the occupiers, emerged alive.
I recall the Times' misguided advice now, because it rested on assumptions about the Argentine junta's mentalité not at all unlike those that underlie similarly pusillanimous opinions about how to deal with Yasser Arafat and his circle of thugs. We are warned that exiling, imprisoning or killing the dubiously elected president of the Palestinian Authority would spark a massive, deadly uprising of his devoted followers. Like the Times' picture of General Galtieri and his countrymen, this prediction paints Arafat and the Palestinians as relentless, ruthless and irreconcilable. Cowing them is impossible; instead, we should let ourselves be cowed and seek the best deal that we can to escape their wrath.
The demands that Israel allow Arafat to remain at large within its territory have no other intelligible basis. No one can seriously argue that Arafat is a proponent of peace; he used all of his power to undermine so feebly conciliatory a figure as Mahmoud Abbas. Nor can he call on either a significant military force of his own or foreign allies. Driving him from the Palestinian stage is easily within Israel's capabilities. The case for doing so is clearcut and overwhelming: He opposes the suppression of terrorist groups, personally commands one of the worst of them (the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade) and subsidizes others, tyrannizes over the Palestinians within his grip, is personally corrupt and has never kept a promise. As a "partner for peace", he is about as credible as the late John Gotti.
The counterargument, urged by the State Department, the European Union and bien pensants everywhere, is that, true though all of that may be, getting rid of this despicable creature will "make matters worse", because the Palestinians will respond with unquenchable, uncontainable fury. So many of them are willing to die for Arafat that Israel and the West will suffer grievous harm. To save the misguided Israelis, not to mention ourselves, we must soothe the monster, just as Britain had to speak softly in order to save the 1,800 Falkland Islanders.
But Britain did not need to speak softly. Argentine bluster about the "sacred Malvinas" faded as the British Army advanced on Port Stanley and, in the end, an army of dispirited conscripts surrendered tamely to a numerically inferior foe. There was a period of resistance - Britain suffered casualties and lost warships – but the enemy's fanaticism had been vastly overestimated.
If one looks closely at the ties that supposedly bind ordinary Palestinians to Yasser Arafat, one sees a similar blustering facade with a feeble foundation. Their kleptocratic despot has not been a beneficent or successful ruler. Very few inhabitants of the West Bank or Gaza Strip have any reason to feel admiration or gratitude toward a leader who has brought nothing resembling peace and prosperity and offers no program except many more years of war, a war in which "victories" consist wholly of suicide assaults on unarmed civilians. The Palestinian army has never, under Arafat's command, gained so much as a single minor success against Israelis with weapons.
What does it mean when thousands of Palestinians rally to cheer Arafat's call for "a million martyrs to march on Jerusalem"? Do a million martyrs actually spring from the soil of Ramallah? Or does the ominous presence of al-Fatah militiamen perhaps encourage the acclamations?
There are causes that inspire men to battle courageously against overwhelming odds and causes that move them to shout loudly and then go home. Zionism in 1948 was a cause of the first sort: Every Jew was a soldier, and zeal for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland created the amateur army that soundly drubbed much larger numbers of attacking Arabs.
Palestinian nationalism looks more like the second sort. The reason why the Palestinian Authority fights principally through terrorism is that it cannot rouse a nation in arms. The Battle of Jenin was typical. In a built-up area, ideal for defense, only a tiny minority of Palestinians engaged in combat. By the standards of urban warfare, this battle, with a death toll of barely a hundred on both sides combined, scarcely qualifies as a skirmish. Yet it represents the fiercest level of Palestinian resistance.
That the Palestinian effort is so much feebler than the Zionist has nothing to do, of course, with inherent ethnic characteristics. Prior to the wars for Israel, modern Jews had no military tradition and were inclined toward either mystical or liberal varieties of pacifism. Zionism itself began as a wholly peaceful enterprise founded on socialist as well as Jewish values. What turned this unmilitaristic population into formidable fighters was the devastation of the Holocaust and the conviction that a Jewish state was no longer a pleasant dream but a necessity for survival.
The Palestinian cause, in the form espoused by al-Fatah, has no similar underpinnings. It rests partly on nostalgia for the rather small territory that was lost in the war of 1948 (a war in which, let it be remembered, the Arabs were the aggressors) and partly on anti-Jewish bigotry. No one can reasonably claim that destroying Israel or keeping Jews out of the West Bank is vital if Palestinians are to lead happy lives. No doubt the average Palestinian would like to see Israel vanish, and he will applaud any demagogue who promises that end, but he will not himself willingly sacrifice life, fortune or sacred honor to achieve it.
Removing the demagogues from power and demonstrating that their promises are empty is less likely to touch off an explosion than a sigh of relief. Indeed, once the process starts, we may find that Israel and the West do not have to do much to keep it going. Al-Fatah has made life wretched for millions of Palestinians. Is it not possible that this suppressed majority will at some point act to finish off the oppressors. As David Frum has observed, something like that took place in the Irish Republic, when the Cosgrave government destroyed the southern branch of the IRA. Mahmoud Abbas was too weak a character to play Cosgrave to Arafat's de Valera. With Arafat sitting impotently in (a) Riyadh or (b) a Tel-Aviv prison or (c) his grave, prospects for a sane and healthy Palestine may improve. They certainly will not get worse.
September 11, 2003
Today I read a lot of 9/11 commentaries, having not instantly thought of brilliant ideas for one of my own. Among them was Lawrence F. Kaplan’s “Are You a ‘September 10 American’?”, which, I think, encapsulated why the United States is so much more divided two years after the attack on the World Trade Center than it was after Pearl Harbor:
New Yorkers still mourn their fallen. In small towns with sons and daughters serving in the war on terror, local newspapers feature daily weather reports from Baghdad. But the unglamorous truth is that, when it comes to public policy priorities and civic habits, most of us have picked up exactly where we left off on September 10. There are today two Americas – a "September 11 America" caught up in a world war, and a "September 10 America" largely oblivious to it.
To “September 10th America”, 9/11 was not an act of war but simply an horrendous crime. The men who committed it are more like Charles Manson than Hideki Tojo. There is no “Web of Terror”, only unconnected groups of “militants”, many of them with justifiable grievances. Preemptive strikes against nations that give aid and comfort to terrorism are not justified defense but irresponsible aggression. Any ongoing “war on terror” exists solely in the fevered imaginations of President Bush and sinister neoconservative imperialists; if we would leave our alleged enemies in peace, they would reciprocate.
The Democratic Party has become, as Mr. Kaplan, himself a Democrat, laments, the Party of September 10th. Much of Europe is aligned the same way. Under the heading, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, Norwegian blogger Bjrrn StFrk translates an article from the prestige newspaper Aftenposten, in which an “expert” avers that the terrorist danger is merely an unfortunately divisive myth:
The split between the US and Europe is not only over views of the Iraq conflict and means in the war on terror. The level of fear is also different on the two sides of the Atlantic. This isn't very strange, because Europeans are not the targets of the terrorists, says Daniel Gros to Aftenposten. He's the director of the renowned research institute European Policy Studies in Brussels. . . . Americans see new terrorist attacks as a very real possibility. In European countries the level of fear is much lower, numerous polls have revealed. Americans don't understand the relaxed European attitude, and the other way around. Europeans appear to play a less important role for terrorists. What has happened after September 11 shows that Americans want to affect the world to prevent repeated attacks. That makes them the target to an even stronger degree, says Gros. . . .
The terrorist attacks on American soil appear to be unique incidents which may not be repeated soon, perhaps not for 50 years. It appears to be difficult for terrorists to plan new attacks in the US, believes Gros.
And, as John Derbyshire observes, the September 10th faction could, if it were able to quell its anger long enough to think rationally, rejoice that its preferred (non)reaction has been implemented in many respects:
We have not taken control of our borders and entry points. Our diplomats have not given up their addiction to "peace processes" and "initiatives" and "deals" with people who plot our destruction. Our domestic Left has not stopped believing that everything bad in the world is our fault, and that our enemies will become our friends if we only grovel a little more, apologize a little more, retreat a little more. The self-styled "paleocons" have not budged an inch from their insistence that 9/11 was a judgment on us for our persistent, ill-considered meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, and that all will be well if we give up all those messy, un-American foreign entanglements and alliances and pull back to within our own borders. Our allies in Western Europe have not been woken from their opium dreams of security and peace, even as their ancient churches are pulled down to make way for mosques. Our universities are still filled with academics like Edward Said, lecturing us on our wickedness and cruelty.
It would be going too far to label the men of September 10th “copperheads” eager for America’s defeat (though some are – today’s Best of the Web presents chilling examples). Virtually all, I’m sure, would like a world without suicide bombings or Osama bin Ladens. (The desirability of Yasser Arafats is still under advisement.) But they do not regard that velleity as urgent and do not trust the United States of America as the instrument for carrying it out.
The September 10th candidates for President squabble among themselves over details, but all are agreed on the outlines of national strategy:
Use force unilaterally only in response to direct attack and then only in a measured, proportionate manner.
Except for measured, proportionate retaliation, take military action only under the auspices of the United Nations and only with very substantial foreign support (particularly including France and Germany).
Avoid speaking or acting in a manner that offends European or Moslem opinion.
Do not insist that other countries must be either “for us” or “against us”; there is ample room for neutrals in America’s quarrels with al-Qaeda.
Above all, fiercely oppose any abridgement, actual or potential, of civil liberties.
This is the strategy that follows naturally from the worldview of September 10th. If Howard Dean or Jean-François Kerry or John Edwards or Wesley Clark or Hillary Clinton or even Joe Lieberman becomes President, it is the strategy that America will follow. From the September 11th point of view, it has many flaws, but two stand out.
First, Bill Clinton adhered to the same strategy in the insouciant days before 9/11, and it didn’t work. We can’t know what would have happened if President Bush had adopted it in the aftermath of the attack, but it is hard to believe that we would have gone for two years without a major follow-up atrocity on American soil or that al-Qaeda would today be reduced to a leaderless, desperate remnant whose mastermind communicates with the world only through transparently phony taped messages. (The notion that bin Laden remains alive could be true, I suppose, but the evidence has become as tenuous as the case for cold fusion.) Although one must never underestimate the role of luck in successful endeavors, the record isn’t particularly ambiguous.
Second, the leitmotif that binds together all of the elements of the 9/10 strategy is an evident conviction that the world’s premier democratic nation cannot be trusted to wield weapons of war. Why is that? The September 10th Americans are not pacifists. They do not argue for disarming America, only for creating institutional fetters that will restrain the use of its power. The clear implication is that we cannot rely on our constitutionally elected leaders to act responsibly. Prudence dictates that we subject them to outside control, most importantly control by the United Nations.
The fear that democracies are untrustworthy and prone to irrational adventurism is an ancient one. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is an extended commentary on that danger. Our founding fathers themselves were suspicious of popular unsteadiness and enthusiasm, which the structure set forth in the Constitution was designed to moderate and stabilize. If one takes the September 10th party seriously, the Constitution is a failure, and moderation and stability must come from foreign sources. America must be saved from its excesses by the U.N. (where an unabashed dictatorship holds a Security Council veto) and by the force of “world opinion” (largely formed without the benefit of free speech or a free press).
If the September 10th view is right, isn’t it time that we heard about the disease as well as the symptom? If democracy is a risky scheme and the Constitution too frail a check on the madness of the mob, our country’s problems are much bigger than foolhardiness in Iraq. Let’s hear Presidential candidates talk frankly about the need to replace the Constitution, not just mumble about changing the leadership of the ochlocracy. But we won’t hear that – because, in sober fact, September 11th did occur, and not even the September 10th Americans can, in their hearts, ignore that brutal, sobering fact. The fault lies not in American democracy but in Islamofascist tyranny. Whether or not we choose to fight, we are at war, a war that the complacency of September 10th cannot win and that the world cannot afford for us to lose.