Fighting the Last War

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 15 2001 9:46 PM

Fighting the Last War

A few half-baked observations on recent ramifications of Tuesday's terrorist attack:

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Eerie echoes: A headline on the front page of today's New York Times reads: "U.S. Demands Arab Countries Choose Sides." Is anyone else unsettled by the sound of this? The last time a President Bush demanded this of Arab countries—right before the Persian Gulf War--they by and large chose our side. And a residue of that choice—the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia—apparently triggered a conversion experience in Osama Bin Laden that seems to have led to the death of 5,000 Americans. More broadly, U.S. alliance with repressive and undemocratic Arab regimes does wonders for Bin Laden's recruiting.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Hold those e-mails, folks. I'm not saying that we shouldn't punish people who support terrorism, ranging from its financiers (e.g., Bin Laden) to its hosts (e.g., governments that refuse to surrender people like him). And I recognize that exacting this punishment may, for geographic reasons, entail our strenuously seeking help from Arab and/or Islamic countries, such as Pakistan. I am just saying that the long-term ramifications of military action are complex, especially when the effective use of lethal force is no longer confined to state actors. And doing things that feel good right now but lead ultimately to the death of thousands of American civilians is not something I favor.

Eerily echoless: When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, President George Bush wasted little time in stirring the United Nations to action. The Security Council deemed the invasion a violation of international law and authorized the use of force. This made the subsequent invasion of Iraq seem less like American bullying and more like law enforcement. It also amplified the message that interstate aggression is not something the world looks kindly on—a message that, for all we know, has forestalled would-be aggressors since. (By and large, the problem since then has been intra-state conflict.)

So, why hasn't the United States mustered U.N. support this time around? Oh, yeah--we don't have an ambassador to the U.N. At least we didn't. Yesterday the Senate confirmed John D. Negroponte's appointment to the post. In light of Tuesday's attack, Democrats abandoned the doubts about him that had been delaying confirmation—in particular qualms about his see-no-evil tenure as ambassador to Honduras during the early 1980s, when human rights weren't widely respected there.

So, what can we now hope for from the U.N.? Something reasonably resounding, even if less resounding than last time around (which involved an old-fashioned case of interstate aggression, exactly what the U.N. is designed to deal with). The traditional obstacles to American action in the U.N. have been Russia and China, two of the five security council members with veto power. But each, for its own reasons, shares America's aversion to Islamic radicalism. True, China has made overtures to Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, but apparently it did so in the hope of getting the Taliban to help neutralize Osama Bin Laden, lest he further inspire rebellious Muslims in China's west. So China's ultimate goals align with America's. The permanent members of the United Nations security council are—at some level of abstraction, at least--united. Stay tuned.

Bad Form II: Which is worse—exploiting Tuesday's tragedy to argue against missile defense, or exploiting it to argue for missile defense? I don't know, but I've stuck with the former, while the Wall Street Journal editorial page is doing the latter. Yesterday it wrote: "A President without defenses against missiles would have to think twice before he deployed U.S. forces to the Gulf or to defend some ally. And it is precisely the U.S. ability to project force abroad that is likely to deter the Irans, Iraqs, North Koreas and other states that sponsor and protect Osama bin Laden and other terrorists."

I've replied to this "missiles for bluffing" argument so many times that a randomly generated URL stands a fair chance of turning up an example. (This or this will improve the odds even further.) So I won't engage the argument here. But I would like to make one further point about how last week's events weaken the pro-missile-defense argument.

Many of us have long noted that launching a nuclear attack with a return address—which missiles always have--is guaranteed suicide for a head of state, and heads of state reliably favor life over death. So they'll always prefer putting a nuke on a barge and floating it up the Hudson River--which is much easier than developing ballistic missiles anyway. Missile-defense boosters such as William Safire reply that we shouldn't impose Western standards of rationality on foreign leaders. (Translation: You never know what those crazy Arabs and Asians will do.) He imagines a scenario in which a rogue dictator, facing certain lethal retaliation, "shrugs it off as his way to Heaven."

The aftermath of Tuesday's attack doesn't help Safire's argument. As soon as the prospect of a retaliatory strike against Afghanistan was raised, its Taliban government--probably the most zealously religious government in the world—hastened to distance itself from the attack. In fact, it wasn't just radical Islamic heads of state who turned out not to be suicidal (which is all my argument requires, since launching a ballistic missile requires state acquiescence) but even the terrorist masterminds themselves. Osama Bin Laden, who was probably behind the attack, and whose religious zeal I've never heard anyone question, denied involvement! So the general principle looks stronger than ever: Though there are people who can be duped into committing suicide, these are not the kind of people who wind up in positions of power—and certainly not as heads of state.