All Quiet on the Western Front

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Oct. 11 2001 9:00 PM

All Quiet on the Western Front

As the first bombs fell on Afghanistan, the Bush administration's cautious multilateralists (Colin Powell, et al.) seemed to have prevailed over its hawkish unilateralists (Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, et al). The military strikes were fairly narrow—no Iraq attack, as Wolfowitz would like—and were preceded by careful coalition-building.

But with the war underway, the hawks seemed to stage a comeback. After a day of bombing, the United States told the United Nations that it was considering attacks on "other organizations and other states." Two days later the New York Times reported that these ambitions go even beyond Iraq. Terrorist groups in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines are "likely targets of future covert and overt American actions." The headline read, "Other Fronts Seen."

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright, a senior editor at <a  linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="http://www.theatlantic.com/robert-wright/">The <http://www.theatlantic.com/robert-wright/%22%3eThe>  <http://www.theatlantic.com/robert-wright/%22%3eThe>  Atlantic</a>, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and editor-in-chief of <a linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="Bloggingheads.tv">Bloggingheads.tv</a>, is the author of <a  linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0679758941/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=slatmaga-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0679758941">Nonzero, <a  linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0679763996/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=slatmaga-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0679763996">The Moral Animal</a>, and <a  linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0045JK6HE/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=slatmaga-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0045JK6HE">The Evolution of God</a>.

There may be a case for opening other fronts, especially if the action is covert. But before we get carried away, let's ask whether the administration's hawks really deserve to have their influence grow in light of recent events.

In the weeks before the bombing started, the Powell faction stressed the dicey geopolitics of military involvement and the prospect that hasty and clumsy strikes would bring regional instability. And, sure enough, even fairly surgical strikes brought regional instability. The Pakistani government detained key clerics, sacked top army officers, and killed demonstrators—and still couldn't stop big buildings from going up in smoke.

Expanding the war into Iraq would further endanger the Pakistani regime's grip on power, increasing the chances that terrorists could wind up with nuclear weapons. And expanding the war wouldn't exactly raise the life expectancy of the Palestinian Authority, whose police on Monday killed two anti-American Palestinian demonstrators, thus giving a big boost to Hamas, its rival for Palestinian hearts and minds.

Paul Wolfowitz, I would guess, is coolly predicting that both the Pakistani regime and the Palestinian Authority will survive. And he's probably right. But those of us who have been stressing the perils of extensive military involvement are worried about side effects that transcend the fates of particular regimes. The longer and messier the intervention, the more eager recruits there will be for Osama Bin Laden—or, assuming Bin Laden winds up dead, for his successors. (Contrary to stereotype, our worry isn't just the generic pacifist fear that "hatred and killing only breeds more hatred and killing." Rather, the argument is that, though this pacifist cliché has often been wrong in the past, recent technological evolution has made it truer.)

This worry has already drawn grim corroboration from all those kids in Pakistan now vowing—with the official support of local clergy—to join a jihad against America. Still, since the worry is about long-term consequences, it can't be wholly vindicated in the short run. So, if the Afghanistan operation goes fairly smoothly (an increasingly big "if"), the Wolfowitz faction can do a quick cost-benefit calculus that excludes this long-run blowback and thus favors repeating the exercise elsewhere. The best we skeptics will be able to do is point to the past: If you had done a cost-benefit analysis of the Persian Gulf War right after it ended, it might have looked like a clear winner—only a few hundred American deaths! But it turns out that the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia triggered a conversion experience in Osama Bin Laden that led ultimately to the destruction of the World Trade Center and 6,000 deaths. Oh.

In addition to understating the costs of military intervention, the Wolfowitz faction can be counted on to exaggerate the benefits. Wolfowitz has stressed the goal of ending "state-sponsored" terrorism. But one thing we learned on Sept. 11 is how little state sponsorship effective terrorism needs in the modern world. The operation was done on a shoestring and organized in various states—Germany, America—that weren't sponsoring it. So, while we should of course get tough with governments that are harboring known terrorists, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that changing regimes in Iraq or anywhere else would greatly curtail terrorist attacks.

The one possible and important exception is attacks with weapons of mass destruction. State support does come in handy if you're building a nuclear bomb. And such support helps—though it's less crucial—if you're trying to build powerful biological weapons (the kind that kill not a few people but a few hundred thousand—a feat that remains a big technological challenge). If the administration has reasonably good evidence that Iraq is poised to hand a nuke to some terrorist, then, obviously, we should act now. Then again, if the administration has that kind of evidence, we should have—and presumably would have—acted months ago.

In light of 9/11, we do need to take a fresh look at the Iraqi situation: reassess the likelihood that Iraq is helping terrorists get a hold of nukes or biological weapons and, if the chances seem real, figure out what to do. But this is no higher a priority than, say, getting a clearer fix on what's happening to nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union (and getting a clearer fix on why the Bush administration cut funding for programs designed to keep these materials from getting into the wrong hands).

The list of issues like this—issues that need prompt and careful attention once the Afghanistan intervention is over—is long. (Consider, for example, tough global treaties that would slow the spread of nuclear and biological weapons.) The number of people who are like Paul Wolfowitz—who want to pepper this post-9/11 list with their pre-existing policy goals—is large. Some of these goals (mine, for example!) may indeed make sense in the post-9/11 world. But most won't, and we shouldn't be panicked into embracing any of them.