Why the current war on terrorism won't get the job done.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Jan. 8 2002 1:45 PM

Man in the Arab Street

(Continued from Page 1)

So the difference between there being, say, 10 Richard Reids in the world and there being 1,000 is a qualitative difference in the texture of everyday life. It's the difference between living roughly as we're accustomed to living, and living in a state of constant, creepy vigilance punctuated by the sound of bombs going off.

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And here is the crucial point: Five or 10 or 15 years from now—thanks partly to the Bush administration's refusal to earnestly seek an international regime for policing biological weapons—the Reids of the world could be much more highly leveraged. Three or four Richard Reids (or slightly more competent versions of him) might kill 10,000, 30,000, even 300,000 people.

If you buy my argument, you may find yourself asking such questions as: What does it take to make a Richard Reid? For example: Do some of the soldiers or civilians killed by American bombs have younger brothers who will now adopt vengeance as their mission in life? Or (thinking longer-term) is the problem poverty in the Muslim world? Is the problem creeping alienation in Muslim states with little challenging economic opportunity even for the middle class (think Atta)? Is it American support of repressive regimes? Is it the ongoing Palestinian conflict? American troops in Saudi Arabia? Or, as Mickey Kaus has asked, is the welfare state in Europe part of the problem?

My guess is: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Maybe I'm wrong. People will disagree about the roots of Muslim rage, and even when they agree, there's the further question of which roots to address and how. But some of the hawk triumphalists think "root causes" not even worth discussing. Krauthammer writes that "there has always been and always will be poverty and oppression, anger and resentment in the Arab world. And much of it will be directed against America. That is a constant."

There are two ways to interpret this passage, and neither of them helps Krauthammer's case. Is he just saying that some degree of anger and resentment is "a constant"? That's clearly true but irrelevant. Obviously, the specific amount of these variables matters. We don't know what percentage of America-hating Muslims will turn into Richard Reids—1 in 1,000, 1 in 10,000, 1 in a 100,000? But whatever the ratio, the point is that it is, roughly speaking, a ratio. So one way to reduce the number of Reids is to reduce the number of Muslims who hate America.

Or is Krauthammer saying that the specific amount of anger and resentment is "a constant"? This would at least be a relevant claim—but an obviously false one. Even Krauthammer must believe that the amount of anger and resentment would drop at least somewhat if, say, the madrasahs that preach hatred in Pakistan were closed and replaced by more moderate schools. Or if Saudi textbooks were changed and no longer taught children to hate non-Muslims.

More than one hawk triumphalist has invoked memories of the Persian Gulf War. After all, we heard weak-kneed warnings about the "Arab Street" back in 1991, but military victory silenced the street!

Actually, there's one man in the Arab Street that the Persian Gulf War had rather the opposite effect on: Osama Bin Laden. By all accounts, his seeing American troops in Saudi Arabia triggered a kind of conversion experience, and thereafter he devoted his life to expelling them. It seems to be literally the case that, had it not been for the Gulf War, the twin towers would still be standing. Severely enraging a single man can have very dire consequences. In this case, of course, it was a single rich man—but technological evolution is putting more and more lethal force within reach of less rich men (hence Thomas Friedman's phrase "the superempowered angry man").

I'm not saying that the Persian Gulf War, on balance, wasn't justified. And I'm not saying that the Afghanistan war won't in the long run have been a plus. And I'm certainly not saying I didn't get anything wrong about the war. For example: I (apparently) overestimated the number of "sleeper cells" and anticipated more short-run retaliation than we've seen. But the short-run and long-run effects of a war are two different dynamics. That's why only a fool confidently totes up the cost-benefit ratio of any war in its immediate aftermath. And the kind of war we just fought—a war against diffuse global terrorism and contagious hatred, not against a nation-state—is especially likely to have long-term blowback.

But if it's too soon to declare victory, there is one thing we can confidently declare: Even if this war turns out to have done more good than harm, "war plus tighter policing" isn't the long-term formula for security. War won't kill nearly all the world's Richard Reids, and it isn't likely to intimidate them, given their tendency to welcome death; and greater vigilance won't come even close to thwarting them all.

A few days after the bombing of Afghanistan started, I fretted about the eventual consequences and observed that, if the war went fairly smoothly, then hawks could "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."

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