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

Richard Reid gets no respect. The aspiring shoe-bomber's fellow passengers say he seemed like an oddball from the get-go, and his fellow radical Muslims aren't rushing to his defense. "The guy doesn't look like a genius," observed Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masrik, who runs an inflammatory London mosque that Reid may have attended. Reid, Hamza marvels, "didn't even have a lighter. He tried to light the thing with a match."

I think Reid deserves to be taken more seriously—not as a first-rate terrorist, maybe, but as a sign that the war on terrorism, as it's now being conducted, isn't going to get the job done. Reid is also a kind of rebuttal to hawk triumphalists who, since the victory in Afghanistan, have belittled those who either opposed the war outright or (like me) didn't quite oppose it but expressed grave doubts about its cost-benefit ratio.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

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

It's hard to deny that the war has been a success in the short run. It may have disrupted al-Qaida so severely as to buy us two or three years of breathing space. (And certainly I didn't have a better plan for buying breathing space.) But whether the war proves a long-term success depends on how we use the breathing space. Here I think the hawk triumphalists are giving us the wrong prescription: more wars, plus tighter policing, plus little else. And Reid illustrates my point.

The hawk triumphalists—the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, and so on—have ridiculed dovish concerns about how the "Arab Street" would react to the war. Once the Taliban started to fold, after all, the street got quieter. Krauthammer asks, "Where are the seething masses rising up against America and its nominal allies from Egypt to Pakistan? Nowhere to be seen." The masses may still hate us, but now they are filled with "fear and deep respect for American power."

It's true that, with victory coming sooner than just about anyone (including Krauthammer) predicted, street demonstrations died young. Regimes weren't toppled. But my main concern was never about regimes being toppled. My concern was—and is—about what may be the scariest trend in the world: Thanks to technological evolution, man-in-the-street rage, even if it doesn't assume regime-toppling form, is increasingly lethal. Very small groups of people—including groups of one—can take a real toll on the national psyche.

Reid, though no James Bond, came alarmingly close to becoming Exhibit A. We still don't know the details about him. There is some evidence that he was in al-Qaida's orbit, and he may have even spent a little time at a training camp in Afghanistan. But most of his radicalization seems to have come elsewhere—in prison, in European mosques, in Pakistan, and probably on the Internet. And, as for his munitions: According to CNN, Reid told investigators that he got the recipe for his bomb on the Internet and bought the ingredients from a man in Amsterdam for $1,500. Even if he's lying to protect accomplices, these ingredients are indeed something that an enterprising radical could get without being part of a major terrorist network.

In sum: Richard Reid-esque terrorists don't need anything that a military assault on Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else can deprive them of—no government sponsor, no fixed, physical training camps. Meanwhile, they may grow more vehement, and more numerous, in response to a military assault. The question isn't just, as Krauthammer would have it, whether war makes millions of anti-American Muslims pretty mad—mad enough to attend a street demonstration. The question is whether it makes hundreds of anti-American Muslims really mad—mad enough to blow themselves up.

I don't know the answer to that question—and maybe my conjectured answers are too gloomy. But the question is definitely important, and the hawk triumphalists, by and large, show no awareness of it. They may be right that military victory cowed the average Islamic America-hater into silence, but it isn't the average Islamic America-hater that flies an airplane into a building.

The assumption governing President Bush's anti-terrorism policy seems to be that what war won't solve, tighter policing will. In keeping with this mind-set, the reaction to Reid has focused on airport security: What can we do to keep future shoe-bombers from blowing up airplanes?

The correct answer: It doesn't matter. Suppose we tighten things up so that no one can ever again get through airport screening with enough explosives to blow a hole in an airplane. What sorts of options would a Richard Reid still have? Well, he could take a bomb 10 times as powerful, put it in carry-on luggage, and detonate it while waiting in line for airport screening. That would have roughly the same death toll, roughly the same psychological effect and—in economic terms—roughly the same effect on air travel. Or, instead of an airport, the bomber could choose a train station, or a mall at Christmastime, or whatever.

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.

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."

Sure enough, Krauthammer was declaring victory by late November and was not racked by uncertainty over the implication: We should now give ultimatums to a few minor-league terrorist-harboring states, "and then on to Iraq. The experts are already warning us that we dare not, lest the Arab street rise against us. They never learn." A common problem.