Editor’s note: This is the first of several occasional articles by Dr. Codevilla assessing the War on Terror, based on the policy prescriptions he detailed in “Victory: What It Will Take To Win,” published in the Fall 2001 issue.
By New Year’s Day, Afghanistan’s Taliban regime was history and the Bush Administration was basking in the aura of success. But auras are not realities—especially in war.
Were the victims of September 11 avenged? There is no evidence that anyone killed in Afghanistan had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Was America now safe from terrorism, or at least safer than it was? No one suggests that any significant proportion of the leaders or followers of anti-American terrorism were killed, or that hopes for their cause were defeated. So what exactly did sweeping away the Taliban do to bring America the peaceful security necessary to our way of life?
The proof that it did nothing is that success in Afghanistan coincided with intensification of the security measures that have darkened American life since September 11. Only the relaxation of the security measures’ grip, a return to the habits of trust that had made America unique, would constitute victory. Would forthcoming operations in the “war on terrorism” trigger such a return? Alas, attempts to engage officials in the Bush Administration in such questions inevitably resemble a hospital dialogue:
Doctor: Good news. The operation was a complete success. We removed the targeted tissue using the latest and most advanced techniques medical science has to offer. We are planning several more operations, each designed for assurance of similar success.
Family: Great! Thanks! That means you are now taking the life-support tubes out of our patient, right? When will he be back to normal?
Doctor: The medical staff will discuss only the professional qualities of our procedures. New life-support tubes are going into him every day, and as we said, each successive operation is sure to be more successful than the previous one. You must have patience.
Family: Sure, but patience for what, and for how long? What do you mean by success? If the procedures are so successful, why more life support? Are you doing anything that would let him go home?
Doctor: We are making no plans at this time for the removal of life support. It is enough for us that our operations are related to his condition, and that they have high technical merits.
Family: What sense does that make? We’ve heard that you rejected or postponed indefinitely some operations that some experts say would actually cure him. Why?
Doctor: They might or might not cure him. And they would be expensive.
Family: But money’s no problem for us. Besides, your operations will keep him as a medical guinea pig indefinitely. Why not try the only ones that anyone argues will affect a cure?
Doctor: Well, you see, those measures would be disruptive to the medical profession. Doctors here and elsewhere would think badly of us for abandoning protocols most of us have followed for years. To do so would be to concede that we have not been very good doctors.
Family: Maybe you aren’t.
What Happened in Afghanistan and What Did Not
After abandoning an embarrassing three-week effort to defeat the Taliban regime without handing a victory to their Northern Alliance foes, the U.S. government used modern communications and close air support to facilitate that victory. The Taliban ceased to exist. As predicted here, Afghans of all stripes eagerly killed or turned over to Americans the Arabs who had bolstered the losing faction.
Many of the perhaps 2,000 Arabs who died in Afghanistan, and perhaps a few of the more numerous Afghans who died, were unfriendly to America. But because there is no evidence that anyone who died had anything to do with September 11, the Afghan campaign did not avenge America. Perhaps some of those who died might have harmed America had they lived. Hence America is much better off for their deaths. But these deaths did not shut off the pipeline of violent young men who believe that America is more contemptible that it is evil.
Whose deaths might have shut off this pipeline? Conceivably, killing Osama bin Laden in a way that would have discredited him might have helped. But the U.S. government did not find him, and would not have known how to discredit him if it had. Simply killing him would not have blunted his message: America may kill some servants of Allah’s cause, but it cannot protect itself or defeat that cause. Bin Laden’s claim that countless others would fill his place was no boast, while the U.S. claim that al-Qaeda was the proximate cause of the anti-American terrorism was belied by the U.S. “homeland security” measures, which waxed even as al-Qaeda waned.
What Happened to Osama bin Laden?
When it became clear last November that the Taliban would be defeated, it also became clear that if bin Laden remained in Afghanistan he would end up in American hands. Since America would destroy any other regime that harbored him, he became a deadly liability to any host. In American hands alive, he might have implicated anyone who had ever associated with him—especially governments whose purposes he had served. In American hands as a dead trophy, he would be a liability to his cause. But if he was never found, he would serve his cause as a living legend. More important, those governments who had succored him knew that obliging the Americans to continue searching for him would deflect America’s ire from themselves. And in fact those Americans who successfully argued against attacking Iraq also cited the continuing need to search for bin Laden. Because bin Laden is worth more to his associates dead than alive, it is a safe bet that he died at their hands and will never be found. Take a lesson from The Godfather Part II: Don’t bother looking for the assassins. Those who sent them have long since killed them.
After a groaning December debate over whether to follow up victory over the Taliban with the destruction of the Iraqi regime, the Bush Administration decided to send American forces to hunt down some anti-American small fry in the boondocks of the Philippines and Somalia, to leave Saddam Hussein alone, and to continue supporting a Palestinian state. The reasons that U.S. officials give for this are remarkably truthful: Although the vast majority of Americans would welcome a decisive war against Iraq, the administration does not which to displease those elements of the elite opinion who would regard it (correctly) as a departure from the post-World War II habit of not doing away with America’s enemies. Moreover, while centrist leaders of Italy, Spain, and Turkey would cheer at the undoing of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the end of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, the leftist European leaders so dear to much of the U.S. elite opinion would be displeased, and the Saudi royal family would be frightened.
The administration did not try to make a case that chasing mice in the Philippines and Somalia would make America safer than operations against Iraq or the Palestine Authority—just that more people in Washington would be comfortable doing one thing rather than the other. The administration did not try to make a case that the Philippine and Somali operations would make America safer than operations against Iraq or the Palestine Authority—just that it was more comfortable doing one thing rather than the other.
Dancing Around Wolves
In war, however, true comfort comes only from defeating the enemy. Taking comfort from the deaths of recruits to the enemy’s cause is a short-term illusion. The terrorists’ chief weapon is the will to attach, and they will attack so long as their causes have hope and credit. That hope and that credit is embodied by regimes, and success or failures is defined by the fate of regimes. On the anniversary of the Persian Gulf War in January, Saddam Hussein gave yet another speech to the Arab world, credibly claiming that America’s power had dwindled in 11 years and would surely drop further. He has allowed acolytes to praise him on Arab TV for the success of September 11. As it became clear that the post-September 11 U.S. government was no more capable of mustering the will to topple him than had its predecessors, Hussein sat firmly in the saddle. He warned the Arab world that is chief preoccupation would have to be satisfying the demands of the warriors being mobilized in the great anti-American struggle.
The Saudi regime got the message. Those who follow the regions affairs have always known that the impotent, faction-ridden, terminally corrupt Saudi regime has stayed a step ahead of internal implosion and external attack by paying ransom to the threat du jour. Thus the Saudis have fed the Iraqi regime and the Palestinian movement that bit them, as well as the Islamist movement within its own borders. Saudis recruited by Iraq or other anti-American and anti-Saudi regimes but financed by the royal family have been in the forefront of anti-American terrorism. Yet the Saudi regime has enjoyed U.S. support resulting from its many friendships in America, many bought and paid for. Now, however, the threats from Iraq and other anti-American forces are so strong and support from America against those threats so irrelevant, that that House of Saud is being forced to cut its ties with America—with as little disruption as it can manage. This, of course, is likelier to speed its overthrow than to retard it.
What matters is that keeping Saudi Arabia “on our side”—in practice, allowing the Saudi regime to be on both sides at once—has been terribly important to U.S. policy. For the sake of not upsetting the Saudis, the first Bush administration did not finish off the Iraqi regime in 1991, and for that sake the current Bush administration decided that the “war on terrorism” would not be waged against any Arab country. Considering that America’s attackers are almost 100 percent Arab, this amounts to beating around the bush, if not the bushes dancing around the wolves—in any case, nothing serious, like war.
Declaring Victory on Life Support
America is at war to establish the kind of peace in which we can live American lives. While the U.S. government’s actions abroad thus far have not had serious consequences on America’s enemies, the U.S. government’s actions at home have had consequences at once serious and laughable. There are checkpoints, and not just at airports, where the people doing the checking are more likely to be terrorists than those being checked. Moreover, because of the political correctness, old ladies are being searched while young Arab men are not. Washington D.C. is a fortress, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman half joked that the next step in security will be for passengers to fly naked. Nakedness will not suffice, however, to prevent the smuggling of biological warfare powders. For that, body cavity checks would be required. And then there is the fact that with all the armed security personnel around, the easiest way to penetrate security is to forge credentials or just buy uniforms. In the few instances in which persons have tried to penetrate these security systems, they have succeeded.
Nevertheless, Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft staked much on the gratuitous prediction that the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City will be terror-free because the U.S. government is spending $400 million on the dernier cri in security programs. Just one terrorist success, and the aura vanishes.
By forgoing attempts to defeat the causes of anti-American terrorism as well as the regimes that support those causes, and by placing its bets on security measures, the government has endangered not only America’s security but her liberty.