“For them, war would consist of fighting as little as possible.”—Charles de Gaulle, War Memoirs, Vol. I, on Franco-British policy between September 1939 and June 1940
By spring 2002, the Bush administration’s pretense that it was making “war” had worn thin. The Bush team had invoked war, but aimed its military operations and diplomacy chiefly at minimizing the discomfort of “friendly” Arab governments. Intent on not displeasing, the Bush team let itself be diverted from fighting the terror states into restraining Israel. And yet these “friendly” governments, in thrall to the terror states of Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority, were practically accessories in the terrorist attacks on America. All of this calls for something of a postmortem on the war.
Rather than destroy enemies whose leaders’ deaths would make the American people safe from terrorist attacks, the Bush team went out of its way not to identify any enemy except the “shadowy” al-Qaeda—as if a private organization could freely organize worldwide mayhem from Arab police states without being one of their tools.
So far, the Bush team’s discussions of strategy amount to wish lists, unrelated to acts of war. Hence, rather than conveying readiness to force others to choose between being killed or accepting America’s version of peace, the Bush diplomacy conveyed readiness to accept others’ ever-pricier promises of peace. This is what “peace processes” are all about: one side vainly seeks to avoid the reality of war.
Yet reality does not long permit the self-indulgences of phony war. That is because once the killing starts, one side’s reluctance is the greatest encouragement for the other to fight. And the longer wars go on, the more possibilities they offer to the bold. That is why any government that stints its pursuit of victory in order to preserve its favorite current arrangements inevitably finds that others impose their own agendas on the conflict.
In sum, the “war on terrorism” did not veer off course in the spring: it wasn’t on track from the beginning.
Never on Track
The Bush team decided, from the start, to make war on “terrorism” (an abstract noun) rather than on real people. Nearly a century’s experience should have taught Americans that to rid the world of certain abstract nouns—e.g., “militarism” (1917), “war” (1928), “aggression” (1941, 1950, 1990, etc.), or “poverty, hunger, disease, and ignorance” (Vietnam)—while making it safe for “democracy,” would take ruling the globe with an iron hand. But latter-day American statesmen have eschewed matching military means to political ends. This has made U.S. foreign policy insolvent, unserious.
By nature, armed force only can kill certain people and regimes. Whom to kill is the decision that defines any war. In September 2001, in response to an attack on America by Arabs traveling on passports from “friendly” Arab countries on behalf of causes supported by those countries’ governments and embodied by the terror states of Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian Authority, the Bush team decided to kill people in Afghanistan and to overthrow the Taliban regime. No one argued that this would make America safe from the rising enmity of the Arab world, or definitely avenge the attacks of September 11. Indeed, the Bush team acknowledged that Arab governments were abetting this enmity and warned that it would have to root out Arab enemies. But it deferred the whole matter to an undefined “next phase,” because it did not want to displease “friendly” Arab governments. Saudi Arabia conditioned its support of the war on Americans’ not killing any Arabs at all. Thus the Bush administration allowed the war to go off the serious track—at least temporarily.
But the temporary threatens to become permanent. Deference to the Saudi and Egyptian governments—the reason that the first Bush administration had stopped short of Baghdad in 1991—dictated once again the deferral of action. The completion of the U.S. war in Afghanistan did not usher in the “next phase” in which America would fight its enemies in the Arab world. Instead, American troops would scour the ends of the earth for al-Qaeda. Pursuant to intelligence reports of sophisticated terrorist nerve centers in northeast Afghan caves, U.S. troops stormed the caves—and found nothing of the sort. But real information could not trigger action against Arab states. In the March 25 issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Saddam Hussein was making use of elements of al-Qaeda to fight the Kurds in northern Iraq. Yet this report coincided with the Bush team’s admission that planning for any invasion of Iraq had been deferred to 2003, if then.
Why? Because nothing that happened on September 11 had changed the Bush team’s primary objective in the Middle East—maintaining the status quo—or its evaluation of what the status quo required, namely, the good graces of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Alas, to ask dubious allies to support a course of action that one has already shown the willingness to defer and redefine, amounts to asking for further pressure to defer, redefine, and derail.
On the Enemy Track
Following the Saudis’ lead, America’s Arab “friends” persuaded the Bush administration to abstain from rooting out America’s enemies in the Arab world and devote itself to restraining Israel from striking at its enemies in the Arab world. The Arab powers persuaded the Bush team to turn from America’s war to a role in their war, and on their side.
In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime had become the leading force in the Arab world. Despite losing half his military forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam won over the region’s most virulent elements by surviving to thumb his nose at America and denouncing all manifestations of Arab collaboration with the United States. By adroit, vehement propaganda, money, and murder, he and the leaders of the other terror states personified the identification of Islam with anti-Westernism. Their movement, which included political and philanthropic as well as terrorist activities, grew fat and strong on the protection money extorted from the Saudi royal family. By the turn of the century its message that America, its Jews, and their “Zionist entity” were polluting Arab lands had forced America’s Arab “friends,” notably including the Saudi royal family, to follow their fears more than their friendships.
To shift the bush team from america’s war to their own, the Arab terror regimes had first to manufacture one. The spring of 2002 saw a dramatic increase in the level of attacks by various Palestinian forces against Israel. These assaults, which included suicide bombing, inflicted half as many casualties on Israel as had the 1967 war. This new war served no interest of the ordinary Palestinians. It made their lives immeasurably worse materially, and subjected them to constant danger of execution as “collaborators” for failure to back the war. Note also that suicide bombing was anything but the action of autonomous individuals. The bombers’ families received sums of money that amounted to compelling endowments, supplied publicly by the Saudi royal family and Saddam’s Iraqi government.
The Saudi royal family’s demands were straightforward: The Bush team must intervene by interposing American bodies between Israel and the Palestinians in exchange for Saudi promises to intercede with the Palestinians. But note that our Arab “friends” also promised that in any quarrel between America and the terror states they would stand, publicly at least, with the terror states. To do otherwise would undermine their stability, which the Bush team would not desire, right? By the end of April, President Bush had bought this line and had committed American officers to “oversee” (with no power to compel) the Palestinian Authority’s promise to keep certain malefactors in prison. He promised to send more Americans, and had in fact already put the brakes on Israel’s own war on terrorists.
Did the Bush administration not know that Americans, thus interposed, would become the occasion of endless diversions? Did the administration not care about avenging September 11, about fighting all terrorists, about erasing distinctions between terrorists and those who harbor them? They probably did know and care—just not enough to change longstanding foreign policy priorities and intellectual habits, not to mention the people who run U.S. intelligence and diplomacy.
“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” describes U.S. intelligence in the war on terrorism. Nine months after September 11, U.S. intelligence still has no idea who most of the hijackers were, where the operation was organized, by whom, or who paid for it. Our professionals concluded that, except for Osama bin Laden, the identity of America’s enemies is a mystery. Still, they are certain that our enemies are amateurs, unconnected with professional intelligence services.
Start with the Saudi hijackers. The photos and names released by the U.S. government match flight manifests with visa files from U.S. consulates. But the only pictures of the hijackers from security cameras are of persons other than the ones in the visa files and flight manifests. Indisputably, the hijackers used stolen identities. That is a mark of a major-league intelligence service. (The Saudi government prevented independent investigation of who the hijackers really were.)
The hijacking itself bore marks of professionalism: the hijackers used sophisticated chemical sprays and methods of rapid entry into the cockpits, they had mastered navigation beyond what had been taught them in their U.S. flight schools, and they had turned off the planes’ transponders—which also had not been taught them in the flight schools.
Then there is the $100,000 that financed the U.S. part of the mission. Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian, reportedly got it after a meeting in June 2000 in Prague with Ahmed al Ani, an Iraqi intelligence officer who specialized in handling terrorists. The account from which the money came had been professionally scrubbed of the owner’s identity. On April 9, 2001, Atta made a 72-hour trip to see al Ani again. Two weeks later, the trained “soldiers” in the hijacking left Saudi Arabia for America. Did the two terrorists talk about the lingerie business?
From all this, a reasonable person—also knowing that Iraq has a facility where terrorists train to take over Boeing aircraft—might conclude that September 11 had been organized by Iraq, with connections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
But the CIA paid attention to trails that the hijack operation had chosen not to cover. On September 9, Atta wired $15,000 back to a different account. This one had an unhidden owner—an associate of Osama bin Laden. Osama had done it! And Atta had left his flight manual in a car he had rented in his own name. He only knew what he learned in flight school! See? An amateur operation planned in one of those fabulous Afghan caves.
If Wishes Were Strategy
With the help of the CIA, the Bush team imagines the world somewhat as follows: nearly all the world’s governments see terrorism as a threat to themselves as well as to civilized life, and are more-or-less willing to cooperate in rooting it out. The problem is that the Gulf War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have inhibited modernization and secularization in the Muslim world. The key to defeating terrorism is the cooperation of friendly, progressive governments in the Muslim world. To get that cooperation, we must ensure the survival of those governments. To do that, we must cool any conflicts that raise popular ire against them and America. This means any American attack on Iraq would be counterproductive. It would call forth more terrorism than it would prevent, and would directly endanger friendly governments. This also means cooling the Arab-Israeli conflict, whatever the cost. Once Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and maybe Syria and the Palestinian Authority too, can afford to be as friendly to America as is Pakistan, then liaison between their intelligence services and ours will leave the terrorists nowhere to hide. The war on terrorism will be won by police measures.
Success fuels hope of victory, which fuels effort. By this spring, only American policy makers could fail to understand that the Saudi government’s diplomatic overtures to Teheran and above all to Baghdad, as well as its assumption of the role as their advocate in the West, implied its recognition that it was living at its enemies’ sufferance. Any number of troublemakers in the region surely saw in the Saudi government’s weakness the chance of their lives. There is little doubt that someone will seize that chance and that the House of Saud will first split and then fall, which in turn will convince more people in the region to try for power and glory. That is what real wars are made of. As stability, the Bush team’s premise and objective, disappears, the Bush team finally will have to confront the choice that it worked so hard to avoid: between paying the price of victory and that of defeat. And it will have to do this from a well-earned position of disadvantage.
Governments bend to those they fear, and bite those they hold in contempt. The Bush team’s conduct of the “war” made the Arab world less afraid of America. How could that be, given all the bombs America dropped on Afghanistan? Simple. The Arab world knew all along that America could drop those bombs. It wondered, however, would America dare to drop them in order to alter the balance of power among the Arabs themselves? By dropping them on Afghanistan, America answered, no. “Friendly” Arabs’ estimate of America’s capacity to protect them from threats foreign and domestic also dropped. America seemed weak again when the Bush team recoiled from the Arab world’s brandishing of the ultimate terror weapon, suicide bombing. Count on it: the next stage of the war will feature suicide bombings on American streets.