- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

The 21st century wasn’t supposed to be like this. We Americans were meant to be spending our “peace dividends,” while the high-tech stocks in our 401(k)s grew like Jack’s beanstalk. Precision weaponry would deter anyone from even thinking about harming us. Besides, with the Berlin Wall reduced to paperweights, nations around the world would conclude liberal democracy was the only way to arrange their politics, and democratic capitalism the only way to organize their economies.

Instead, of course, we face a uniquely daunting period in our history. In essence, there are two formidable challenges Americans must meet in this new century:

(1) We must learn how to fight a low-intensity but long-term war against ruthless Islamist terrorists intent on committing mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

(2) And we must learn how to facilitate building free and democratic states abroad because the alternative is that more states fail, becoming corpses on which the terrorists feed.

In the euphoria of the post-Cold War, no one appears to have worked out these tasks comprehensively or creatively. We don’t really know how to do either. We had better learn.

Thomas Donnelly, an insightful military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, observes, “Counterinsurgency has proven to be a perennial blind spot for the American military.” At the Pentagon, he adds, an “institutional unwillingness to confront the problem of low-level combat persists to this day.”

The focus instead has been on “big wars” in which “overwhelming force” can win “decisive battles” that achieve clearly definable objectives. After that, come “exit strategies.”

Among key differences between a big war and the kind of war America now is fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and several dozen other countries where terrorists plot against us:

• In a big war, the generals have a pretty good sense of where the enemy is — he’s part of a unit, he wears a uniform, he carries a weapon openly.

c In a war against terrorists — whether in Baghdad, Berlin or Buffalo, N.Y. — the enemy is a phantom who strikes with sudden lethality and then disappears.

To win such a war requires doctrines, training and equipment different from those utilized in a big war. In particular, human intelligence on the ground is paramount because it is almost exclusively the means by which the phantoms can be located and destroyed before they attack.

Despite that, during the last quarter-century, America’s human intelligence-gathering capability has been severely diminished by politicians who didn’t recognize the continuing — indeed growing — need for this unpleasant work. They forgot George Washington’s admonition: “The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further argued.”

In addition, too many policymakers have been slow to recognize the difference between jihadi terrorists and past terrorists who fought for more limited causes. L. Paul Bremer, now the top U.S. official in Iraq, is a long-time student of terrorism who did recognize this difference.

Almost a year ago he wrote: “The old-style killers used terrorism as a tactic to draw attention to their political grievances or demands. They calibrated their attacks to kill enough people to attract the press without killing so many as to repel the public.

“In contrast, the new terrorists are motivated to destroy the West. In their warped interpretation of Islam, it is the duty of every Muslim to convert or kill all non-Muslims, if necessary by the tens of thousands or millions. They openly state they will not rest until all the world is united under an Islamic caliph (as indeed much of the world was for centuries until 250 years ago).”

As for “nation-building,” there has never been much support for that sort of effort among Republicans of the “realist” school or neo-isolationists of the Pat Buchanan ilk. State Department types also generally think of nation-building as a pipe dream promoted by provincials who can’t speak proper French.

Liberals and Democrats once were the strongest advocates of nation-building — recall President Clinton’s attempt to resurrect Haiti — but such support is now scarce on the left, apparently because President Bush has embraced the idea, and if he likes it… well, to many on the left no more need be said.

There are decent people in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan and the West Bank. Is it really impossible to devise a way to help them build societies that don’t support terrorism, that allow open debate, that let them find a way to choose their own leaders, practice their religions freely and earn a living? The alternative is that these places collapse into anarchy and are easily exploited by terrorists in their fevered quest to make the 21st century even bloodier than the one that preceded it.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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