Last week’s very visible award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to three of the chief architects of the war in Iraq and now its aftermath was a clear signal that the White House believes it is on the right course both in the global fight against terror and in the quest to democratize part of the Middle East.
Given the state of the Iraqi insurgency and the increase in terrorist cells and activity throughout a good part of the globe, these and other facts argue oppositely. Indeed, a recent report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, a panel of outside experts, boldly stated that the United States is losing the war of ideas against Islamic radicalism.
If we cannot win there, how can we prevail in the broader struggle against extremism and the political ambitions of those who use terror for purposes of seizing power?
Three elements are critical to winning. First, the U.S. leaders must understand the nature of the dangers that confront us as well as our real and not imagined vulnerabilities. Second, genuine reform of our national security organization and decision-making structure is vital. That must include Congress and certain “antique” aspects of our government. Third, a global response — roughly equivalent to what during the Cold War included containment, deterrence and the Marshall Recovery Plan for Europe and Japan — is vitally needed now. We simply cannot wait for another September 11 or Dec. 7 to move us to action.
This column focuses on the first element of understanding, leaving the remaining two elements to future pieces. To understand the nature of the danger, we must recognize that it comes in two parts. Neither is based on the line that terrorists are out to kill Americans because they hate us or our democracy. The danger is far more profound.
Our adversaries are out to seize power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and its oil and Pakistan with its nuclear weapons are two tempting prizes. For those who dismiss this possibility, so too were Vladimir I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks dismissed a hundred years ago and Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1920s. Complicating this danger are Islamic extremists who use terror as a means to sever the United States from Europe and from the Middle East, and whose attacks provide leverage and support for our more politically ambitious enemies.
The second point we need to understand is the shift of the strategic danger of the Cold War from the threat of the massive destruction of society in a thermonuclear war to the threat of massive disruption of society as demonstrated by September 11 and the March 11, 2004, bombings in Madrid that toppled the Aznar government. All societies are vulnerable and, as we have become more risk averse and creature-comfort oriented, this sense of vulnerability has become magnified. Recall how two snipers with a single rifle terrorized the Washington-Baltimore corridor last year and imagine what truly diabolical minds might achieve. In fact, one of the lessons that Osama bin Laden tells us he drew from the attacks on the twin towers was the amount of economic disruption measured in damage, fear and pain that could be inflicted on the United States. That lesson will return to haunt us.
Then, we have to understand that our current structure and organization for national security, despite all of the courageous and hard work done by our public servants, desperately needs reform. Even after creating a Homeland Security Department and now with the passage of intelligence reform, it will take years if not decades for these effects to be felt. That the Homeland Security secretary still reports to some 88 congressional committees and subcommittees is one shocking symptom of what ails government.
Far greater reform is needed, now in particular, to bring some discipline to a political system that is growing increasingly dysfunctional as well as far more partisan and bitter in conducting its business. As we saw from the September 11 commission and other investigations, the system is incapable of conducting effective oversight and debate over our strategic direction.
What needs to be done will follow in future columns as prescriptions for aligning our national security structure with a more acute understanding of both dangers and strategic realities, and for shaping a strategic response that is global in impact and deals with causes and not just symptoms of violence and terror. However, unless or until the American public takes an active interest in understanding how and why the nation is at risk and what must be done to keep us safe and secure, it could well take a catastrophe to awake us from our complacency and passivity.