Tuesday, July 18, 2006

In a remarkable week, nothing was more remarkable than the following announcement (reported, but not sufficiently, by the American media) from the government of Saudi Arabia:

“Viewing with deep concern the bloody, painful events currently taking place in Palestine and Lebanon, the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] would like to clearly announce that a difference should be drawn between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures carried out by elements inside [Lebanon] and those behind them [i.e. Iran and Syria] without consultation with the legitimate authority in their state and without consultation or coordination with Arab countries, thus creating a gravely dangerous situation exposing all Arab countries and their achievement to destruction with those countries having no say.”

Of course, the statement ended with the routine commitment “to protect the Arab Nation from Israeli oppression and transgression.”

But for Saudi Arabia to condemn Muslim attacks on Israel — and in the middle of an Israeli-Muslim war no less — is profound evidence of how much the world is changing in the face of rising Islamist radicalism in general and expanding Iranian hegemonic objectives in particular.

Even before the current war, experts have noted some envy and competition between Sunni al Qaeda and Shia Hezbollah, while other experts have noted that Sunni and Shia terrorists sometimes work together against common Western targets. But most Western experts, along with the rest of us, are at a deep analytical disadvantage in understanding the subtler elements of Sunni-Shia interaction — and their significance for American national security.

For example, we have a high interest in marshalling Sunni Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian and Gulf states’ fear and hostility toward Shia Iranian expansionist policy. At the same time, how does that affect our effort to stand up a largely Shia government in Iraq?

Shrewdly parsing and exploiting the dichotomies of Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian, national and tribal loyalties is almost certainly a precondition to formulating and executing a successful strategy for war against worldwide radical Islamist military and cultural aggression. We have not yet come into possession of such shrewdness. But that we are in such a struggle should not be a matter of doubt by sentient people.

And yet, listening to and participating in war debate this last week, I am struck by how few politicians, pundits and journalists even now accept the proposition that the West (and India, Africa and Asia) are facing such a remorseless threat.

Concededly, the terror attacks by radical Islamists in Bali, Bombay, Beslan, London, Thailand, Madrid, Jordan, New York, Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon, Kenya, West Africa, Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Nigeria, the West Bank, Gaza, Munich, Sudan, Indonesia, etc. were not all carried out by the same group for precisely the same reasons directed by a single high command.

Sometimes there is a vertical command and control function (Osama bin Laden definitely ordered the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and Iran probably ordered the Hezbollah attacks on Israel last week). But often there is no such command and control.

As Thomas Friedman has observed regarding economic activity, “cheap, ubiquitous telecommunications have obliterated impediments to international economic competition,” causing the world to be economically “flat.” Well, for similar reasons the world is flat for terrorist military and cultural aggression as well. The impediments to an asymmetrical terrorist war have been obliterated by telecommunications and new, compact and dangerous weapons.

It is curious that so many “experts” and commentators who have comprehended the reality and significance of globalism in the economic realm (even though it is not a vertically commanded process — indeed, precisely because it is not vertically commanded) are so obtuse in seeing the same phenomenon expressed in the realm of terror and cultural aggression.

And yet, one cannot understand the significance of the current Mideast war being fought out in Lebanon and Israel without seeing it as part — however ambiguously connected — of the larger struggle between radical Islamists and the rest of us.

The fact that the connections are formed by common ideological and religious perceptions and similar sources of money, rather than by a conventional military/political chain of command, hardly renders the events unconnected.

It merely makes them harder to understand and successfully attack.

This is very much going to be a thinking man’s war and will not be won by merely applying more brute military force than the other side. Unfortunately for us, America has usually won its wars by material attrition of the enemy (along with the bravery of our warriors). This time material advantage will not be enough. Sometimes overwhelming conventional military force will be required (a bigger Army and Marine Corps are inevitable). Sometimes use of force will be counterproductive.

Right now, what we lack most is a functioning political-media process that permits the nation (and potential allied peoples) to comprehend the world realistically. The current debate on Lebanon exemplifies the mental and moral confusion which obstructs the formation of rational policy.

In the coming years we will need Democratic, Green and independent brains, as well as Republican ones, French, Russian and Nigerian brains, as well as American ones, if we are to think our way to victory. But, first, we must have collective clarity.

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