While we speculate idly about the nature of the attack to come, and the inability of our homeland-security forces to stop it, very few talk about what we should do post-facto if the promised disaster actually transpires. This is a surprising lapse if one believes an understood response helps in advance to create deterrence.
Is our reluctance to discuss the unmentionable because we think we can do nothing in response Ã¢€” as if there is no culpable nation-state, a toothless CIA can tell us little, we dare not upset fragile gains in Iraq, or that violence only spawns violence? In a world in which Hezbollah promises to help out with peddling Fahrenheit 9/11, the Spanish people are led by the nose by al Qaeda, and Americans lose their heads to cheers in Middle East Internet cafes, have we given the fatal impression that we would grunt a few times, flip the channel, and then do nothing after a repeat of September 11?
Honestly, I don’t know where anyone would get that impression. After the last 9/11, we took out two Middle Eastern regimes and mobilized a wholescale war on terrorism. Deterrence in the classic sense is aimed at nation states with fixed targets and armies to destroy. Further, the nature of our response would almost certainly be situational, depending on who did it and what targets of opportunity were available.
Thus the genius of the jihadists is that they provide psychological rewards on the cheap for millions in the Arab Street without costs, and in turn thrive on “credible deniability” of their tacit hosts. They smirk that postmodern Western liberality precludes Shermanesque collective punishment against the pre-modern. After all, a Christiane Amanpour can be at the front in 24 hours before a live 60-million-strong global audience to yell to U.S. troops on patrol “Don’t step on that child!” Ã¢€” even as her husband advises the Kerry campaign back home. But do they also know that another 9/11 would throw such restraint out the window?
Well, no. Aside from nuking the entire Muslim world, I’m not sure what an unmeasured attack would accomplish.
Without the direct aid of an Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, the secret support of rogue elements within the Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, and Pakistani governments, and millions on the Arab Street, the killer cadres simply could not carry out their next large attack. Most Arabs are shocked at the beheadings; but even those who know where the beheaders live and sleep are not so shocked at seeing Westerners sliced and diced to turn the killers in.
Hanson mixes a truth with a brazen distortion here. Virtually no expert on terrorism thinks the jihadists are particularly dependant on state sponsorship these days. It is true, however, that popular support is the lifeblood of the terrorists.
What to do? The key for the United States Ã¢€” in very quiet and deferential tones, in private, and to the albeit illegitimate leaders of these relevant countries Ã¢€” is to convey the message that if there should be a repeat of 9/11, the United States will hold any countries responsible who are proved to have aided or sheltered any of the guilty. Now what does that overused and near-meaningless phrase “hold responsible” really mean? A repeat of Afghanistan and Iraq in places like Iran or Syria?
We should be clear about a proper response now and inform the appropriate parties exactly of the real damage that they should expect Ã¢€” and it won’t be moral fuzziness about guilt over endemic poverty, ancient support for the shah, past Aramco antics, the misery of the Arab Street, and all the other bottled causes and complaints that the Middle East counts on for its accustomed pass from a supposedly neurotic, decadent, and self-loathing West.
Perhaps it would be best to inform hostile countries right now of a (big) list of their assets Ã¢€” military bases, power plants, communications, and assorted infrastructure Ã¢€” that will be taken out in the aftermath of another attack, a detailed sequence of targets that will be activated when the culpable terrorists’ bases and support networks are identified and confirmed. We would have to draft a formal declaration of war Ã¢€” as we should have against the Taliban, bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein Ã¢€” against those countries that harbored or even aided the next 9/11-like cell. Both sides should anticipate the consequences should another 3,000 Americans be incinerated at work.
It’s hard to threaten incredibly backward country with economic destruction. Bombing places like Afghanistan to the Stone Age would have been a slight improvement. Power plants? What power plants? Communications? What communications?
I share Hanson’s sentiment but am not sure how to translate it into effective action. Unless we’re prepared to annihilate the entire populations of the Middle East–which would kill most Israelis, not to mention some number of innocent Muslims–a Shermanesque strategy isn’t going to solve anything. Sherman was attacking a reasonably modern society that had a government which could agree to terms. Even there, the price of victory was another century or so of regional enmity.
There’s no great solution on the horizon for winning the war on jihadists. The best we can do, I fear, is kill as many terrorists as possible, especially those in leadership positions, along with whatever infrastructure we can destroy. Simultaneously, we need to delegitimate the Wahhabi and Khomeinist brands of Islam and convince their state sponsors that fomenting it is not in their best interests. Precisely how to accomplish the latter is unclear.