Another 9/11?

Victor Davis Hanson

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 — 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!” — 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 — in very quiet and deferential tones, in private, and to the albeit illegitimate leaders of these relevant countries — 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 — 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 — military bases, power plants, communications, and assorted infrastructure — 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 — as we should have against the Taliban, bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein — 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.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Terrorism,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. dburbach says:

    James,

    Excellent take on the VDH article.

    A few other points to consider:

    — What about states that simply lack the capacity to control all of their territory? I’m not sure the Somalis could detect, let alone evict, a small al-Queda camp if they wanted to, and it’s probably only worse in the case of countries like Congo or Angola. There really isn’t much point to making deterrent threats that the target is utterly incapable of responding to. Even if the government of the Congo wanted to have positive control of every square kilometer it owns, I doubt it has the resources to do so.

    — Will this policy extend to negligence as well as active assistance? Will we hold the threat of nuclear devastation against countries that are basically on our side, but through laziness, lack of effort, incompetence, or just bad luck, fail to prevent some sort of terrorist activity to be launched from their soil?

    For example, should we bomb Germany for failing to roll up the Hamburg cell, where a lot of the 9-11 planning happened?

    Should we bomb Florida for giving drivers licenses to 9-11 conspirators?

    For that matter, should we bomb Montana for allowing the Unabomber to operate from its territory? Or Tim McVeigh?

    — In the end you could argue that the terrorists quire popular support and thus we’ll bomb any country where crowds cheer in response to the next attack, but then why even wait for such an attack? Why not announce that any nation that does not publically demonstrate its support and affection for the US, and punishment of citizens who disagree, is on the list for bombing?

    The bottom line is that the neocons just do not accept the notion of powerful non-state actors. At the extreme you’ve got Laurie Myrolie who to this day argues that al-Queda was — and is — just a front for Iraqi intelligence, but nutty as that sounds, Wolfowitz, Perle, Woosley, Cheney, etc. all say gushing things about her work. You’re right that “virtually no expert” has that view, but the neocon crowd considers those experts to be fools.

  2. ron says:

    I tkink vdh was aiming at syria, iran, and n. korea. almost any terrorist attack could at the least be partially traced back to one of the three due to their current support of terrorist orgs./ wmd programs. holding them responsible for an attackwould place it in their interests to help stop attacks against the u.s.

  3. notefromjk says:

    Trace terrorism back to three countries? You wouldn’t add Saudi Arabia to the list? But that’s the point, don’t you see? You can add anyone to the list. Take anyone off. Monroe Doctrine. Fear mechanism. Note a real threat, extend the shadow of that threat to your desired target, and the people will let you shoot where you wish.

    The article that inspired these comments – mine and the folks’ above – is smarter than that. The Houses need to come up with a checked, balanced, verifiable way of evaluating the intelligence in a bipartisan fashion that the courts can participate in, determining sources of terrorism and making punishment fit crime.

    Goering. Monroe. Wolfowitz/Cheney. No more. No more digging my country deeper into the hate cycle. No more manipulation of tiny fragments of evidence. No more sending 19-year olds to die for anything less than Clear and Present Danger. A bipartisan, checked balanced way of evaluating intelligence, determining a measured response to terrorism, and making the policy (if not the intelligence) public. And letting well-intentioned countries in on it!

    Cops & Intel have beat terrorism. (examples: first trade center attack, Lockberbie attack, Clinton retaliation for Cole and Sudan embassy attacks; capture of Al Queda operatives in Pakistan, Europe) War ? Not so sure. Do the anti-terror benefits of war fit the cost? In other words, is war on terrorist countries cost-effective? It doesn’t seem so.

    And in any case, the VDH article is correct, we need a system of response, a publicly known vehicle of deterrent. The War on Terror Doctrine is NOT it.

  4. Attila Girl says:

    JK:

    1) The “law-enforcement” model of fighting terrorism brought us 9/11.

    2) Why not take your idea further? If we’re letting the courts–and bipartisan commissions–in on sensitive intel, why not distribute the President’s threat assessment memos over the internet? I’d like to see that material in my in-box every morning . . .

  5. Chuck says:

    James,
    You do a service to us all by treading where officialdom cares not to of late. And you size most of the thorny issues of “appropriate response”. The delimas of same are enormous and require sane adult administration. Inviting your ill-informed and unstable audience to fantasize on how they would act is great sport and prompts all but the most cynical to thank the Lord that these ninnies are not in charge.

  6. Brian says:

    dburbach,

    Your arguments are foolish sophistry. The neo con strawman was a weak finish.

    Chuck,

    The stilted language of a pseudo intellectual carries no weight.

  7. Rev. Churchmouse says:

    Who was talking about nuking the entire Muslim world?

    VDH was certainly not.

    JJ –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.

    Of course our response would be situational. VDH was clearly speaking of the need to consider ahead of time what response we might make to what situation and in recognition of precisely where that “classical understanding” is not sufficient to either describe the reality of current threats or provide effective responses.

    VDH What to do? The key for the United States — in very quiet and deferential tones, in private, and to the albeit illegitimate leaders of these relevant countries — 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?

    JJ 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?

    Sheesh. Who was talking about Afghanistan? He was talking about Syria and Iran. He was talking about recognizing that the “classic” model doesn’t fit, addressing the reality of the spectrum of state tolerance-to-sponsorship of terrorism in two specific examples and saying that if we consider the threat to be real, we must be pro-active, consider possible responses in advance, and inform the relevant countries what response they are risking if they continue to hide behind a facade of non-involvement.

    This-
    being 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.

    was precisely his point. Unless we proceed to develop and make clear to states that harbor and support terrorists what the price is going to be, then we have no alternative save relying and hoping for the success of purely defensive actions, bearing the cost of terrorist assaults when they fail, or responding with extreme measures that could indeed result in a scenario such as annihilating entire populations.

  8. Doug says:

    I think you missed the point of the article. The big fear is not another 9/11, it is a terrible attack with a nuke or other similar weapon that kills more than 100,000. In such a case we will have no choice but to anihilate any country that could have possible given such weaponry to terrorists regardless of whether or not it can be traced to them. If you don’t think this will happen, you don’t understand either this country or the devastation I am talking about. Hanson is stating that countries like Iran, Pakistan, North Korea etc. must be made fully aware that they will be held responsible and subject to a devastating response if a nuke is set off in the U.S. PERIOD. This will give them the incentive necessary to prevent it. It is our only hope short of destroying the entire muslim world premptively (not an option). I assume this has been done and is a large part of the reason why Quadaffi decided to get out of the WMD business. Unfortunately, I am not sure the Iranians believe we’re serious. Maybe if Bush is re-elected they will.

  9. Brett says:

    1) I agree with James. Collective punishment is a really grand idea. In some future version of “Atomic Cafe” (maybe, the “Terror Cafe”), Hanson’s article should fill the role of the interview with the Senator who advocated nuking North Korea (cut to graphics of atomic mushroom clouds near Pyongyang).

    2) Just because you have an army that knows how to fight states does not mean that states are the most significant enemy.

    3) And, wait, conservatives are saying that our President hasn’t exercised the leadership necessary to plan for the next attack — and we’re supposed to leave him in office for another four years?

  10. Tom Grey says:

    James, it seems that VDH is also not quite sure what to do. It’s a race between regimes changing, through internal evolution or external force, and terrorists getting and using a WMD, especially nukes.

  11. While I have no doubt that we would respond to a nuclear attack on the US with a devastating response, I think some commenters are forgetting what VDH is addressing–trying to deter state sponsors of terrorists who might think they can outsource a nuclear attack on us and go scot free. Yes, terrorists can operate without state support; but really significant operations without state help for money, training, sanctuary, weapons, and intelligence are far harder to carry out.

    Would we really nuke Iranian cities after an Iranian-supported nuclear attack that kills 20,000 Americans when most Iranians like us? Is sheer murderous revenge in our nature? I think not. We did not flatten Kabul after 9-11, after all.

    Yet failure to respond to a nuclear attack on our home or a ship in a port or even at sea with nukes of our own would weaken nuclear deterrence tremendously. Do we nuke significant military targets that support the sponsoring regime? Economic resources? And what about Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or even Germany? What level of support for terrorists or failure to dig out terrorists counts as sufficient reason to attack? With Saudi Arabia we at least have the potential of seizing the oil fields of eastern SA and setting up a Shia government there. Risky, but a real threat to the SA government should they fail to fight the Wahabbis sufficiently.

    I don’t know how to deter these guys, and if the anti-war side really doesn’t like overthrowing regimes first, I’d think they’d be the first to call for a serious look at deterrence. I do think we need to address this question. I really would prefer to deter an attack instead of respond to one.

  12. Joseph says:

    I certainly have to agree with James that delegitimizing the more hostile forms of Islam has to be a long-term goal. I don’t believe we can do this directly — leaving the constitutional problem of any government-sponsored missionary work aside, I don’t think our government would be any good at it.

    However, religions do change with the world. Read this papal bull from 1302:

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/b8-unam.html

    …particularly the last sentence of it. No modern pope would dream of issuing such a statement now; neither would the church now take the position that the Scriptures are infallible on scientific topics, as once it did. Modern, worldly reality simply won’t allow it.

    Islam generally includes a strong element of fatalism, a belief that whatever happens in the world (including the fate of the individual soul) is controlled and preordained by God. Feed the terrorists a steady diet of defeat and failure, and the survivors may in time get the impression that God does *not* favor their cause, or at least not their way of pursuing it. This indirect method is the only way I know.

  13. Victor Davis Hanson writes in the indicated piece using the term “Shermanesque” — referring to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s invasion of Georgia and the Carolinas during the American Civil War — as inflicting “collective punishment” (as indeed it did) on these regions for their role in furthering the bloody War Between the States while sitting back, far behind the former battle lines, more or less fat and happy.  James Joyner in his reply then picks up on Hanson’s phrase as somehow implying “unmeasured attack,” as he put it, perhaps even “nuking the entire Muslim world” along with “annihilat[ing] the entire populations of the Middle East.”

    However, Hanson says nothing about employing those sorts of means, and moreover it’s really a slur on Sherman and what he accomplished during the Civil War to imply that his attack massacred whole populations or even small portions thereof.  Yes, Gen. Sherman’s army did destroy troop concentrations which tried to oppose it, and went on to deliberately demolish much civilian and public property, engendering (as Joyner pointed out) long-lasting “regional enmity.”

    Nevertheless, murder was left out of the equation.  Here’s what Winston Churchill (yes, that Churchill) had to say about this in his superb History of the English-Speaking Peoples (which has an excellent section on the U.S. Civil War by the way):

    “Georgia was full of food in this dark winter.  Sherman set himself to march through it on a wide front, living on the country, devouring and destroying all farms, villages, towns, railroads, and public works which lay within his wide-ranging reach.  He left behind him a blackened trail, and hatreds which pursue his memory to this day. ‘War is hell,’ he said, and certainly he made it so.  But no one must suppose that his depredations and pillage were comparable to the atrocities which were committed during the World Wars of the twentieth century or the barbarities of the Middle Ages.  Searching investigation has discovered hardly a case of murder or rape.”

    Thus, though Sherman destroyed much property (and earned lasting hatred from southerners as a result), the nearly total lack of civilian casualties is a remarkable humanitarian record and achievement — one must note amidst the carnage of the bloodiest war (out of one-tenth the present population) in U.S. history — not an example of “unmeasured attack,” certainly not the equivalent of “nuking the entire Muslim world.”  In my view, that’s what Hanson is advocating here: communicating to the supporters of terrorism that “War is Hell” without invoking wanton massacre.

  14. bill says:

    Hanson is bringing up a topic that needs much more ventilating.

    If we get another 9/11 in this country, there will be hell to pay.

    Domestically, our borders will be closed down real fast, real hard, and for a long long time.

    And unless the Moslem “community” here in this country cooperates in actively rooting out the fanatics they are harboring, there could be some rather undiscriminating deportations of a lot of people who are not either citizens or permanent residents.

    We will probably see a draft, which IMHO we need anyway, not for the dumb “universal service” reasons the liberals put out, but because we need bodies to do military work.

    Heaven knows what will happen in the foreign arena. There will be military action, though. The current administration is planning for it – surely that’s one of the reasons we are keeping troops in Iraq and pulling them out of Europe.

    Bush managed to keep the lid on the last time. Nobody seems to give him any credit for that. But he won’t be able to do it if there’s a second time.

  15. John Doe says:

    Your wrote: “Virtually no expert on terrorism thinks the jihadists are particularly dependant on state sponsorship these days.”

    This seems wrong. The support of Syria, Iran and elements of Saudi Arabia seem instrumental in keeping the terrorists going. In fact it is fair to say that terrorism never exists anywhere for long without state sponsorship.