Monday, December 26, 2005

Can a review be better than the book?  


Bringing 'Em On

In the real world - and the United States exists in the real world, despite a national weakness for wishful thinking - failure has consequences. The prospects for American success in Iraq, which do not look promising, are the consequence of a cascading series of previous, all-too-familiar failures - the failure to heed intelligence warnings before 9/11, the failure to press the hunt for Osama bin Laden until he was caught, the failure to think twice before invading Iraq, the failure to send enough troops to establish security once the Iraqi Army quit fighting, the failure to recognize the growing insurgency until it was too big to crush, the failure to begin building an Iraqi Army and police services in a timely manner, the failure to foresee that a war in Iraq would draw jihadists from every corner of the Islamic world. . . .

These failures are all the doing of President Bush and his remarkably small group of intimate advisers. Confident at every turn they knew what to do, impatient of contrary views, strengthened by Republican control of both houses of Congress and deliberating in the kind of secrecy the old Soviet Politburo might have envied, Bush and his team have probably pursued their chosen course with a freer rein and less resistance than any other administration in American history. Naturally they do not concede failure. The White House argues that the story isn't over yet, that success in the whole project is still possible if we don't cut and run. Who does not hope the administration is right? Or worry that the tidal pull of events is all in a different direction - toward civil war and spreading violence?

Making sense of this slow spiral of deepening trouble is bound to occupy analysts and historians for a generation to come. Weaving through it, they will doubtless find some mix of the national attributes that allowed a previous president and his confident advisers to march the country wide-eyed into Vietnam. The challenge in both cases was to create a friendly regime strong enough to let Americans leave, as two recent magazine articles remind us. "Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam" in Foreign Affairs, by Melvin Laird, President Nixon's secretary of defense, argues that the White House had the circle squared until Congress cut off funding for South Vietnam; "Why Iraq Has No Army," in The Atlantic Monthly, by James Fallows, worries that the administration is whistling Dixie while American popular support for the war drains away and efforts to build Iraqi security forces are allowed to slide. Fallows quotes a Marine lieutenant colonel who thinks the difference between failure in Vietnam and failure now would be a continuing threat from a Sunni remnant of Iraq with a burning jihadist hate for the United States. "In Vietnam we just lost," he told Fallows. "This would be losing with consequences."

The consequence predicted by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, experts on terrorism and former members of the National Security Council under President Clinton, is implicit in the title of their new book, "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right." A long chapter examines the list of awful possibilities if terrorists simply take advantage of loopholes in our current domestic defenses. Some nine million shipping containers bring freight into the United States every year, Benjamin and Simon note. Only one in 20 is inspected; any one of the other 19 could contain explosives, biological agents, fissionable material, even a working atomic bomb. Or a well-placed bomb in a huge industrial plant producing toxic chemicals or dangerous gases might generate an "American Bhopal." Occasionally their worries verge on fretting; what are terrorists going to do with ultralight aircraft, which strain to get one man aloft with a water bottle?

Benjamin and Simon make a strong case that the president's friend Tom Ridge did a poor job of getting the Department of Homeland Security up and running, and they are not kind to the women Bush chose to press the American case in the Islamic world through "public diplomacy" - Charlotte Beers, Margaret Tutwiler and Karen Hughes, who all managed to achieve little while looking silly.

But the "next attack," painful as it may prove to be, is not really Benjamin and Simon's central concern. Their previous book, "The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War Against America," mapped out their chosen territory, which is the fundamentalist rejection of Western values throughout the Muslim world. What animates them now are the new dangers and troubling turns that have followed the invasion of Iraq - the mounting animosity toward the United States among onetime allies, the spread of jihadism in the Muslim diaspora in the West, the ready access to terrorist technology on the Internet, the second wave of devastating attacks in Spain and Britain by "self-starters" who seem to arrive from nowhere, making it all but impossible to predict succeeding blows.

The administration, they argue, has its hands full trying to stem the growing insurgency in Iraq; how will it handle challenges elsewhere in the Islamic world? They quote an intelligence official who describes Saudi Arabia, home of the great majority of 9/11 hijackers and an important source of foreign suicide bombers in Iraq as well, as the "aircraft carrier of the jihad." Citing the words of Stephen Cohen, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, they say Pakistan is "probably the most anti-American country in the world." Opinion polls show a Pakistani approval rating of 65 percent for Osama bin Laden, who has probably been hiding in the tribal areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan during the four years since an overconfident United States military allowed him to slip away from Tora Bora. The president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has narrowly escaped numerous assassination attempts; a successful one could throw control of the country, and of its nuclear weapons, into the hands of Islamic extremists.

From Chechnya to Indonesia, Benjamin and Simon track a seething hatred of America, fed by images of the war in Iraq, which President Bush and Vice President Cheney habitually call "the central front in the war on terror." Better Baghdad than Boston is the idea. When insurgent bombs first started to kill American soldiers in the summer of 2003, Bush seemed unfazed. "Bring 'em on," he said.

For Benjamin and Simon, "getting it right" means all the obvious things - putting terrorists out of business, controlling dangerous technologies, protecting the targets that matter most and trying to open some kind of dialogue with the Islamic world. But the best tool for doing these things is not the United States Army. "The Bush administration," they write, "has seriously overmilitarized the effort to stop jihadist terror." Doing better, in their view, means dropping the president's strategy of using the military to kill all the terrorists - a futile approach, as would have been apparent to anyone who had actually served in Vietnam, or wondered why the endlessly growing body count was followed by defeat.

But calling the invasion of Iraq "misguided" does not really explain what has gone wrong, and doing better on a national security punch list is not really a strategy for turning things around. The magnitude of the problem is suggested by the fact that at this point two writers with as much experience as Benjamin and Simon don't really know what to do next.

Their book takes an important first step in the direction of realism by arguing in sober detail that the bright hopes and confident ideas behind the invasion of Iraq were illusions. Nothing dies harder, as Vietnam taught us, and it will probably take another year or two for that fact to really sink in on a national scale. But once it does, the hard part can begin.

Thomas Powers's most recent book is "Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al Qaeda."

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?