walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: September 11, 2006
Nine Things We Have Learned Since September 11, 2001

1. “Terrorism” is the wrong term to describe the problem we face. Terrorism is a tactic used by the weak; we are not fighting the tactic but a group of violent Islamists and insurgents. It makes no sense to lump together someone willing to fly a plane into a skyscraper in New York with an ex-Baathist attacking American soldiers on Iraqi territory, odious as both may be. While people in these categories may be temporary allies, their motivations and the threat they pose to the United States are very different.

2. “War” is also the wrong term to describe the struggle we are in. Wars are fought with overwhelming force against nation-states, and have clear beginnings and endings. Many of our most dangerous enemies are citizens of friendly countries like Britain, France, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The struggle in which we are engaged is more like a counterinsurgency campaign fought on a global scale. As in all counterinsurgency campaigns, the use of overwhelming force to destroy your enemies will almost always be counterproductive. You need to separate and isolate the hard core fighters from the surrounding populations, meaning that military operations have to be strictly subordinated to the political goal of winning hearts and minds of the less committed.

3. We have three broad groups of opponents in this campaign: first, the Sunni Salafists originating in Saudi Arabia, who have found many adherents among aliented Muslims in Western Europe and elsewhere; second, pro-Iranian Islamists including the regime in Teheran, Hezbollah, and some of the Shiite parties in Iraq; and third, nationalists (who may or may not be secular) struggling for power in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are not dealing with a unified movement. In Iraq and Pakistan, these groups are actively fighting one another; we have indeed facilitated the rise to power of some of the Shiite parties.

4. The Salafist branch is a very decentralized movement that does not depend heavily on hierarchical control or funding. This particular snake cannot be killed simply by cutting off the head. The Shiite branch is rapidly developing and does have a head in Teheran, but the degree to which the Iranian regime can control local parties around the Gulf remains to be seen. One of the most important unintended consequences of the Iraq war was to empower pro-Iranian Shiites in a major Arab country in a manner that will have consequences all over the region.

5. We have tended to overstate the threat that any of these groups poses to the United States by carelessly lumping together under the general category of “terrorism” (1) car and attempted airplane bombings; (2) the counterinsurgency campaigns being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan; (3) nation-states possessing WMD; and (4) mass casualty terrorism using WMD. The first three threats are real and ongoing, but when Americans are reminded of September 11, they tend to think about #4. It is much easier to justify extreme and costly responses like preventive wars and torture if you think that we are constantly heading off nuclear attacks killing tens of thousands, rather than car bombs killing tens of people. #4 is possible and and we need to work to prevent it, but it also very difficult for our enemies to achieve. Our real problems, serious enough, are #1-3.

6. Conventional military power continues to be useful against nation-states, but it is much less useful against networked, transnational movements that are deeply embedded in local populations. The United States, which spends as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, has not been able to pacify a small country of some 24 million people after 3½ years of effort, nor was Israel able to militarily disarm Hezbollah. This is due both to the nature of the enemy, and to constraints on the use of force to which all democracies are and will continue to be subject.

7. The converse side of the previous proposition is that conventional military power, including nuclear deterrence, should continue to be effective against nation-states like Iran. Anyone who believes that Iran’s Islamist ideology is so extreme that it will be willing to in effect commit national suicide to achieve its ideological goals needs to defend that argument explicitly. It is possibly true, but far from obvious either from the history of earlier ideological regimes, or from Iran’s own behavior since 1978.

8. Comparing our current struggle to those with Hitler or Stalin is useful in mobilizing domestic US support for staying the course in Iraq, but is not a helpful way of understanding the situation that has developed since Sept. 11, 2001. Hitler and Stalin were leaders of centralized and powerful nation-states. Our Islamist foes by contrast are a complex and shifting lot, some more dangerous than others, with only two developing though oil-rich nation-states under their control. We will have to play on their internal divisions and make deals with a number of them (we have in fact already done this in Iraq and Saudi Arabia) if we are not to eventually find ourselves at war with roughly 20 percent of mankind.

9. The people who say that “everything changed” after September 11 are partly right, but not in the way that most believe. The stakes today remain lower than in the great conflicts of the 20th century, but the political terrain of a media-drenched world of weak states and transnational actors is far more treacherous.

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  • DM

    Once again Francis I find logic in your writing which I’ve never been able to discern in your colleague’s work (Wolfowitz, Kristol, et al) … many thanks.

    However, I must ask if in your 3rd point you’ve excluded Palestinians from you list of “Nationalist Groups” for any particular reason? It would seem that this is the elephant in the room which many Islamists or Arabs identify with for religious or cultural reasons.

    Can there be any discussion of Arab/Islamist “root causes” of violence which does not address Israel and Palestine?

  • http://sanfrancisco Michael Daly

    On Monday Tom Brokaw appeared in a televised interview with Chris Mathews, and stressed the importance of understanding that the point of view, the basic perception, of Muslims concerning the events in Iraq and Lebanon, in Israel and Palestine, is antithetical to the established US point of view articulated above.

    In addition, Brokaw mentioned the intense cultural differences between the wealthy western states and the traditional way of life of Islamic society. This extends to family structure, women’s equality, even matters such as diet and entertainment. Each side sees the other as threatening its viability.

    There is genuine polarization. Brokaw states that until we begin to understand the viewpoint of those who oppose US national policy, and why they do this so virulently, struggle will prevail over resolution. Dialogue and discourse must happen at all levels.

  • Heinrich von Loesch

    Suggest browsing articles on similar subjects published in, a trilingual magazine, successor to Deutsche Rundschau, Germany’s oldest political review.

  • J. Koch

    The test of sincerity of those who insist that Iraqi insurgents and Iranian theocrats are threats on par with Hitler and Tojo is that none is prepared to institute a draft, raise taxes, impose rationing and price controls, or give up the freedom to buy the biggest monster SUV or Mcmansion that money can buy. Otherwise, all the babble about isranofashionism is no more than a dirt cheap ploy to scare people to vote pro-Bush.

    When will we wake up from this manic frenzy and figure out, as after the fall of Saigon in 1975, that there is no monolithic enemy, but only a diversity of competing interests and opponents that can be managed, deterred, and ultimately surpassed?

    Yes, Iran can be deterred. They are no more suicidal than Russia or China. N. Korea is more of a troublemaker.

    We would get far more protection, and spare many lives, by spending more on surveillance of decommissioned nuclear weapons and scattered devices with U-235 or plutonium. These could be dangerous in the possession of terrorists, whose potential number our folly in Iraq has done nothing to reduce.

  • Russell Seitz

    Frank’s nine points at once overlap and differ from some of the six that fgrew into John Mueller’s current FA article, and my 2004 TAC essay ‘Weaker than we think:

  • opposingpower

    Just a quick question about points 1 &2. – War on Terror.

    I understand your logic to enunciate that the metaphors of “War on Terror” are often the wrong ones to use, and are at most a play of words by the Bush administration for their own political purpose.

    However, do you not think the term ‘War on terror’ fits the purpose exactly when referring to ‘state sponsored/supported terrorism.’

    When the ‘terrorists’ are ‘state sponsored/supported terrorists’ such as Hezbollah +is+ by Iran/Syria, therefore, it is not a tactic used by the weak, but one by a state itself.

    That ‘War’ is the correct terminology as its the fighting of ‘terrorists’ who by proxy are the states themselves.

    I look forward to hopefully hearing a reply.

    Many Thanks

  • Ali

    I am not an intellectual, but I do read often and observe people. I ve lived in muslim countries and suggest a not so subtle understanding of the roots of middle easterners dissent from “western” policy. Those roots are in the Quran and Sunnah and various other writings of the shia community and all concentrated in the words of Muhammed. History is important in analysing the root causes of islamic militancy but the core of the ideological battle rests in the rhetoric of Muhammed , who’s teachings are deemed infallible by Islam.

    Muhammed was of a perverse mentality that sought political power by using arabians already fervent religious beliefs as a means to unify them in a lustful pursuit of unity through conquest. Since the caliphate was destroyed in the early 20th century, the various sects have battled with each other over “true” Islam, but in their hearts they all understand the essentials which is to not trust the Jews and the christians personified in the world’s last superpower , the USA and, of course, Israel.

    “Believers, do not hold Jews and Christians as allies. They are allies of one another; and anyone who makes them one of his friends is one of them.” (Quran 5:51)

    This is why the cause celebre of Islam, palestine, is not really a fight for a people, but a religion(ideology). The Palestinian Christian population has slowly disintegrated under threats of intimidation for not staying on line with the tenets of Islam. If even Palestinians were truly united you wouldn’t have the regular backlash against Palestinian Christians that we do especially today after critical words about muhammed were spoken by the Pope.

    You want to understand the tension, understand the ideological underpinnings enshrined in the Quran and Sunnah and preached daily by Imams. The cartoons of muhammed, the various wars by jewish and christian powers(defensive or not), the critical words of the Pope , all come together in the hyper-sensitive words of muhammed who allowed absolutely no dissent from his words, under threat of death.

    “those who annoy Allah and his messenger and speak evil things of them, Allah has cursed them in this world and in the hereafter….those who stir up sedition, the agitators in the city, do not desist, we shall urge you to go against them and set you over them. Whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain without mercy, fierce slaughter, murdered, a horrible murdering. “(Quran 33:56-60)

    Muhammed even had a mother of 5 murdered while she slept, because she criticized him in public (see Bukhari V4B52N270)
    Bukhari is considered the most authentic hadith in Sunni Islam.

    This is why Islam resists any thing “western”, their “history” is also “sacred” history that is being thrust before their eyes and they are commanded to do something about it. What should we do?

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