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.