The Terror War Against America

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2001

Now we will see what America is made of. Is the United States a great power whose citizens are willing to bear the burden of confronting evil? Or is it what the terrorists apparently think it is: a nation of rich, pampered, Oprah-fied cowards, whose symbol is the ubiquitous "grief counselor," and who have no stomach for the sort of war in which we are now engaged?

We have, of course, heard the words before. When terrorists have attacked Americans in the past, presidents, secretaries of state, and members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, solemnly have vowed action to punish the perpetrators. But for the most part, we have done nothing, treating terrorists as criminals who must be "brought to justice" rather than tenacious, savage soldiers who must be rooted out and killed or captured. Has the magnitude of the attack changed the mindset of our leaders? While the rhetoric of the Bush administration is, so far, tougher than that of its predecessor, it remains to be seen whether action will match words.

How did an attack of such magnitude occur? And how do we respond? The most fashionable answer to the first is that the United States suffered a massive "intelligence failure." The implication is that the agencies that should have prevented this attack were somehow asleep at the switch.

The events of September 11 did constitute an intelligence failure, but one that can be traced to organizational factors and political decisions made years ago. The organizational cause of this failure was described by Thomas Schelling in his forward to Roberta Wohlstetter’s classic study of strategic surprise, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. "Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost. It includes gaps in intelligence, but also intelligence that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the alarm that has gone off so often it has been disconnected

".…It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion—which is usually too late."

As much as organizational factors may have contributed to the nation’s intelligence failure, they are less significant than political decisions made over a decade ago that gutted the human intelligence capability of the United States. For no matter how sophisticated technology may be, it cannot replace "humint."

But concerns in the 1970s about a "rogue" Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) led to congressional reforms that forced the agency to shift to from the use of human assets to reliance on technology. But without using the often unsavory characters that agencies have managed in the past, it is difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate a terrorist support system and gain information about specific terrorist events. As one TV commentator remarked earlier this week, "we can’t follow the rats down into the sewer."

In the long run, the United States needs to replace the current "stove-piped" intelligence system and fix the organizational problems arising from "crevices" in overlapping jurisdiction and responsibility. But the more proximate issue is how the United States should respond to this attack. As expected, Osama bin Laden has been identified as the force behind the September 11 attacks. What should the United States do about bin Laden and the al-Quaida terrorist organization that he heads?

The Bush administration already has taken a number of steps that far exceed anything that its predecessors did. First and foremost, the president and others have identified the September 11 attack as an act of war, rejecting the usual approach of treating terrorism as the work of criminals who "must be brought to justice." President Bush also made the point that the United States would not distinguish between those who commit terrorist acts and those who harbor them. And the diplomatic effort to create an anti-terrorist coalition is an absolutely essential step.

But the president should ask Congress for a formal declaration of war. The recent practice of US foreign policy suggests that he doesn’t need it, but it would go far beyond the usual congressional resolutions denouncing terrorism and actually change the rules of the game. And he doesn’t need to identify a specific enemy country, but if he wanted to, Philip Gold of the Discovery Institute in Seattle has given it a name—"Jihadistan," the grim realm of violent, radical Islamic terrorism, an extremist system of belief that imposes a fanatical ideology on its own societies and seeks to destroy the society of its enemies, especially the Great Satan, America. This twisted mutation is not Islam as practiced peacefully by millions of the faithful around the world, but a violent force that has created an "arc of terror" from North Africa, through the Middle East and Central Asia, to the Philippines.

Critics claim that declaring war against bin Laden’s terror organization merely gives him a stature he doesn’t deserve. But there is a precedent for declaring war on Bin Laden: the war against the Barbary pirates in the early 1800s. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan today, the Barbary pirates were then the effective governing body of Tripoli. Thus the fact that press reports indicate that bin Laden recently was appointed as commander of the Taliban military might clarify some of the constitutional issues.

And when the United States responds, it must plan to do so in a massive and sustained way. "Drive by shootings" with a handful of cruise missile, the preferred response of the previous administration, must be avoided at all costs. The United States possesses a wide variety of military instruments, which it should not hesitate to employ. And as much as the United States might prefer to conduct long-range, anti-septic (for us) war from above 15,000 feet, this war will most likely require us to close with and destroy the enemy.

In thinking about the unfolding US war on terrorism, Americans should reject two popular arguments. The first is that US military power cannot prevail against a determined enemy. Of course, success will depend on using the military instrument correctly. Regarding US airpower, for example, it is interesting to consider an observation by the foremost American expert on Vietnamese communism, Douglas Pike, whose books Viet Cong and PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam are classics. In a paper delivered at a Wilson Center symposium on Vietnam in January, 1983, Mr. Pike wrote that "the initial reaction of Hanoi’s leaders to the strategic bombings and air strikes that began in February 1965—documented later by defectors and other witnesses—was enormous dismay and apprehension. They feared the North was to be visited by intolerable destruction which it simply could not endure."

Based on interviews and intense archival research, Mr. Pike concluded that "…while conditions had changed vastly in seven years, the dismaying conclusion to suggest itself from the 1972 Christmas bombing was that had this kind of air assault been launched in February of 1965, the Vietnam War as we know it might have been over within a matter of months, even weeks."

The second argument that should be rejected is that the United States brought these attacks on itself by its support for Israel and that by striking back, we are "perpetuating a cycle of violence" and "further inflaming an already volatile and dangerous enemy." The claim that the attacks of September 11 were in response to this administration’s "tilt" toward Israel is fatuous. It is clear from the evidence that planning for this strike long pre-dates the election of George W. Bush. And even if Israel did not exist, the fanatics of Jihadistan would still hate America for its freedom and prosperity, for the Great Satan corrupts the faithful and tempts them to turn away from the Law.

The goal of Jihadistan’s terrorists is to humiliate the Great Satan and force America to retreat from the world. But the world as a whole benefits from the security that American power underwrites. If the United States does retreat, the result will be a less secure, less prosperous, and less free world, a world that Jihadistan may come to dominate.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.