The U.S. Reaction to Terrorism Is Measured and Rational

New Zealand Herald, May 27, 2003

Denis Dutton

The recent bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca show unspeakable callousness. They also indicate that Islamic fascism is not operating efficiently. Twelve terrorists died in the Casablanca bombings in order to kill 29 victims, while nine died in Riyadh to score 25 victims.

This is an expensive way to murder innocent housemaids and restaurant diners and it won’t do much to destroy the West. What al Qaeda and their allies dream of is a small nuclear device, hidden in a shipping container and sailed into the port of Baltimore, or up the Thames. This could easily kill a million people, create economic chaos and spark a worldwide depression.

The terrorists are searching for nuclear materials, preferably an intact bomb left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union, or a device secretly delivered to them by a rogue state such as North Korea, which claims to have a bomb, or Iran, which is on the road to producing enriched uranium. The Americans and their allies are acutely aware of this threat: it is now at the centre of United States strategic thinking.

So while we in New Zealand worry about painted apple moth spray and the health effects of fluoride, the Americans are asking, “What is the numerical probability that within the next 25 years some fanatic cell will deliver a nuclear bomb (or murderous biological or chemical device) into a major metropolitan centre in the US or in Europe?” Fifty per cent? Ten per cent?

Putting the possibility of mass terrorist murder in such terms focuses the mind, and has resulted in the National Security Strategy of the United States, released last September. It is both a strategic document and a ringing declaration of principles: freedom and democracy for the whole of humanity not merely as an abstract philosophical ideal, but as an operational goal of American policy, indeed, as a security requirement of the US.

In some respects, this strategy amounts to a new kind of imperialism, one based not on the old idea of enriching the imperial power, but on creating the conditions for the peaceful co-existence of nations. This has necessitated rethinking traditional concepts of US foreign policy, such as ideas of stability, democracy, pre-emption, and regard for world public opinion.

Stability: Critics of the military attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime have stressed the importance of maintaining stability in the Middle East. After blandly accepting this idea for 40 years, the Americans have changed their minds: if instability (and attendant problems, such as interrupted oil supplies) is required to topple dictatorships, so be it. The long-term good outweighs the short-term pain.

Democracy: It’s the most stable and benign government. The most dangerous and unstable, if not internally then with regard to threats toward other countries, is dictatorship. During the Cold War the US was forced to support autocratic regimes if they were allied against the Soviets. There is no reason to continue that strategy: the US is now set on an ideal of the world as a community of democracies. Democracies disagree with one another, but tend not to declare war on each other. Peace is the objective, democracy the means.

Military pre-emption: Where lives are at stake, the US will jump borders to hit the home bases of terrorists, destroying them before they can act. This goes for friendly states unable to control their territories or rogue states, dictatorships that threaten the free world or intentionally harbour terrorists. The US will never again wait to be attacked and then figure out what to do.

Public opinion: The US is determined to win the war against terrorists, even at the cost of disapproval from Europe or small countries such as New Zealand. Dire predictions of a Middle East conflagration caused by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have not come true. The so-called Arab street has been stunned and in some quarters is quietly respectful of the Americans following the Iraq attack.

Watching grateful Iraqis first dance in jubilation and then, weeping, uncover the graves of thousands of Saddam’s victims has had a salutary effect. Moreover, the bombings in Morocco and Saudi Arabia have helped to harden moderate Muslim opinion against terrorist fundamentalists.

In the 1990s the Clinton Administration basked in the illusion that globalisation and open trade would create conditions for peace worldwide. The US failed to appreciate that religious fanatics were serious in their plans for mass murder. Al Qaeda was correct that America did not see the September 11 attacks coming, but it miscalculated in imagining that a bewildered America attacked on its own soil would not rise to a robust defence. The al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan who left their hot dinners on the table and ran for their lives found out something about the Americans.

What’s plain is that our protesters are still protesting against the last war. Obsessed by Vietnam, they chant their litany of anti-American slogans, hearing only their own self-righteous voices. There’s an intellectual laziness in this and a lack of moral imagination.

Contrary to the thinking of foreign critics, including many New Zealanders, American strategic policy is guided not by nightmare visions of long queues of sport utility vehicles at Los Angeles filling stations or by hopes of fat contracts for Texas companies in rebuilding Baghdad’s bombed-out government buildings.

It is guided by the horrific memories of human beings, hundreds of them, committing suicide from skyscrapers because they could no longer stand the fires that trapped them. It is the brutal thought of flight attendants, lying with their throats slit in the aisles of doomed passenger jets.

The Americans’ war on terror will in coming years bring into play varied aspect of politics, economics, military force, espionage, and even political philosophy. Its basis and execution should be subject to open and vigorous debate.

But it is folly for us to delude ourselves that it is a war being waged essentially for oil and American economic advantage. Beyond being about religion and freedom, it is literally about life and death.