A “Grand Strategy“ for the War on Terrorism - written exclusively for WSN

Posted in Terrorism | 30-May-04 | Author: Walter Laqueur

The author: Walter Laqueur, Washington D.C.
The author: Walter Laqueur, Washington D.C.
On February 22, 1946 the American diplomat George F. Kennan sent a message to his government that became known as the “long cable”. In this cable, Kennan developed his ideas about how to deal with the Soviet threat. These ideas laid the foundation for the politics of “containment”. With this cable in mind, Walter Laqueur develops a “Grand Strategy” against the terrorist threat of today.

The conflict in Iraq will be over some day, though that may be hard to imagine right now. But that will not mean that terrorism has been defeated. Terrorism will exist as long as there are conflicts and disputes. In the fight against terrorism there will be ups and downs, perhaps a few lulls, but no final victory. The goal of all governments is, and will remain, to reduce terrorism as much as possible and to make terrorist operations more difficult. What must be done?

First, we have to gain clarity. Terrorism is not a conflict between ideas or ideology, as is often maintained. If that were the case, it would be an easy problem to solve, since terrorism in general does not offer a rationally convincing ideology. Terrorism is based upon fanatical (and mistaken) beliefs deriving from religion, though these beliefs sometimes combine with various forms of nationalism. There is no way to confront these mistaken beliefs on rational grounds, either through encouragement or compromise. When Mussolini was asked, in the early days of Italian fascism, about the ideology of his party versus the Socialists, his answer was: It is our programme to crush their skulls.

Terrorism is not just a question of tactics, as is maintained by those who compare terrorism with a “Blitzkrieg”. It is obvious that terrorism has a central political and/or religious component. It is also true that the fight against terrorism should aim to isolate the terrorists and to contain their area of operations.

Terrorism cannot be fought successfully without using hard power. The claim that hard power is not able to solve political problems is incorrect. The first and fundamental conclusion concerning the character of terrorism is as follows: The implementation of limited power is often counterproductive. The implementation of massive power is successful in almost every case. The decisive question remains, when and under what circumstances should a government implement massive power. The Kremlin has the capacity to throw the Chechnyan people–at least a major portion of the population–out of the Caucasus. But with such a policy, the political damage would exceed any benefit to Russia by a large measure.

The terrorist manner of fighting is asymmetrical and total. But that does not mean that they are able to use resources that they do not possess–at least so far. That might change in the age of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The terrorist war is total in the sense that terrorists do not respect any of the laws of war. On the other hand, they demand to be treated as prisoners of war. Their doctrine allows for the killing of innocent civilians, taking of hostages, torture, and the intentional committing of war crimes.

From the terrorist viewpoint, their cause is just, even holy. A priori, they cannot commit war crimes. They use a mosque as a military stronghold but the official state security forces are not permitted to act or react in a similar manner. The situation is similar to the situation of the German attack against the Soviet Union in 1941, where the rules of war were intentionally put aside. But there is one important difference: The German leaders expected similar behaviour from the other side. Terrorists do not necessarily expect that state forces will act as they do.

Djerba, April 11, 2002: An attack against a Jewish synagoge and German tourists
Djerba, April 11, 2002: An attack against a Jewish synagoge and German tourists
Do we accept that asymmetry as a fact of life? Governments can only accept this asymmetry as long as terrorism does not pose a fundamental threat. Experience tells us that states tend to suspend laws and rules only when the threat becomes unacceptably dangerous.

The events of the recent past have therefore made it obvious: We need to undertake a modification of the international laws of war. The present regulations evolved during a period of time that was totally different from the current situation. If such an internationally agreed upon modification is not achievable, as may well be the case, then individual states will adjust the laws of war unilaterally.

In the war on terrorism there are many problems that haven’t yet found a sufficient solution. Who should play the decisive role in finding sufficient solutions? The military can do so only in exceptional cases, since soldiers are not generally trained for that kind of warfare. A war on terrorism should be fought by special forces and secret services. But those forces do not exist in every country.

In addition, there is an urgent need to expand so-called “soft power” and “public diplomacy”, previously known as “propaganda”. In the US, less than one per cent of the defence budget is spent in this way. “Public diplomacy” is not able to defeat terrorism outright, but it can play a role. What exactly is “public diplomacy”? It is an engagement on the level of ideas and policy with the majority of Muslims who are not already radicals. The specific chances and opportunities, as well as the risks, of such an approach will be discussed later.

What kind of support can Washington expect from the UN? At the moment: None! The only exception is as a cover or an alibi for a more or less elegant retreat from Iraq. The rest is merely rhetoric. But in the long run, the UN ought not be written off. The UN Security Council might develop into an efficient tool against the terrorist threat. But this will happen only after further and more catastrophic terrorist attacks. So far, there isn’t enough agreement within the Council on how to proceed.

Can Europe be relied upon to provide support? Only to a limited extent–i.e., only concerning the cooperation among secret services, which has recently been improved. But Western Europe is currently one of the most dangerous breeding grounds for terrorism. Particularly worrisome is the danger of the radicalisation of the younger generation of Moslem immigrants, which will lead to rising tensions with the rest of the population. These tensions will most probably lead to conflict. While it is true that the percentage of radical Muslims who voice some support for Al Qaeda or similar groups ranges from 10% to 20%, in absolute figures this amounts to hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

Is there cause for complete pessimism? No! There is reason to be cautiously optimistic. We can rely on the benefits and allures of Western societies. Young radicals are not immune to such temptations. In the face of them, their fanaticism can lose momentum and attractiveness. The integration of the vast majority of Muslims into Western society is historically unavoidable. Let’s not forget: Less than one hundred years lie between the early days of Islam as it was practised by primitive Arabic tribes in the desert and the sophisticated culture of the reign of Harun Al Raschid in Baghdad. Today, the pulse of history is quicker than ever before. But is it quick enough? It is a race against time, especially taking into account the possible acquisition of WMD’s by terrorist groups. In this environment, European governments will refrain from opening a second, external, front. In other words: The Europeans will do no more than they do now.

The Secretary of Defence Ronald Rumsfeld was asked recently about the role of “soft power” in the war on terrorism. He answered: “I do not know what soft power means.” A regrettable confession but quite typical of the American attitude to this question. The expression “soft power” was coined by John Nye, a professor from Harvard, ten years ago. ”Soft power” means influencing political developments by means other than “hard power”–i.e., through debates on cultural values, dialogues on ideology, the attempt to influence through good example and the appeal to commonly accepted human values. It would entail increasing cultural exchange by, for instance, inviting young leaders from other countries to the US and to other Western countries. In the framework of such a project about 7000 young Russians recently came to the US, but very few were from Arabic or Muslim areas. Such a programme requires tact and patience. Dramatic results will not be achieved immediately. But the experience of the “Cold war” tells us that such efforts can be successful in the long run. It cannot change fanatics who are beyond influence, but can have a tremendous positive effect on the majority of those who have no concrete idea of our way of life beyond that we are affluent and powerful.

Bali, October 12, 2002: An attack far away
Bali, October 12, 2002: An attack far away
TV, radio, and increasingly the Internet can play important roles, as the experience of the Cold War shows. Goebbels–and others–have given the term “propaganda” a bad name.

But propaganda was originally a more neutral expression. The dissemination of information, analysis, and cultural programming should not be viewed in a negative light even if they intentionally promote a positive vision of the West. The anaemic programming of current American radio and TV in the Middle East is almost completely useless. It cannot compete with the demagogy of Arabic stations like Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera. Radio Free Europe and Liberty have had a certain impact in Eastern Europe. But the mentality of the listener in the “Greater Middle East” is different. Around the globe, there are people who believe in conspiracy theories, but nowhere so much as in the Arabic world. For them, the attacks of 9/11 were obviously executed by the Mossad and Osama bin Laden has long been a member of the CIA–as was recently published in an Egyptian newspaper. If we want to be successful in this region, we have to adjust to this mentality. In other words: the people in the Arabic world are not interested in the literature of John Locke, Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. What we need is something similar to what the British did during WW II with “Radio Calais”. This “grey zone” programming can only be achieved by private companies and not by State agencies.

As far as “soft power” is concerned we should be fully aware: Americans want to be loved. But great powers are, by definition, usually not loved as much as, perhaps, respected. This has been true since the Assyrian and Roman empires. A superpower is somehow frightening, even if it is friendly and supportive. A superpower is too mighty and therefore always a potential danger. A superpower is therefore able to change how it is perceived very rapidly. Not even President Kennedy–except perhaps in Berlin–nor Carter were loved. If we had had polls in the days of Philipp II of Spain or in the period of the Russian or British empires, not to speak of Napoleon and Genghis Khan, global perception would not have been positive toward them. That is a pity. Still, though one can try and change the fact, it cannot be taken too seriously. It is much more of a problem to lose respect than love. Bin Laden would have held off on his attacks if he had not believed that the West is decadent and weak. This can be seen from the attitude he takes in all of his fatwas.

Soft power means diplomacy, but we should not underestimate the difficulties. Arabic governments do not like to be publicly reminded about the need for political reform, human rights, and democracy or be cautioned about corruption.

Madrid, March 11, 2004: The new terror has arrived in Europe
Madrid, March 11, 2004: The new terror has arrived in Europe
If there were free elections in Egypt or Saudi Arabia the winner would probably be less democratic than the present leaders. It might not be considered polite to assert the fact openly but it is true. This means that in foreign policy there is always the choice between the greater and the lesser evil.

But isn’t it true that a harder stance toward Israel would lead to real progress in the war on terrorism? To be cautious, Israeli policy is short-sighted and damaging and it is long past the time to put more pressure on Israel. If some lasting compromise could be forged it would be wonderful both for Israelis and Palestinians. But a long lasting solution is far on the horizon. Extremist groups want to destroy Israel and therefore terrorism will continue–though perhaps at a lower level. It is naive to believe that a change in American policy toward Israel would have a major impact.

In the Arabic world, Israel is not only a provocation, but also a kind of lightning rod. If Israel lost this convenient function the existing aggression, frustration, and hatred would simply find a new target.

In all our discussions about terrorism we should not forget that the era of “megaterrorism” has yet to arrive. So far, no Weapons of Mass Destruction have been used. And many attempted attacks have been thwarted. Some groups close to Al Qaeda have tried to produce Ricin, one of the most deadly poisons, but Ricin is not a WMD. We have to consider that the present is merely a transition period.

Are the current world governments able to be prepared for the dangers of the future? Unfortunately, only to a limited extent. Current laws make it very difficult–if not impossible–to instate preventative counter-measures even in the US. There are no real means to put terrorists in jail or to expel them–just as we have no law against cannibalism. Restrictions of individual human and citizens’ rights are regarded as dictatorial, if not as steps on the way to fascism.

Governments are not in a position where they can institute policies too far out of step with a public opinion that does not like to see its freedoms curtailed. And it may well be that we encounter no new catastrophes, or that the number of victims, the amount of damage, and the extent of panic end up being lower than we fear. If that is the case, there will have been no need to restrict existing freedom very much. But if and when the catastrophe happens, governments will then find that they have their hands free to institute stronger measures.

For this politics of “wait-and-see” we may have to pay a heavy price. Let’s hope that the price will not be too high. There is, obviously, no other alternative for democracies.