Special Report

Can We Triumph Over Terrorism?

Two writers offer a strategy for victory.

By 9.14.04

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NEW YORK -- President Bush recently came in for some severe criticism when he suggested that there would be no absolute victory in the war on terrorism. "I don't think you can win," Bush told NBC News. "But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."

This perceived diffidence invited a spate of scathing ripostes from Democratic strategists, who contended that the presidents' remarks called into question his leadership in the war on terrorism. Meanwhile, the known terrorism expert, John Edwards, took the opportunity to point out that the Democratic ticket suffered from nothing so embarrassing as balanced reasoning. "The war on terrorism is absolutely winnable," he gleefully declared.

All of which forced the Bush campaign, under assault for an alleged flip-flop, to beat a hasty retreat from the president's comments. Nuance, alas, had proved too much of a nuisance.

NO DOUBT THIS WOULD dismay the Walter Laqueur. In the current issue of Policy Review, the venerable historian marshals his considerable expertise to explain the very point made by the president: terrorism, as a phenomenon, is insuperable.

After persuasively striking down the notion, extolled by left-leaning detractors of the war on terror, that terrorism can simply be attributed to economic causes -- Laqueur cites several studies of the Indian subcontinent noting that terrorism is far more common in affluent provinces, like Punjab, than comparatively poorer regions, like North Bihar -- or to the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Laqueur writes:

There can be no final victory in the fight against terrorism, for terrorism (rather than full-scale war) is the contemporary manifestation of conflict, and conflict will not disappear from earth as far as one can look ahead and human nature has not undergone a basic change.

Ill as such a peroration would seem to bode for the fate of the free world, the portrait Laqueur paints of the terrorism threat is not entirely pessimistic; a terrorism girlie-man Laqueur assuredly is not. True, Laqueur does not foresee the wholesale extirpation of global terrorism. However, he does point to several possibilities for its eventual restraint. For instance, he notes the Egyptian phenomenon called "Salafi burnout," in which Muslim youth, as they near their late thirties, outgrow and discard their erstwhile extremism. The effect of such second thoughts is, in Laqueur's estimation, to curb the fanatical activist movements these young Muslims comprise, and which serve as fertile recruiting grounds for international terrorist networks. Here is how Laqueur puts it:

Like all other movements in history, messianic groups are subject to routinization, to the circulation of generations, to changing political circumstances, and to sudden or gradual changes in the intensity of religious belief. This could happen as a result of either victories or defeats.

It is perhaps not too presumptuous to suggest that, barring only the Michael Moore-margins of the terror-cheering Left, we in the Western world would prefer the latter course. But how to defeat terrorism? Laqueur has two strategies in mind.

First, governments should launch an anti-terrorist campaign only if they are able and willing to apply massive force if need be. Second, terrorists have to ask themselves whether it is in their own best interest to cross the line between nuisance operations and attacks that threaten the vital interests of their enemies and will inevitably lead to massive counterblows.

In brief, terrorists have to be made to understand that the total victory they seek is impossible. When dealing with fanatics who take their cues from a higher power, and even then with considerable improvisation, this is no small challenge. But Laqueur believes that willing nations are equal to it. Willing being the key word. For, as Laqueur notes, unless there is overwhelming public support for combating terrorism, its defeat will remain an impossible goal. You can't very well win if you don't fight.

MOUNTING A SUSTAINED enthusiasm for warfare is, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, a particular problem for democratic countries like ours. How, then, to persuade the American people of the merits of such a war and the need for its continued prosecution?

Enter Norman Podhoretz. In a sweeping essay in the September issue of Commentary, the magazine's longtime editor-in-chief calls, with characteristic no-holds-barred brio, for a renewed effort in the fight against terrorism. In its global scope and its essential aim -- the preservation of liberty at home and its extension abroad -- our current war resembles nothing so much as the last global war in defense of liberty, the Cold War, which Podhoretz calls World War III. As such, Podhoretz writes, our current battle against communism's totalitarian successor -- radical Islam --deserves to be called nothing less than World War IV.

More than a ringing endorsement of President Bush, though it certainly is that, Podhoretz intends a powerful defense of the Bush administration's vision for winning the war on terrorism, the Bush doctrine. Critics of the Bush doctrine increasingly claim that this doctrine is a radical detour from once-sound American foreign policy. Podhoretz strongly disagrees. Indeed, he notes that the Bush administration's strategy for the war on terrorism stands on solid historical ground: Just as the Truman doctrine of 1947 rested on the proposition that "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure," the Bush doctrine seeks to succor freedom's cause in the Middle East. Necessary to this end, Podhoretz argues, are the underpinnings of the Bush doctrine, which he dubs the "four pillars."

The first pillar is defined as a new "moral attitude" toward terrorism, a Reaganite certainty in the justness of our cause that disclaims relativism and dares to call terrorism evil. The second pillar is a fundamental revision of the definition of terrorism. Effacing the line between terrorists and their rogue-state patrons, the Bush doctrine places undemocratic regimes on notice. The third pillar is perhaps the most controversial: the concept of preemption. Here Podhoretz is at his finest, taking to task both Scowcroftian plenipotentiaries (the "unrealist realists" as Podhoretz later describes them) who favor stability at the expense of all else, and the Buchananite paleoconservatives who traffic in conspiracy theories of neoconservatives under every bed and are eager to ascribe the nefarious influence of Israel to any foreign policy turn that rankles them. Detailing useless arms control treaties and the other diplomatic detritus of our foreign policy failures, Podhoretz contends that preemption is vital to preventing WMD proliferation. The fourth pillar of the Bush doctrine extends the same no-nonsense approach to terrorism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pledging support to democratic allies (like Israel) and holding terrorist regimes (like the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority) to account.

Of course, even those who accept the wisdom of the Bush doctrine -- and polls suggest this is, for now, a majority of Americans -- remain understandably skeptical about the prospects of the Middle East to undertake serious reform, let alone evolve democratic governments. Podhoretz, too, is mindful of this great challenge. But even as he concedes that it is formidable, Podhoretz dismisses the notion that it is impossible. It is worth excerpting him at length:

As with democratization, so with the reform and modernization of Islam. In considering this even more difficult question, we found ourselves asking whether Islam could really go on for all eternity resisting the kind of reformation and modernization that had begun within Christianity and Judaism in the early modern period. Not that we were so naive as to imagine that Islam could be reformed overnight, or from the outside. In its heyday, Islam was able to impose itself on large parts of the world by the sword; there was no chance today of an inverse instant transformation of Islam by the force of American arms.

There was, however, a very good chance that a clearing of the ground, and a sowing of the seeds out of which new political, economic, and social conditions could grow, would gradually give rise to correlative religious pressures from within. Such pressures would take the form of an ultimately irresistible demand on theologians and clerics to find warrants in the Quran and the sharia under which it would be possible to remain a good Muslim while enjoying the blessings of decent government, and even of political and economic liberty. In this way a course might finally be set toward the reform and modernization of the Islamic religion itself.

So is the World War IV winnable? Walter Laqueur is probably correct that, in the end, we cannot defeat terrorism any more than we can exorcise human nature's propensity for doing evil. But Norman Podhoretz is surely correct that we must continue to wage the war on terrorism, and that President Bush, and the Bush doctrine, are essential to our success.

As for the potential of democracy to find purchase in the Arab world, that question must remain open-ended. But if there is any hope, I would submit that it lies in the wake of the tragedy in Beslan, Russia. In an interview with the Telegraph, Omar Bakri Mohammed, head of the extremist sect al-Muhajiroun, did what has become standard for Islamist leaders: he found away to excuse the murder of women and children. "The Mujaheden would not have wanted to kill those people," he explained, "because it is strictly forbidden as a Muslim to deliberately kill women and children. It is the fault of the Russians."

Dismaying as such statements are, they may hold out the promise of reform. After all, if Muslim fanatics can find a way to justify the murder of women and children, it is not too much to suppose that, under enough pressure, they will find a way to justify the virtues of modernity and the freedoms of democratic government.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.