Another Perspective

Tipping Points in the War on Terror

American restraint cannot last forever.

By 11.10.03

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The War on Terror, as it is currently being waged, has produced the most ironic paradox in the history of warfare: ordinary Americans, who sponsor a military capable of incinerating every Muslim city, town and village in which terrorists operate, lie awake at night worrying about the mood of the Muslim Street, but ordinary Muslims, who know full well what the American military can do, lose no sleep whatsoever worrying about the mood of the American Street.

The paradox derives, in part, from the very nature of terrorism. The terrorist explicitly acknowledges the military superiority, while implicitly relying on the moral superiority, of his enemy; he seeks, in other words, to inflict the most devastating damage possible knowing that his enemy will not respond in kind. In the mind of the terrorist, such restraint is his enemy's underlying weakness.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, highlighted this principle. That evening, as the World Trade Center and Pentagon still smoldered, President Bush announced that the United States would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." So when the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan refused to turn over Osama bin Laden, they were in effect calling America's bluff. Since the end of World War Two, our national security had largely rested on the belief that a major attack on the United States would be answered by retaliation on a biblical scale. But the war in Afghanistan, when it was launched, was proportionate, not vengeful. As counterintuitive as it sounds, our success in minimizing collateral damage while crushing the Taliban rendered us more vulnerable, not less, to terrorism because it established that we would come after whoever attacked us with a scalpel, not a terrible swift sword.

The war in Iraq was, in a strategic sense, necessitated by the war in Afghanistan. If a cockroach like bin Laden managed to kill 3,000 Americans, what might a sociopath like Saddam Hussein, with the resources of an oil-drenched country, accomplish? Since we could no longer depend on the threat of a cataclysmic response to deter him, Saddam simply had to be taken out. What's more, ousting Saddam would signal rogue regimes elsewhere that they might be next if they misbehaved -- as deterrents go, not exactly on par with the prospect of sudden annihilation, but really the best we could do. The fact that Saddam was in violation of the surrender terms which kept him in power in 1991 provided a useful fig leaf, acquitting us of the charge of disregarding international law.

But the occupation of postwar Iraq has confronted us, again, with the asymmetrical nature of terrorism -- i.e., the terrorist's confidence that his enemy will respond to provocations with restraint. That confidence lurks behind the phrase gaining currency amid mounting U.S. losses over the last several weeks, the tipping point. The tipping point, in the mind of the killers now picking off American troops, relief workers and civilian bystanders in Iraq, is the moment at which the American public becomes so appalled by the casualties and costs of the Iraqi occupation that President Bush, who hopes for a second term, will feel compelled to cut and run … or else be defeated in the next election by a president who will cut and run.

It's hard to dismiss such reasoning. With the C-Span airwaves fouled on a monthly basis by hard-left demonstrators comparing Bush to Hitler, with a revered Democratic senator calling the justification for the war a "fraud … made up in Texas," and with half the opposition candidates for president in 2004 committed to immediate withdrawal of American forces, the tipping point must seem near indeed.

But what if there were another tipping point, a reverse-tipping point?

What if there were a moment at which the American public became so appalled by the casualties and costs of the Iraqi occupation that President Bush felt compelled to bring the hammer down … a moment when C-Span was filled with hard-right demonstrators demanding that Bush subdue the terrorists by any means necessary, a moment when a revered Republican senator quoted Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino, urging the president "to get medieval on their asses," a moment when conservative pundits clamored for Bush to, say, level Tikrit to pacify Fallujah, or level them both to pacify Baghdad?

Certainly, the prospect of such a reverse-tipping point would create a new dynamic in the War on Terror. The terrorist cannot operate without a sympathetic local population to supply provisions, stash weapons and keep secrets -- which is why he depends on the restraint of his enemy in the first place. But if his enemy is determined to come after him with disproportionate violence, regardless of the collateral damage, then those who aid and abet the terrorist will soon turn against him out of self-preservation.

Does such a reverse-tipping point actually exist? It's something to think about.

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About the Author
Mark Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY). His latest novel, Sloth, was published last year by Greenpoint Press.