About a week ago I discussed John Mueller's critique of the war on terror. Well it turns out Johny Tierney had beat me to it by a couple of days. In his September 9 column he writes the following.
John Mueller has an awkward question for those of us in the terrorism industry, which is his term for the journalists, politicians, bureaucrats and assorted ''risk entrepreneurs'' who have alarmed America about terrorism.He points out that while the Bush administration, and more recently the British, likes to take credit for the fact that there have been no new attacks the only plots they have broken up are ones plotted by incompetent wannabees. So why have there been no new attacks on American soil?
For five years, we've been telling Americans that Sept. 11 changed everything. ''It will always be a defining moment in our history,'' President Bush says in this year's Patriot Day proclamation. We declared it a harbinger of a new clash of civilizations, a global ideological struggle -- World War III, in Newt Gingrich's words.
We reported intelligence estimates of thousands of Al Qaeda terrorists and supporters in ''sleeper cells'' in America. In May 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that Al Qaeda's preparations for an attack were 90 percent complete. We braced for acts of terrorism forecast to occur during the political conventions, the presidential campaign, on Election Day, after Election Day. Through yellow and orange alerts, we kept in mind the Department of Homeland Security's warning: ''Today's terrorists can strike at any place, at any time and with virtually any weapon.''
So what's keeping them? That's the question raised by Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
''Why,'' he asks, ''have they not been sniping at people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil pipelines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless other vulnerabilities that, according to security experts, could so easily be exploited?''
Mueller's conclusion is that there just aren't that many terrorists out there with the zeal and the competence to attack the United States. In his forthcoming book, ''Overblown,'' he argues that the risk of terrorism didn't increase after Sept. 11 -- if anything, it declined because of a backlash against Al Qaeda, making it a smaller and less capable threat than before. But the terrorism industry has been too busy hyping Sept. 11 and several other attacks to notice.So the GWOT is more about political hype than protecting America.
It has found a new audience for old dangers. For more than half a century, experts have warned that terrorists could destroy a city with a weapon of mass destruction. They still might, but their failure so far suggests it isn't easy to do, and it didn't suddenly become easier on Sept. 11.
A week latter, on September 12th, Tierney once again calls it right when he explains that Osama has won.
Somewhere, Osama bin Laden must be smiling. Or at least he will be whenever his couriers deliver the next batch of press clippings.And of course Dick Cheney is another PR man for Osama.
Once again he has beaten America at an American game: public relations. He may be sitting powerlessly in a cave, but his image is as scary as ever. He doesn't even have to cut a new video. He released an old one last week, the equivalent of a fading musician putting out a greatest-hits album, only this one's getting played every hour.
Last night, President Bush paid him homage by quoting his warning that America will face ''defeat and disgrace forever'' it if loses in Iraq. Bush himself called the war on terror a ''struggle for civilization,'' and said it was essential to ''maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations.''
It was just the kind of apocalyptic language favored by bin Laden, except that, for all his delusions, he might realize that American civilization is not really in jeopardy. Americans can try to copy him, but they don't understand his rhetorical technique.
If we falter in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney explained to Tim Russert on Sunday, the war on terror will falter because people will say: ''My gosh, the United States hasn't got the stomach for the fight. Bin Laden's right, Al Qaeda's right, the United States has lost its will and will not complete the mission.''
But bin Laden knows something else the Bush administration hasn't figured out: You don't actually have to be the strong horse. You just have to look stronger. You can be weak, you can be pummeled in a fight, but as long as your opponent looks more scared than you, you can save face by simply declaring victory.
The Bush administration made Osama the winner.
As an act of war, the attack on Sept. 11 was a blunder by Al Qaeda, and not merely because of the counterattack that destroyed Al Qaeda's training camps and ousted the Taliban. It also alienated former jihadist allies in the Arab world, and caused a rift within Al Qaeda.Yes, the conservative John Tierney makes more sense than most of the left leaning pundits.
One of its senior members, Abu al-Walid al-Masri, broke with bin Laden and accused him of having an ''extreme infatuation'' with international publicity. The attack, as Fawaz Gerges notes in Foreign Policy magazine, demonstrated that ''bin Laden was prepared to sacrifice Afghanistan and Mullah Omar at the altar of his public relations campaign.''
But at least bin Laden knew his P.R. Al Qaeda wasn't a serious military threat to America, but it could play one on television. As Al Qaeda's losses mounted and America recovered from the attack, bin Laden and his cohorts didn't let the facts get in the way of their campaign to promote fear (and themselves). They hid in caves and proclaimed themselves champions.
America, meanwhile, accentuated the negative. Instead of declaring victory against terrorists after routing the Taliban and sending bin Laden into hiding, it invaded Iraq, reinvigorating Al Qaeda with a new tool for recruiting. Instead of putting the terrorist risk in perspective, Bush (with the full cooperation of Democrats and the press) set an impossible standard for making America safe.
''We're on the offense against the terrorists on every battlefront,'' Bush said last week, ''and we'll accept nothing less than complete victory.''
When you define victory that way, when you treat one attack from a disorganized band of fanatics as a menace to civilization, you've doomed yourself to defeat and caused more damage than they could. You can't completely stop terrorism, but you can scare people into giving up liberties, wasting huge sums of money and sacrificing more lives than would be lost in a terrorist attack.
Take it from bin Laden, who bragged in 2004 that it was ''easy to provoke and bait this administration.''
John Tierney, War on Terror
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