Terrorism is a disease variant of modern, total war that had its debut in 1864 and 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln and his generals reluctantly targeted the farms, homes and factories of Southern civilians in an effort to bring a swift end to the Civil War. Whereas the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was an aristocratic duel between two armies that affected few civilians, the wars on European soil in the 20th century devastated large numbers of noncombatants. Modernity means killing civilians, because unlike swords or axes, which are extensions of the human arm, machines of mass death -- whether passenger planes, chemical weapons or even assault rifles -- sever the emotional link between a violent act and its perpetrator. For modern mass killers, human beings are abstractions that can be wiped away like figures on a blackboard.
Terrorism, in particular, "tends to have greater psychological impact relative to the physical harm it causes than do other lethal activities," writes Paul R. Pillar, former deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center at the Central Intelligence Agency, in his book "Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy." Fighting terrorism may be a hot war in terms of the casualties we have, and will have, to sustain, but as Pillar shows in this sober, workmanlike book, it requires the "long, patient, persistent effort" of the cold war. The struggle against it may also be likened to that of controlling disease pandemics: the threat can be managed and reduced to acceptable proportions, according to the author, but it may never be permanently eradicated.
Terrorism thrives in an age of weakened states that have been undermined by population growth, resource scarcity and mass movements of people to the cities, producing hordes of angry, unemployed young men whose attraction to radical causes increasingly cows relatively moderate governments in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In places where regimes are both strapped for cash and lack control of their own hinterlands, terrorists with fat wallets -- as well as Mafiosi and drug lords -- easily set up shop. Pillar writes about Afghanistan and Pakistan in this regard, but also mentions Greece -- a stable, modern state and member of NATO -- which for two decades has had a well-documented record of cooperation with Arab and other terrorists. When the Kurdish terrorist Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999 in Nairobi, Kenya, he had been staying at the home of the Greek ambassador. (The fact that the Olympic Games are scheduled to take place in Athens in 2004 gives Greece an incentive to cooperate completely with the United States-led coalition, or risk having the Games abruptly moved.)
In light of the events of Sept. 11, Pillar gets some things wrong, is prophetic on other things and provides hard realizations about the moral compromises that will be required in this new struggle. He assumes that our success in tracking down members of Osama bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda, following the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, constituted a decisive victory of sorts, and he errs in declaring the absence of an international terrorist network, which Al Qaeda seems to be. But he appears to be prophetic in his insistence that we still have more to fear from conventional methods of terror like hijackings than from exotic forms like biological and chemical strikes. "Terrorists have generally been tactically conservative and have favored proven methods," he says. Indeed, commandeering three passenger jets and flying them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon has more in common with the brazen, low-tech, deadly assault of the kind that the Israelis employed when they dropped an old-fashioned conventional bomb from a low-flying plane into the dome of Saddam Hussein's nuclear plant in 1981. Pillar also warns that the "increased geographic reach of terrorists" and their "emphasis on inflicting pain," arising from sheer hatred, make the United States homeland more vulnerable than has been supposed.
Pillar is most useful when he shows that the disunity within the Muslim world indicates that any successful struggle against terrorism must include all kinds of deal-making in order to play off groups and states against one another. For example, Iran helps Shiite radicals in Lebanon, it assassinates political opponents abroad and its nuclear program threatens Israel, yet Iran is also hostile to the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan. Moreover, there has simply been too much liberalizing political change in Iran to be discounted. Thus, this new war against terrorism may eventually bring an improvement of ties between the United States and Iran -- among the most populous and developed nations in the Middle East -- that will not necessarily mean Iran will adopt a "zero tolerance" attitude toward all terrorists.
Libya, too, perhaps should be engaged, given that there is little alternative to Muammar el-Qaddafi's rule and that his support for terrorism has dwindled in recent years. "Given the enormous variety of terrorist groups and objectives," Pillar writes, there may even be some cases, in a long cold-war-type struggle, in which "agreements with terrorists might reduce terrorism." While this may sound like heresy now, if the war on terrorism goes on for many years, all kinds of back-room maneuvering will be required, as was the case during the cold war. Americans, because they have been protected by great oceans, oscillate between moral campaigns abroad and withdrawal from the outside world altogether: what they have difficulty with is a protracted, limited struggle now that technology has erased oceanic distance. The subtlety necessary for waging the cold war -- in which we supported odious regimes on one hand and made deals with the Soviet Union and China on the other -- made it far less popular among many Americans than it now appears. Likewise, pundits and intellectuals who are more comfortable with campaigning for universal justice than with using deception for the sake of national security may yet tire of this new war if they believe it is not being fought in clear-cut terms.
As with the cold war, defeating the enemy will prove impossible without the help of governments that do not necessarily reflect our values: Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has done much more for us than either of his weak and embattled democratically elected predecessors in Pakistan probably would have. Precisely because our military is superior to that of any other military in the world, any competent adversary will come at us at our weakest point, strategically exploiting the very freedoms that define what we are in the first place. And if we are hamstrung by absolutist definitions of friend and foe, and democracy and dictatorship, our chance of victory will be diminished.
In his forthcoming book "Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland," Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, provides a comprehensive and prescient guide to all of these issues. He reviews the previous commissions on terrorism, the details of homeland defense, the risk of chemical and biological attacks, the responsibilities of individual federal agencies, the experience of other nations and so on. Homeland defense, he notes sagely, is not an exercise in isolationism, because if we suffer grave blows, our allies in the Middle East and elsewhere are also weakened.
Realism thrives during times when people feel insecure, just as idealism does during times when security is taken for granted. The post-cold-war era, a 12-year hiatus from the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of the World Trade Center, saw a burgeoning humanitarianism toward the Balkans and Africa. But that age is now over, and these two important works herald an era when pragmatic concentration on our own security is not neo-isolationism, but the foundation of a more realistic internationalism.
Copyright 2001, The New York Times