The publication of the 9/11 commission's report provides an opportunity to reflect not just on the lack of preparedness for the history-altering terrorist attacks but also on the realities of the post–Cold War world.
The nearly 600-page report from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States paints a disturbing picture of a government largely unprepared for the suicide assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But what it points to in the future is even more chilling. The report reminds us that Osama bin Laden and his fellow extremists are cold-blooded fanatics and that no negotiations, compromise, or appeasement will placate them.
The 9/11 commission report will be debated and dissected for some time to come, helping us to better understand the vast challenges we face. Perhaps it, along with the daily news from Baghdad, will at last pour cold water on the assumption that we are in another fledgling Cold War–like struggle. The current antiterrorism campaign is not about deterrence, containment, or chesslike moves on a global board.
Historical analogies are instructive. Munich and Vietnam still hold lessons about appeasement and protracted conflicts in peripheral areas. The battle against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is not another Cold War, however. Yes, it will drag on for decades, like the Cold War, and resemble aspects similar to the Soviet standoff. Public diplomacy—how America spreads its message of hope, democracy, and tolerance to the world—will certainly be rekindled. Our antiterrorism struggle will necessitate alliances and occasional cooperation with unsavory regimes—all aspects of the former East-West rivalry—but it is not analogous.
The doctrine of preemption, of striking before being attacked, is a fundamentally different concept than the Cold War restraint and is here to stay no matter who wins the presidential election in November. With American civilians and soldiers dying by jihadi bullets and beheadings, clearly we are in a hot war, not the old, icy standoff with Moscow.
Although the degree of preemptive attack should be weighed soberly, terrorism cannot be prevented by defensive measures. No White House occupant can simply react to events. Nuclear and biological weapons in terrorist hands can kill far too many people for a reactive posture; jihad upends the former challenge and response formula. A glacially paced strategic response born of Cold War thinking will not cool the fires of jihad.
We may not engage in another ambitious Iraq war or even an Afghanistan intervention. America has already scaled down to smaller preemptive actions from these two major counterterrorism ventures. The United States is opening bare-bones bases from which to launch preemptive attacks. Special Forces teams have been deployed in a globe-spanning belt stretching from Latin America and the Philippines through Central Asia, East Africa, and the Maghreb to train local forces to battle terrorists.
Future strategies to nip terrorist plots in the bud might include surgical airstrikes, cloak-and-dagger operations, and even smash-and-dash commando raids to take out nuclear facilities or eliminate terrorist camps. The old Cold War business as usual is over and so should be the analogous thinking.