The Politics of Vengeance

Friday, July 30, 2004

A decade ago Samuel Huntington wrote: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in the new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. . . . The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

His words have been reified by Islamic terrorist events before and after 9/11: Istanbul, Bali, Moscow, Kenya, Casablanca, and, most recently, Madrid 3/11. We suddenly find ourselves confronting a new actor on the world scene. This is an actor who influences—not determines—the foreign policies of the leading nation-states, an actor who cannot be appeased because his objective is total annihilation of the enemy and himself at the same time. As Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammad put it from his home in England, “It is foolish to fight people who want death; that is what they are looking for.”

Today, as we try to foresee the foreign policy challenges of the next several decades, it is with the realization that we are living in an era that was best described under far different circumstances by Otto von Bismarck in words that are even truer today than they were in 1890. To quote the Iron Chancellor: “We live in a wondrous time in which the strong is weak because of his moral scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.”

Foreign policy in Bismarck’s good old days was based on nation-states negotiating with one another or confronting each other on the field of battle; in all cases there was a foreseeable end to hostilities. The armies were professional or conscript, and when the battle was over everybody still standing went home after the inevitable “rectification of borders,” as the phrase went. Whatever the casus belli, it was not a clash of civilizations.

Today there are no borders to be rectified because, as far as Al Qaeda and its freelance terrorists are concerned, there are no national borders, anymore than there are nation-states. There is no foreseeable end to hostilities because the war being waged against the West is not by nation-states against one another but by an enemy who, speaking in the name of Islam, has declared war on our civilization.

That civilization is represented today by the G8 countries—Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States—as well as the rest of the European Union.

 

The “Bombintern”

The terrorist network, which I call the Bombintern, produces dramatic, deadly results. It is clear that (1) its threats are credible; (2) it can project its destructive power where it pleases, in North America, Asia, Africa, Europe east and west, into the heartland of the world’s superpower; and (3) negotiation, as is customary among nation-states, is impossible since there is no single entity with whom one can negotiate or who can speak for the Bombintern or ensure treaty performance.

President Bush’s 1992 report to Congress, titled “National Security Strategy of the United States,” noted that in the past our enemies “needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger America.” That is no longer true because, says the Bush report, “shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank.”

Despite the Bombintern’s successes, the fundamental political character of its targets does not change. They may temporarily change a country’s foreign policy, as seen most recently in post–3/11 Spain, but Spain is still a democracy. Despite years of IRA terrorism against Britain, it still remains a democracy. Despite 9/11, the United States remains a democracy. The democratic ethos is unaffected.

Thus one can argue that even if the Bombintern is still functioning 40 years hence, as I believe it may well be, the United States will still be the leading power in NATO allied with Western Europe, as well as Russia and an emerging China (no longer Marxist but probably still Leninist). For the one thing we have learned in the past decade of Islamist terrorism is that the Bombintern can terrorize a population but it cannot prevent the population from going about its daily tasks as it has from time immemorial. There will still be autonomous terrorist pods, but police actions will limit their activities. And even so, one suicidal terrorist will always get through.

 

The Challenges Ahead

The next 40 years will see a greater emphasis by the United States on three phenomena. The first will be controlling the raising and transfer of funds across the terrorist network. Lord Robertson, former head of NATO, recently described how “easy it was to have $500,000 wired from a bank in Dubai for anonymous use in automatic teller machines in Florida and Maine [and] how difficult it has been, even with the backing of U.N. resolutions and 150 nations, to find out who raised or sent those dollars.”

Second, Europe’s fundamental problem, as Niall Ferguson has written, is senescence. The 15 European Union countries will have to contend with the exponential growth of the Muslim population in Western Europe while their own citizens age. By 2025, it is predicted the Muslim population in France alone will approach one-quarter. The Minaret will compete with the Cross. If this population begins to vote as a solid bloc, then not only Western Europe but the United States will have to contend with a new power center in the heart of the continent, one that will threaten even Russia with its still unsettled Chechnya problem.

Third, the United States will concentrate even greater efforts to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction even if that emphasis means infuriating so-called allies like France and Pakistan and enemies like North Korea.

A quarter century ago there arose, with Soviet support, an alliance of dictatorships that I called the Radical Entente. It comprised Cuba, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. Their Cold War politics was containable by American foreign policy because it was still a world of nation-states and civilian populations were not held hostage. Even at the height of Cold War crises—the 1949 Berlin blockade, the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—one could still board an airplane without being searched or having to remove one’s shoes. People went about their business because civilians were exempt from random attack. The politics of vengeance had not yet made its appearance.

However dangerous the Soviet Union appeared to Western societies, civilian populations were not at risk. A plane might be hijacked to Cuba, but it was a momentary distraction that affected airline schedules but rarely endangered airline passengers. It was generally the act of a loner, nothing like the catastrophic 9/11 conspiracy.

Americans could ignore such events because there weren’t many Lockerbie tragedies. There was a nation-state, Libya, behind Lockerbie, and American foreign policy could punish the perpetrator and did. But American foreign policy has no way of dealing with Al Qaeda terrorism because there is no nation-state involved. Since the defeat of the Taliban and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Bombintern is without a headquarters and its members usually operate within a nation-state, which, while hostile to their terrorist ambitions, still affords them the constitutional protection of civil liberties.

The foreign policy machine is unsuited to combating non-state terrorism. What it can provide and will provide in coming decades is everything from cooperation with allies to putting pressure on states that are doing little or nothing to prevent the Bombintern from functioning on their soil. But even with all the cooperation in the world, one will always get through.

For American foreign policy the problem will be a decadent Europe that is well described by Niall Ferguson: “European politics is dominated by a kind of dance of death as politicians and voters try desperately and vainly to prop up the moribund welfare states of the post–Second World War era, but above all to prop up what remains of their traditional cultures.”

The European Union is coming into being at a time when the economies of the two major members of the European Union, Germany and France, are facing serious difficulties. Over the last decade, unemployment in the European Union has been double that of the United States. It may even come to this: a Marshall Plan for the twenty-first century to rescue the declining economies of continental Europe.

In the years ahead American foreign policy will have concerns over the Islamicization of Western Europe, principally in France. This Islamicization will affect the quality and preparedness of our NATO alliance. The Israeli-Arab issue will remain an insoluble problem because there is no single political entity in the Arab world that can speak and negotiate for the Palestinians. Hamas, for example, has made it quite clear that it will not accept any agreements or negotiations with Israel except an agreement that puts an end to Israel as a nation-state.

One area that may become a problem for American foreign policy is Russia and its “managed democracy,” as President Putin calls it. Russia has no genuine rule of law. Under Putin the secret police have staged an ominous comeback. Since 1994, nine members of Russia’s parliament and 130 journalists have been murdered. Arrests have been few and far between.

Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will remain a live issue, not only for us but also for China and South Korea as they consider the problem of nuclear weaponry in the hands of North Korea. Iran is another matter, but I think Iran’s theocrats will think twice before they begin to act on nuclear threats blared from minarets.

Perhaps the real end-of-the-world problem we face was expressed metaphorically in a novel by a little-known European writer, Italo Zvevo, in 1925:

When all the poison gases (of the war) are exhausted, a man, made like all other men of flesh and blood, will, in the quiet of a room, invent an explosive of such potency that all the explosives in existence will seem like harmless toys beside it. And another man, made in his image and in the image of all the rest, but a little weaker than them, will steal that explosive and crawl to the center of the earth with it, and place it just where he calculates it would have the maximum effect. There will be a tremendous explosion, but none will hear it and the earth will return to its nebulous state and go wandering thru the sky, free at last from parasites and disease.