It’s not too early to draw some lessons from the Madrid attacks of 11 March.
For al-Qai’da, the attacks and subsequent Socialist victory were a vindication of its basic strategy. They proved that a Western nation can be forced into retreat by a well-timed terrorist attack, one calibrated to inflict as much death as possible. There are plenty in the al-Qai’da leadership who believe Spain’s appeasement is a harbinger of things to come, and that America’s forceful response to 911 will wind up being a one-time fluke. Osama and company have reason for hope, thanks to the Spanish electorate.
For Spain, if the lesson was not learned in Munich in 1938, it will not be learned in Madrid today. Their humiliating capitulation is something the Spaniards must face alone, quietly as they lie awake at night in their beds. It’s probably better the rest of us simply avert our eyes and move on.
As for America, lessons abound. Among the most important are those affecting the ‘Bush doctrine,’ as the Administration’s post-911 global strategy has come to be known. According to the doctrine, as we mix defensive and offensive measures in the war on terror, the emphasis should be on the offensive. Transnational terrorism has made Cold War ideas like containment and deterrence obsolete, leaving us no choice but to pursue an aggressive policy against those closed and oppressive states where terrorists breed like spores in a petri dish.
Strategically, the Madrid attacks are a textbook case of why defense – counterterrorism, in this particular case – is not enough. Here the Bush doctrine of offensive engagement shows its superiority to pretty much everything else on the table.
At the same time, the ensuing Socialist victory highlighted the most serious problem facing the Bush doctrine today – continuing fall-out from the half-hearted, inexplicably sloppy way the Administration handled America’s post-war occupation of Iraq.
The Problem with Counterterrorism
The European Union, including Spain, has good intelligence services with effective counterterrorist programs. These services coordinate with each other across borders, and cooperate with the myriad national and local police forces throughout Europe.
But still al-Qai’da got through in Madrid, leaving close to 200 dead.
Does the success of this attack provide prima facie evidence that the Spanish counterterrorist system broke down? Should we suspect that some counterintelligence officer missed a clue, or there was a bureaucratic disconnect that might be fixed?
No, unfortunately not. Counterterrorism, even at the theoretical level, acknowledges the inevitability of occasional failure. This is important to understand, as it carries serious strategic implications for the war on terror.
The inherent vulnerabilities of counterterrorism are easier to see if we compare it to its close cousin, counterintelligence. Operationally, the two are almost identical. In fact, one of the few real differences is historical – counterintelligence is as old as espionage itself, while counterterrorism a relative newcomer.
Both counterintelligence and counterterrorism target clandestine organizations. For counterintelligence, the intent is to stop the enemy from stealing secrets. For counterterrorism, it is to stop the enemy from murdering civilians.
Counterintelligence and counterterrorism both use pretty much the same techniques – penetrating the target organization, disrupting its operations, planting disinformation to promote mistrust and uncertainty in the cadres, and so on.
And both accept the fact that their efforts will from time to time be defeated – counterintelligence by the determined enemy spy, counterterrorism by the patient and relentless killer.
This acceptance is most obvious in the case of counterintelligence. Organizations that hold classified information – secrets that enemy spies want to steal – are designed with the explicit assumption that the counterintelligence palisades will at some point be breached. This is why classified information is always compartmented, with no single individual or office or department having assess to everything. When (not if) a spy makes it through, the compartmentation limits the damage he can inflict.
The situation is obviously more complex and sensitive with counterterrorism, when the failure of the system results in far greater human, political, and economic costs. (Even the John Walker spy ring, perhaps the most damaging in American history, had nowhere near the repercussions that 911 did.) Any attempt to ‘compartment’ the damage from a major terrorist attack (through civil defense measures, for example) will be marginally successful at best. Still, the principle is the same. Counterterrorism, like counterintelligence, is an art that can achieve success much of the time. But eventually it will fail. In the case of counterintelligence, that means secrets will be stolen. In the case of counterterrorism, lives will be lost. And when we throw WMD into the mix, the lives will add up to cities very quickly.
Excellent counterterrorist organizations fail all the time. Hardly a month goes by without a Hamas bomber slipping past Mossad, for example. Does this mean counterterrorism is worthless? No. Counterterrorism, like law enforcement and international intelligence sharing, are important elements in the defense against terrorism. But they are defenses, stop-gap measures to hold the enemy at bay. They do not comprise a strategy for victory, which is what the war on terror demands.
The carnage in Madrid is a glimpse of the future for any nation in which counterterrorism passes for a national strategy against destructive ideologies like militant Islam. The great virtue of the Bush doctrine is its aggressive, even belligerent, stance against al-Qai’da and the states that enable it.
The best we can hope for from the defensive model are reasonably long breathers – months, maybe even several years – between vicious and evermore deadly attacks. Only a strategy that promotes genuine change in the Middle East, as the Bush doctrine does, holds out the possibility of victory and an end to terror.
The Spanish made their choice, and Americans made theirs. The question is, will Americans have the foresight and tenacity to see it through?
The Problem of Poor Execution
The other lesson for the Bush doctrine comes, not from the attacks themselves, but from the ensuing victory of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Granted that most Spaniards never wanted to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in the first place, and that there was probably little America could have done to keep voters from going wobbly after an attack like the one on 11 March. Nevertheless, supporters of the Bush doctrine would be foolish not to listen to the words of Prime Minister-elect Zapatero after his victory.
“The war has been a disaster,” said Zapatero. “The occupation continues to be a great disaster. It hasn't generated anything but more violence and hate.”
There is plenty of smug self-justification in Zapatero’s remarks, but there is also truth.
In order for the Bush doctrine to work, it must be executed well. From the moment Coalition forces rolled over the Kuwaiti border into southern Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom needed to demonstrate the irresistibility of American might, and the competent benevolence of American power. Everyone needed to see this – the Iraqi people (both the hopeful majority and the resentful old guard); the regional tyrants and their oppressed subjects; and the world at large.
But while the war itself was almost flawless, post-war execution was poor. The bureaucracy (State Department, CIA, Agency for International Development, the various military branches) developed sound and extensive post-war plans. Inexplicably, they were largely ignored by decision makers. Instead of appearing irresistible – reassuring our friends and striking fear in the hearts of our enemies – we appeared quite resistible. The chaos that ensued, and the weakness and incompetence we showed, created memories that will never be erased.
None of this diminishes the genuine progress that Bremer and others have made. The new constitution is rightly seen as a milestone, an achievement unmatched anywhere in the Arab world. But we must not deceive ourselves. Many of the difficulties the Bush doctrine is facing stem from the initial bungling of the Iraq occupation. We can still prevail, but we are making up ground that should never have been lost.
The best strategy in the world is worthless without competent execution. The Bush team’s ability to produce grand and imaginative strategy is beyond question, dwarfing anything the Administration’s critics are likely to articulate. However, unless it is matched by equally impressive execution, all will be for naught.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA, currently on the editorial board of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.