There has been no major terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001. This is amazing, given how large and open America continues to be. Though the recent National Intelligence Estimate noted that it is harder now to attack the United States, “al-Qaeda is showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States.” It is the old offensive-defensive dynamic seen in every war. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says his “gut” tells him a new attack may be on the way. But would such an attack be the result of al-Qaeda rebuilding its capability, or of it rethinking its strategy? The debate in enemy circles over how to strike the United States goes back deep into the last century.
In late 1944, with the Allies battering Nazi Germany from all sides, commando leader Otto Skorzeny met with Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Holocaust. Himmler wanted to attack New York City with V-1 rockets launched from U-boats. According to Skorzeny’s memoirs, Himmler argued, “America shall really feel the war for the first time. They think they are out of reach and Roosevelt imagines they can fight this war against Germany with their money and their industries and a few soldiers. The shock of such an attack would be enormous. They’d never face war in their own country. I have a very poor opinion of the moral stamina of Americans; it will collapse under such a novel and unexpected strain.”
Skorzeny disagreed, “I believe, Reichsfuhrer, that it is very possible that the effect will be quite the opposite. The U.S. government is always drumming into the nation that America is threatened by Germany. The threat will become a reality if New York is bombarded with the V-1. I attach considerable importance to the Anglo-Saxon strain in the Americans. The British have taught us that their morale rises to great heights when they are directly attacked.”
Osama bin Laden shared Himmler’s low opinion of Americans in 2001, but the reaction to the 9/11 attacks proved Skorzeny right. The United States was shaken from is doldrums and strode across the world like a colossus. That was not the reaction Osama expected, and it must have given him pause. Since 2003, Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al Zawahiri, have repeatedly called Iraq the "front line" in their war against Western civilization, hoping that this would be the better battlefield on which to break American morale.
But the post-9/11 energy is now fading, and America is falling prey to Adolf Hitler’s alternative to Himmler’s plan. Hitler wanted to strike hard at American forces in Europe, launching his remaining reserves in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Nazi dictator told Skorzeny, “England and America were tired of the war, and if the ‘corpse’ rose from the dead and dealt them a resounding blow, pressure from their own people and the demonstrated falsity of their own propaganda would make them ready for an armistice with Germany.”
The German “Bulge” attack cost the U.S. some 19,000 dead. Two regiments of the green 106th Infantry Division were surrounded and forced to surrender. American POWs were massacred at Malmedy. But there was never any chance that Washington would stop fighting and let the Nazis off the hook. Instead, the Allied counterattack smashed the best troops the Germans still had in the West. There would still be five months of fighting, but victory was never in doubt.
In 1968, however, Hitler’s plan was carried out with more success by North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose Tet Offensive did shake American home front morale. Though from a military standpoint, Tet was as much a failure as the Bulge, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, restricted the U.S. war effort and sought negotiations with the communists. Though Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, and re-elected in 1972, as the more hawkish candidate, a Democratic Congress turned against the war with a Republican in the White House and its left-wing constituents in the streets.
The Congressional antiwar effort took the same path then as now. The government in Saigon was called corrupt and incompetent, thus not worth defending. This provided cover for a series of measures aimed at setting a withdrawal “date certain” for abandoning South Vietnam. A major push was made in 1971, with hopes of paving the way for a Democratic presidential win in 1972. In February, 1971 “the Democratic Policy Committee identified U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam by the end of the year as an objective of the Ninety-second Congress” writes leftist historian Charles DeBenedetti.
There were no terrorist attacks launched by Hanoi against the United States. The Communists hoped, as had Hitler, that Americans would tire of fighting in a far off place. They just needed to hang on long enough for American fatigue to set in, which they could do since North Vietnam (unlike Germany) was not invaded and the regime destroyed. U.S. troops withdrew from South Vietnam behind the mirage of peace talks, at a rate faster than military commanders thought prudent. Congress then banned any further action to save South Vietnam, including the use of air power, which had helped turn back a North Vietnamese invasion in 1972. Saigon then fell to a renewed communist offensive in 1975.
In contrast to North Vietnam, Iraq was invaded and the regime destroyed. Thus, today’s insurgents are much weaker than the enemies the U.S. has faced in the past. Indeed, there is no enemy army in the field. The insurgents are unable to advance beyond a minimalist form of warfare, road side explosives and car bombs aimed at civilians. Yet, American society seems weaker still. The couch potatoes don’t want to be distracted from the fabricated “reality” on TV by considerations of what may be at stake overseas. But has society degenerated enough so that a new terrorist attack will break the political logjam and bring about an immediate retreat from Iraq? This is what Osama and his henchmen must be debating. It worked in Spain in 2004, but have Americans become as decadent as Europeans?
With opinion in Congress moving in their direction, it would seem that al-Qaeda would not want to rock the boat. Though some Democrats still talk about “redeployment” to Kuwait or some other place “over the horizon” to preserve an option to rescue a collapsing Iraq, the left-wing core of the party has no more stomach for a renewed fight in Iraq than it did in Vietnam.
If al-Qaeda does mount a major terrorist attack, or campaign of attacks, against the United States homeland, it would be an act of desperation. It would be a sign that the “surge” in Iraq is working, not only in a military sense but in a political sense, as Sunni and Shia tribal leaders are brought into the U.S. strategy of national building. If al-Qaeda is on the run, as many reports from the scene indicate, its leaders may decide to roll the iron dice in an attempt to win in Washington what has been lost in Baghdad. How Americans would interpret such terrorist actions, and react to them, would reveal to the world the state of the nation’s self-confidence and moral strength, the real determinants of effective power in world affairs.