On January 28, the Los Angeles Times ran a controversial column by David Bell, a professor of early modern French history at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing editor for the liberal New Republic journal. His thesis was that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were not so damaging or threatening to the United States as to justify the reaction against global terrorism that has followed.
This elicited immediate condemnation on conservative talk radio programs, especially from Rush Limbaugh, but there is some truth to Bell’s argument, which leads to a better alternative interpretation of his use of military history.
That Bell is a man of the Left is indicated by how he makes his argument. When he talks of how much more suffering other nations have endured in war, his example is the Soviet Union, whose heroic stand against Nazi Germany remains the Left’s iconic reference that offsets all the evil the Communist regime did in its own attempt to dominate Europe. Bell could have made a 9/11 body count comparison with the United States in World War II that would have been more relevant, but that would have also praised American resolve, which Bell wants to undermine. Instead, the American reference he does make is to the killing of “innocent” civilians by the U.S. attack on Hiroshima, another sacred reference in the leftist creed.
But putting his ideological bias aside for the moment, he was correct to note:
the war against terrorism has so far inflicted a very small human cost on the United States. As an instance of mass murder, the attacks were unspeakable, but they still pale in comparison with any number of military assaults on civilian targets of the recent past.....Even if one counts our dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as casualties of the war against terrorism, which brings us to about 6,500, we should remember that roughly the same number of Americans die every two months in automobile accidents.
This strikes directly at the arguments made in the Senate this week, by those who oppose reinforcing U.S. troops in Iraq, arguing casualties have already been too high in a supposed lost cause.
Those both in and out of government who are thinking about the war in Iraq need to be reminded that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Over a third of American casualties in Iraq are the result of roadside bombs, the chosen weapon of those too weak to engage in combat. Most other casualties have come during offensive patrols and raids against insurgent bases, which have inflicted losses on the enemy orders of magnitude heavier. Al-Qaeda and the Saddam loyalists are no closer to winning control of Iraq than they were when U.S. troops stormed into Baghdad in 2003.
An insurgency that cannot grow beyond the use of terror cannot win against a determined government, which can deploy far more resources to the fight. The great theorist on insurgent warfare is Mao Zedong, whose fame rests on having won the Chinese Civil War after over 20 years of struggle that inflicted millions of deaths; one of the few instances in history when such tactics worked. In a study every serious student of modern war should read, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies (Routledge, 2001), Ian F. W. Beckett summed up Mao’s writings thus: “the strategic role of the guerrilla was to transform himself in due course into a regular soldier.” Only then could the rebel army defeat the forces of the government and seize control of the state.
Mao’s strategy moves through three phases. The first is basic organization, with the mobilization of a core base of support and acts of terrorism to intimidate the civilian population. Then, as recruitment expands, the insurgency can wage guerrilla warfare with irregular or militia combat units, hitting government targets and building an expertise in conventional warfare tactics. They might also carve our sanctuaries to use as training and sustainment areas. Mao considered this to be the stalemate or equilibrium phase, and it could last for a very long time. If the insurgents were to prevail, they would have to expand into a regular military force that could take the “strategic offensive” and defeat the government in battle. Political control would follow military victory.
The essence of counter-insurgency is to prevent the insurgents from progressing along this arc from terrorist cells into a field army. Governments that understand that they hold the high ground, both in terms of the “stick” of superior military power and the “carrot” of controlling the distribution of economic benefits, should not suffer any crisis of confidence or loss of will to prevail.
In Iraq, the Sunni insurgents have barely entered the second phase at best, using their sectarian community base areas. Al-Qaeda has achieved even less. Shi’ite radicals are the main menace in Iraq, having infiltrated the government and deployed militia units. To make the jump from terrorism to a force capable of contesting for control of the state, a movement almost always needs the support of a foreign government, as only governments can muster the resources needed for major combat. Radical Shiites in Iraq have the support of Iran. Indeed, the real issue in Iraq is not about combating terrorism, but about containing the expanding ambitions of Tehran, which is using insurgents like the Mahdi Army in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon to project its power.
Thus, President George W. Bush is turning up the pressure on Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has withdrawn his protection of the Mahdi Army, and U.S. rules of engagement now permit the capture or killing of Iranian operatives. In a January 29 NPR radio interview, President Bush warned “If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly.”
Leading Democrats have tried since 2002 to argue that the U.S. should concentrate on fighting terrorism rather than pursuing regime change in Iraq. Yet, it is only regimes that can mobilize the power to threaten the balance of power on a regional or global basis. Insurgents seek the reins of government, but they must be denied, especially when they are the proxies of other regimes seeking old-fashioned territorial expansion. Withdrawing from Iraq so more effort could be devoted to pursuing Osama Bin Laden, as both presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi have recently advocated, is the real overreaction to terrorism that would lose the much larger prize.
Professor Bell touched on this confused sense of priorities in his column, writing. “In a recent book, for instance, political scientist John Mueller evaluated the threat that terrorists pose to the United States and convincingly concluded that it has been, to quote his title, ‘Overblown.’ But he undercut his own argument by adding that the United States has overreacted to every threat in its recent history, including even Pearl Harbor (rather than trying to defeat Japan, he argued, we should have tried containment!).”
The Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks produced roughly the same casualties, but Pearl Harbor was followed by a wave of Japanese conquests across the Pacific and Southeast Asia, adding to the gains Tokyo had been making in mainland China. Bell is correct to point out that whatever al-Qaeda’s desires are to establish a new caliphate, they do not have the means to do so. However, Iran does have a population and resource base superior to what its neighbors can muster if the United States withdraws from the region.
So concerned about Iranian aggression are the Arab states of the region that they were willing to give Israel a diplomatic blank check to destroy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon last summer. And Saudi Arabia is acting to lower the world price of oil to undercut Tehran’s economic base.
It is the Left which has been over reacting to threats in the Middle East, running scared of weak opponents and spreading defeatist propaganda. They have done so since before Iraq, indeed, since 9/11 itself. One needs only look at the immediate outpouring of left-wing screeds like those which appeared in The Nation and published in book form under the title A Just Response (Nation Books, 2002). Perhaps the worst of a very bad bunch, Chalmers Johnson presented the standard “blame America first” claim that U.S. support for the Shah of Iran and complicity in the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile produced the “blowback” that lead to the 9/11 attacks. His idea of a just response was to withdraw American forces from all around the world and “bring our rampant militarists under control.” Talk about overblowing the power of terrorists to change the structure of world politics!
Professor Bell blames the Enlightenment for having “popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind's infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth.” But the history of the last 300 years clearly indicates that the Enlightenment has not reached much beyond the ivory tower of liberal intellectuals. They are the ones who overreact with horror when the world does not behavior in accordance with their naive notions. They seek to deny the basic nature of our violent and contentious world and retreat from it. That is not the path to enlightenment, it is only the path to defeat.