What Kind of War?

The Terror War is upon us. Since no American government would fail to forcefully answer the massacre by foreign agents of nearly 6,000 people in broad daylight on American soil, the realistic political questions concern the nature of the war ahead.

The cooler heads in the Bush administration say the objectives are to defeat Osama bin Laden‘s terrorist network, end terrorist safe harbors provided by various countries, ensure domestic security and develop a global anti-terrorist coalition. Unlike the TV wars that many have grown up watching, none of this will be easy.

I’m no military expert, though I was in the Navy and worked as a political adviser with someone who is an expert, former Senator Gary Hart. The onetime presidential frontrunner co-chaired the U.S. Commission on National Security, which published a prescient report in February predicting a major terrorist attack in America. In military terms, these are among the fundamental questions: What is the “center of gravity” of our opponents, i.e., that without which they can‘t fight effectively? How do we disable that center of gravity? How do we avoid causing a “reverse domino effect”? And how do we protect the homeland during all this?

Japan, for example, correctly identified the U.S. Pacific Fleet as America’s center of gravity in any Pacific conflict. But due to intelligence failures, the Japanese failed to sink the U.S. aircraft carriers, which had left Pearl Harbor. Six months later, those carriers halted the Japanese advance for good at Midway.

The center of gravity of a dispersed terrorist network is hard to define, especially when the so-called prime suspect, Osama bin Laden, may only be its most famous member. Though he has trained thousands of terrorists and is an inspiration to many, taking down bin Laden is almost certainly not enough. He may very well be the intellectual author of last week‘s attacks; it’s less likely that he is the actual director of them. He has been operating out of remote, mountainous Afghanistan. His satellite-dependent electronic communications is monitored by U.S. intelligence, forcing him to rely on couriers, making it difficult for him to coordinate such well-planned attacks.

The actual center of gravity could be a leadership cadre of which bin Laden is only part; it could be specific sources of financing (almost certainly derived from the West‘s petrodollars); it could be ties to the intelligence and diplomatic services of one or more nation-states; it could be all of the above, or something else.

Unless intelligence is remarkably accurate, or the Taliban relent -- unlikely, given that he is one of their prime financiers and that they once declared him head of their armed forces -- more action will be needed to get to bin Laden. Air operations probably won’t suffice; U.S. ground troops will be needed. If bin Laden and some of his key associates are still in landlocked Afghanistan, American and British special forces and airborne troops will almost certainly be sent in after him. Help from neighboring nations -- Pakistan, India or one of the former Soviet republics -- will be needed for them to succeed.

It is a war that is global in scope. The bin Laden network and its allies are active throughout the Middle East, of course, but their reach is much broader, encompassing much of Africa, Europe, Asia and, as we have seen, North America. Indeed, the U.S. is finding at least some support from Russia and China, which have previously been fomenting an anti-U.S. coalition; they joined with a number of Central Asian nations, situated near Afghanistan, in a little-noted Shanghai summit last June to form an alliance countering expansionist Islamic fundamentalism.

Destabilizing attacks can occur in many places. Indonesia, which few Americans ever think about, is the world‘s fourth most populous nation and spans some of its most important shipping lanes. It has a large Muslim population and was already on the brink of chaos. Bin Laden associates are believed to have a strong presence there.

An inherent danger here is a reverse domino effect. The U.S. justified the Vietnam War by saying that Saigon’s fall would trigger a domino effect throughout Asia. The danger now is that we may trigger a domino effect of our own, stirring up anger in the “Arab street” of underemployed, already anti-Western Muslims, destabilizing relatively friendly regimes.

It‘s been glibly said that we’re all Israelis now; it‘s more accurate to say that the world has come to America. Other nations have experienced terrorist attacks, usually religious in nature. Now America is in for it, targeted by people who are clearly much more than the simple suicide bombers of the past -- very techno-savvy and well-financed, highly disciplined and, as we are learning, extraordinarily patient. While the explosion of a nuclear device seems unlikely to most experts, and chemical weapons are difficult to use, biological weapons are relatively easy to deploy. And, as a complex, technological society, America is very vulnerable to “structure hits” -- attacks on the Internet, the electric-power grid, and so on. An attack on a nuclear power plant could be catastrophic.

So where is the hope? We can hope that the terrorists go away, or that America’s military might magically smites them down in short order. Neither is likely. But a global anti-terrorist coalition may help give rise to a climate-change coalition. And we should, at least, demand a futuristic energy policy that moves the U.S. away from its Middle Eastern-dependent petroleum base to renewable energy sources.

The world has changed for Americans, and not for the better.