Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Nature of Current and Future Conflicts

The Lessons of the 9/11 Attacks

On September 11, 2001 the country was traumatizing by an attack by Islamic extremists, after many years of not taking the threat seriously. It was natural for us to strike back at such enemies immediately and take all measures necessary to prevent future attacks. But doesn’t there come a time when we must examine the nature of the conflict we are in, the reasons for the occurrence of such events as 9/11 and the best way to protect ourselves and achieve our long term goals for a peaceful and prosperous world?

Since the attack was by air, our first impulse was to keep such an attack from being repeated by securing aircraft and preventing hijackers from getting on planes. In this endeavor we went overboard, to the extent of scrutinizing babies and old ladies and inconveniencing air travelers in a major way while the remainder of our infrastructure remained largely unprotected and our borders as leaky as ever.

But, the event has heightened our awareness and we are getting our house in order, slowly but surely. We are finally taking border security and identification of our citizens seriously and making a major effort to secure our homeland. Four year without another attack has proved that we are no longer an easy target of opportunity.

Now we have adopted a military posture towards terrorism, even taking nearly unilateral actions in the face of world criticism, to protect ourselves. But, are these actions in our best interest or is it now time to examine other ways that might achieve our goals at less cost of human life, treasure, and reputation?

The War on Terror

Terror is many things. Tim McVey was a terrorist. The Weather Underground were terrorists. The IRA engaged in terrorism. Palestinians engage in terrorism. Israelis engaged in terrorism to establish the state of Israel. Then there are eco-terrorists that put steel shards in trees to injure loggers. And finally there are Islamist terrorists. All attack civilian targets in their attempt at revenge or to further a cause.

We call everything a war in modern times; the war on poverty, the war on drugs, and now the war on terror. In the former there were no military operations, in the latter there are. When is a war not a war requiring military operations, or requiring more than military operations? If the enemy has a well defined force and command structure and fights back militarily it may be a war. If the is no military response from the enemy, only stealth attacks from unknown sources, possibly widely dispersed or spontaneous, is it really a war that can be won by military operations?

If we are going to call the current threat a war then it is more a war on Islamic extremism than a war on terror. Just as there has been no winner in the Palestinian-Israeli “war” there is not likely to be a winner in the “war” on Islamic extremism. This conflict, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will likely require a political solution. Calling it a war will only cloud the search for a real solution.

The Nature of Islam

The Islamic religion is different from other religions in that it prescribes how Muslims should live their lives and govern themselves according to what is called Sharia. This is fundamentally different from other religions and from western constitutional democracy, where constitutions and the legal framework are decided by the majority of the people and leaders are democratically elected. Necessarily, societies governed by Islamic Sharia are democratic only to the extent that a majority decides to adopt Sharia as law. In this case western concepts like human rights are precluded to some extent. Women, are by definition, treated unequally and non-Muslims are viewed as inferiors.

Imposed on the concept of Islamic Sharia is the view by Islamic extremists that any measures to achieve it are legitimate, including terror. If local dictators or western societies somehow interfere with achieving the goal of Sharia they become targets of terror and any other measures necessary to achieve it.

So there are really two questions to be answered. Can western cultures coexist with Islamic societies electing to adopt Sharia as their governing law? Or, is only the use of terrorism to achieve it to be contested?

Modern warfare

Can modern warfare methods defeat terrorism? Or are only political solutions possible?

In the 18th century armies lined up in rows of bright colored uniforms and fired volleys at one another. Then someone discovered that it was more effective to not wear a uniform and fire from behind a tree or hill. The regular armies cried fowl and dismissed the new tactics as unprincipled and inhuman, but to what end. It was only their opinion. The other side saw it as the only way to achieve success. Now we have a similar change in modern warfare. We send in the people in uniforms with jets and tanks and cruise missiles. Sure we can break things and kill people, but to what end. The enemy uses what ever tactics are necessary to achieve the result they want, irrespective of our opinion about their tactics.

The use of high tech weapons and fully equipped troops at great distances from the homeland is very expensive, while the use of large numbers of basically equipped local guerillas is not. The proliferation of small lethal weapons in the hands of large numbers of people can result in losing all the battles but winning the war if they can persevere while the superpower wearies of the expense and duration of a protracted conflict.

A New Assessment

At some point modern western societies must ask, is it worth it, or is there another way. This is the conclusion that Israel and the US have come to in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It’s the conclusion we came to in the Vietnam. We could claim victory in skirmishes in El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, Grenada and Panama with military power. But these were small and in our back yard. But we went home from Lebanon and Somalia, when confronting actions there, probably because to result didn’t justify the cost.

Now we have to ask ourselves again, does the result justify the cost in the confronting Islamic extremism primarily with military power? Is there another way than military power that will achieve a better result? We have to step back even further and ask ourselves what our long term political goals are. Do we want to continue being the lone international superpower at all costs, even if we have to go it alone? Do we have the capacity to do this in the face of growing economic power in China, India, Russia, Europe and other Asian countries? Or are we better off being one of the key members of the world community and addressing conflicts only as a member of a world wide alliance?

Other western countries share our dilemma of deciding whether a potent and aggressive Islam can coexist with western democracies, and under what circumstances. Will moderate Muslims join the West in confronting Islamic extremism, or do they secretly favor societies governed by Sharia and sympathize with the goals of the extremists?

Are we better off with less democracy, royal families and even dictators in Islamic countries as long as they don’t abuse the populace and are willing to advance the rights of women and minorities? Or should we step back and allow Muslims to live under Sharia, possibly even helping them to achieve it? What course will advance our interests the most? What will best ensure the safety of world commerce, prevent the outbreak of nuclear catastrophes, and minimize terrorism against peaceful neighbors? These are the questions that must be answered by future government leaders. We hope they are up to the task.

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