TCS Daily


Who's Going to Win?

By Kenneth Silber - September 11, 2006 12:00 AM

During the Cold War, some of the fiercest anti-Communists believed their cause was likely to fail. The writer and former Communist Whittaker Chambers sought to rally the West against his erstwhile comrades, but wrote that in making his break from Communism he "knowingly chose the side of probable defeat." George Orwell criticized fellow anti-Communist author Arthur Koestler for espousing "short-term pessimism" and a brighter long-term view; Orwell believed the long-term prospect was no less bleak.

A similar pessimism colors a good deal of current thinking about what I will call, for convenience, the War on Terror. (Indeed, what to name the conflict, and how to label the enemy, are sources of uncertainty that contribute to the pessimism. Fortunately, there have been some steps toward developing better terminology, such as this recent article.)

I have been struck, in recent conversations with activists focused on the threat of Islamic terrorism, to find among them a considerable degree of belief that, over time, the enemy will win. One New York woman who has devoted much energy since 9/11 to raising alarm about the threat gave me a succinct prediction about what will happen over a period of decades: "We're toast." Such pessimism, moreover, strikes a chord with much of the public. A Rasmussen poll in early August found that 33 percent of Americans believe the terrorists are winning the War on Terror. Here at TCS, the writings of Jim Pinkerton evince an unease as to whether the West will prevail.

Of course, seeing a problem in highly stark terms can be a valuable guard against complacency. But there is also the danger that the "We're toast" school of thought will weaken efforts to confront the terrorists and totalitarians of the Islamic world. Believing that one is on the wrong side of history is debilitating. By the same token, believing one is part of a surging or inevitable wave can be a powerful motivator. The terrorists and totalitarians conspicuously spew out a stream of propaganda asserting that victory will be theirs.

But will it? Pessimistic assessments draw upon various factors, including the fanatical determination of suicide bombers, the difficulties for conventional militaries posed by "asymmetric warfare," the actual and potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the reluctance of many governments and political parties to confront terrorism and its sponsors, and the demographic reality of growing Muslim numbers, particularly in Europe. All of these are real factors, albeit sometimes exaggerated ones.

But consider some of the fundamental obstacles that stand between the terrorists and victory:

The terrorists are divided. In his August 31 speech before the American Legion National Convention, President Bush noted the sectarian differences among the terrorists, as well as their geographical and operational diversity, before stating that they nonetheless "form the outlines of a single movement." But in fact their violent divisions -- their hatred for each other, as well as for their common enemies -- comprise a key weakness of the terrorists. Their bloodiest schisms are sectarian, exemplified by Al Qaeda's slaughters of Shiites in Iraq. But other divisions -- such as over whether to fight the "far enemy" (the U.S. and the West in general) or the "near enemy" (Israel or secular Arab regimes) -- impede the formation of a united terrorist front.

Terrorism creates a backlash. The brutality of terrorist acts fosters a loss of public support, as well as aggressive countermeasures by governments. As political scientist John Mueller notes in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Al Qaeda's November 2005 attack on a wedding party in a Jordan hotel "succeeded mainly in outraging the Jordanians" and brought a collapse of favorable polling figures for Osama bin Laden in that country from 25 percent to less than one percent.

Terrorist sponsors are vulnerable. Terrorists rely on funding and support provided by regimes such as those of Iran and Syria. These regimes, however, are vulnerable to military attack, economic sanctions, and the discontent of their own peoples. The latter can be exacerbated by the diversion of resources to the support of foreign proxies; Iran's support for Hezbollah during the recent war with Israel and its aftermath reportedly sparked complaints among Iranians about their government's allocation of funding to Lebanon rather than domestic needs.

Terrorists depend on foreign technology. Terrorist groups have demonstrated a malevolent creativity in adapting and misusing technologies, but terrorists and their sponsors are generally behind the curve technologically in comparison to the nations they target. A growing portion of technological development in the West and elsewhere is now aimed at developing improved means of detecting, monitoring and destroying terrorists. In the aftermath of the Lebanon fighting, for instance, the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet stepped up efforts to recruit high-tech talent for its counterterrorism programs.

Oil revenue is the terrorists' lifeline. The wealth that subsidizes Islamic terrorism and totalitarianism is overwhelmingly derived from the Persian Gulf region's petroleum exports; such exports are the mainstay of Iran's economy and of private "charities" that have funneled money to terrorist groups throughout the region. Efforts to diversify world energy supplies, driven by an array of economic, environmental and geopolitical factors, can be expected to erode the dominance of the region's oil over the next several decades. The development of alternative fuels and technologies, and of new petroleum sources such as the multibillion-barrel field recently discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, pose an enormous strategic threat to our enemies in the War on Terror.

Kenneth Silber is a TCS Daily contributing writer who focuses on science, technology and economics.

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