The immense costs of the War on Terror, the self-inflicted wounds we suffer from it, and its permanently perceived inadequacy in comparison with the threats it forces us to imagine are more destructive of our national life than the damage terrorists are likely to inflict on us and our society. The War on Terror’s record of failure, with its inevitable and spectacular instances of venality and waste, will humiliate thousands of public servants and elected officials, demoralize citizens, and enrage taxpayers. The effort to master the unlimited catastrophes we can imagine by mobilizing the scarce resources we actually have will drain our economy, divert and distort military, intelligence, and law-enforcement resources, undermine faith in our institutions, and fundamentally disturb our way of life. In this way the terrorists who struck us so hard on September 11, 2001, can use our own defensive efforts to do us much greater harm than they could ever do themselves.

Above all, we need clarity. There is and will continue to be a terrorist threat, emanating not only from Muslim extremists abroad but also from Timothy McVeigh-type fanatics at home. This threat will, in time, produce some attacks and some casualties. In the world as it is, this prediction is as easy to make as the prediction that in the future airliners will crash and that disgruntled former employees will murder former coworkers. The question is not how any of these or other bad things can be absolutely prevented but how we can most effectively reduce their frequency and seriousness. Counterterrorism policies and programs are therefore important. They can and should be carefully designed and implemented. An undisciplined, spiraling, and hysterical War on Terror to forestall every catastrophe our best minds and our cleverest script writers can imagine, however, is itself more damaging and dangerous than the terrorist threats it is supposedly combating.

During the Cold War, America adapted to the ever-present threat of nuclear incineration. One reason we could do so is that the threat was clear, easy to understand, and emanated from a distinct and specific place, the Soviet Union. Accordingly, we were able to fashion a strategic posture and culture of nuclear deterrence. Safety was achieved, or at least an acceptable level of assurance of safety, because the Soviets were convinced that we were convinced that an attack by either of us on the other would mean the annihilation of both. As bizarre as this doctrine of mutual assured destruction was, it played an unchallengeable role in securing the peace and protecting the world from the disasters piled up in missile silos, in bomb bays, and onboard submarines.

Ironically, against far weaker enemies and a far less awesome threat, we may today find it much more difficult to achieve the level of security, or a comparable sense of safety, that we managed to establish during the Cold War. The fundamental challenge we faced in our 55-year confrontation with the Soviet Union was to remain steadfast against a horrifying but clearly visible threat. In 1947 George F. Kennan’s famous ‘‘X’’ article provided subsequent administrations with the fundamental intellectual framework for assessing and countering the Soviet threat in a sustainable manner. Kennan argued that the United States could be safe without ‘‘rolling back’’ communism and thereby risking a world war with the Soviet Union. If we were willing to commit the resources and mobilize the steely patience necessary to contain Soviet expansionism and deter Soviet nuclear weapon use, we could not only survive but prosper and emerge victorious following the collapse of a communist economic and political system unable to compete with ours.

In the aftermath of 9/11 the challenge is different. It is to act prudently in the face not of a clearly locatable threat but of intractable uncertainty about painful, even catastrophic possibilities that may lurk almost anywhere, including within our own borders.

Franklin Roosevelt famously told us that the only thing we really have to fear is ‘‘fear itself.’’ If we can master the fear of terrorism that leaves us in the grip of the War on Terror, we can then fashion strategies to achieve genuine, if, as in the Cold War, incomplete, psychological and military security. A crucial element in this strategic posture will be to save ourselves from the self-inflicted disasters that, apart from the Vietnam War, we mostly managed to avoid during the long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union.

Lowering the Temperature By Ian S. Lustick
EXCERPT: Trapped in the War on Terror

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06