Sun, 23 Feb 2003

The greatest threat to the U.S. is its imagination

Martin Woollacott, Guardian News Service, London

The article by "X" which appeared in the American magazine Foreign Affairs in July, 1947, would become the most famous commentary on foreign policy of modern times. Entitled The sources of Soviet conduct, it argued that communist Russia was a cautious power whose ideology laid down that capitalism would eventually fail because of its own contradictions.

The USSR would therefore try to wait the capitalist world out rather than frontally attack it. "X" proposed that the Soviet Union's own weaknesses were far more serious than any on our side and would lead to its demise, and that the west's best policy was one of judicious containment.

We do not yet have, or, if we do, we have not yet identified the "X" article on the real nature of the threat which became manifest on Sept. 11 2001. But we do have reason to reflect on the cautionary tale that is the story of western policy toward the communist powers. In his book Secrecy, Patrick Moynihan showed how fantastical notions of Soviet military, political and economic strength grew within an institutional culture which preferred bad news to good.

The cult of secrecy nourished this growth, because it inhibited rational discussion by sucking more information out of the public realm and by trumping what remained public. Secret information surely had to be more reliable than ordinary stuff.

And so, as the visible evidence piled up that the Soviet Union and the People's Republic were muddled, corrupt, and inefficient societies under severe strains, it was ignored in favor of secret calculations that showed them on the way to outmatching western countries in every sphere.

The result was huge military overspending by the U.S., which drove it deep into debt, a war that might have been avoided in Vietnam, and covert operations that caused much suffering and almost compromised the constitutional order in America itself. Even when a more realistic perception of Russian weakness came to prevail, an assumption that the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture in history continued in some western circles almost to the end.

With the U.S. now spending on defense at rates comparable to, or higher than, those of the Carter and Reagan years, and with the planned military action in Iraq seen by some as presaging more wars around the world, it is an obvious that the mistakes of the past may be about to be repeated. The military arguments are by now familiar. The critics say the threat of missile attack from rogue states, which accounts for that large portion of spending devoted to missile defense and that contemplated, apparently, for new nuclear weapons to counter chemical and biological weapons, is already adequately deterred by America's existing weapons.

The spending on conventional military capability, they say, is still skewed to weaponry required for combat with the vanished Soviet Union or a highly unlikely war with China, and is irrelevant to the kinds of conflict in which the U.S. is most likely to be involved in the future. Undoubtedly, there is threat inflation here.

But a more important argument is the broader one of whether America under George W Bush is in the process of mistaking the nature of Islamist terrorism, misunderstanding the historical phase through which, at different rates and in different ways, Muslim societies are passing and, for good measure, miscalculating a range of other threats, like that represented by North Korea. Is there, in this respect, a parallel to the inflation of threat that operated during the cold war years? The first point must be that, considered in terms of intention alone, this seems unlikely.

There may be a scrap or two of evidence that al-Qaeda and its allies and emulators might draw the line at using the worst kind of weapons -- there was one report that they had rejected the idea of crashing planes into nuclear reactors -- but there is more to suggest that they would use any means they came to possess. The intention, then, is potentially genocidal, unless and until there is proof to the contrary.

But capacity and durability are another matter. It is normal for the capacity of terrorists, saboteurs, and traitors to be exaggerated. Moynihan recalls blowing up by German saboteurs of the munitions dump on Black Tom Island in New York harbor in the early morning of July 30 1916, the Sept. 11 of that era. This and other German-inspired incidents led to hysteria among the population and to over-reaction by authorities on a grand scale.

The real facts, which were that the Germans had more or less shot their bolt as far as subversion and sabotage went, were for a long time obscured. Supporters and critics of the policies of the Bush administration seem to agree that al-Qaeda, whether regarded as an organization or a tendency, is formidable.

In the sense that it could deliver a formidable blow by means not available to terrorists in the past, that must be true, but in the wider sense of ubiquity, skill, and support from Muslim communities, the case is not proven.

Finally, terrorist movements have life spans. They are born in certain circumstances, they change, and die. Counter-terrorist action, whether military or political, is only one factor in this evolution. The reaction of the communities from which they come to their actions, and their own reactions, sometimes of shame and disillusion, to their victories and defeats play a part as well. Apocalyptic terrorism is not necessarily with us forever, although it is almost certain to do some grave damage before it departs the scene.

Richard Powers, in his introduction to Moynihan's book, argues that one of the baleful effects of secrecy is that it inclines public opinion toward conspiracy theories. Both the Bush administration, the most secretive in America for years, and the Blair government have taken their share of shots from these lockers, particularly from the European side of the Atlantic.

The combination of secretive government, guarding exaggerated or misconceived ideas of the threats facing the nation from rational discussion, and a public opinion distorted by the notion that all secrets are by definition discreditable to government, was an unhappy one during the cold war.

It is even less desirable now.