Urgent Work Awaits: Are We Really Prepared?

For many years, there was an urban legend among New York conservatives that a secret soulmate worked on layout at The New York Times . Now and again, he would show his sympathies by producing a juxtaposition of stories, or of advertisements and stories, which cut through the hard fruitcake of The Times ‘ worldview with malicious Tory wit.

This probably imaginary being struck again on Oct. 14, when the front-page story on the terrorist disco bombings in Bali jumped to page 10, where it faced a full-page ad from Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. The sensible business leaders, led by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, have as their top priority stopping the war on Iraq. “THEY’RE SELLING WAR,” the ad proclaimed over snarling pictures of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. “WE’RE NOT BUYING.” Subheads warned that war will wreck the economy, breed terrorism and exact a fearful toll in human life.

Tell that to the survivors in Bali. “Like you look at their face [i.e., the face of a victim] and you can’t make anything out,” said Jared Kays, 23, of London. “People were missing ears, people were missing limbs, their skin was peeling off.”

No one sold the terror war. It was given to us, for free, and we have it, whether we like it or not. Ben Cohen should be running his peacenik ads in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, northwest Pakistan and wherever else Al Qaeda lurks. Maybe he can sweeten the message by air-dropping free cartons of Cherry Garcia.

Mr. Cohen has thought of terrorism. His ad argues that if we try to defend ourselves against future waves of it by invading Iraq, we will get more of it. “Bombings, slaughter, ‘collateral damage’ will make recruitment posters for a new generation of terrorists.” But we face a generation of terrorists right now, without having done anything to provoke their zeal. They behaved so well at the World Trade Center, and at the Balinese discos, do we want to see what they will do when Saddam slips them a nuke?

The bombings in Indonesia, the attack on the French oil tanker in Yemen and the murder of the U.S. Marine in Kuwait have prompted the blogosphere to speak of a fall offensive by Al Qaeda and its sympathizers. Maybe the Maryland/Virginia sniper is part of the pattern: The unidiomatic syntax of the warning on the Tarot card (“Dear Policeman … “) certainly recalled the Berlitz English of the anthrax letters. On the other hand, this country produced thrill-killers long before the Islamists gave us their missionary attentions.

Al Qaeda has been decapitated, but its limbs can twitch for a long time. White supremacist terrorists in this country pioneered the doctrine of “leaderless resistance” to cope with such eventualities; the strategy is not beyond the wit of foreign enemies. We can expect more strikes abroad; since America is a huge, relatively unpoliced country, we can expect more strikes here.

Whether we invade Iraq or secure an inspection of its resources that amounts to regime change, there will still be work ahead of us. The Islamic country that already has an atomic bomb is Pakistan, which uses it to threaten its rival and fellow atomic power, India. Could those bombs be turned to other purposes? Gen. Musharraf decided, post-9/11, to help us in the terror war. But before that, he encouraged Islamist elements in the army, the intelligence services and the nation at large, seeking to brighten dictatorship with the gloss of fanaticism. Now he and his own instruments have turned against each other; in the recent election that he sought to stage-manage, Islamist parties ran unexpectedly well. We find ourselves, not for the first time, allied with a lesser evil, against whom the greater evil can pose as a force of reform and change.

Yet Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation on earth, has been enjoying reform since it cast off its military dictatorship several years ago. The result is a weak state with strong Islamist parties and terrorist cells. We believe, as a matter of democratic habit, that people will rally to the appeals of freely chosen leaders. But what sorts of leaders does Indonesia have on call? Strong men give us bad choices; so does the will of the people.

But why do two far-flung and different countries present a similar problem? One can cite all the usual answers, from the last United Nations report to the reportage of V.S. Naipaul: poverty, frustration, aspiration. But why do urgent, desperate people choose the particular script of Islamism? They choose it, in part, because Saudi money puts it before them, in mosques and religious schools throughout the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia, after an initial burst of unhelpfulness, has been allowing us to use the multimillion-dollar facilities we built to defend the kingdom when Saddam was preparing to attack it 12 years ago. But this is a tactical adjustment, to accommodate a momentarily roused great power. The Saudi government continues to subsidize anti-American clerics, and diverts their followers and their resources to foreign adventures and missionary activity. In the long run, regime modification in Saudi Arabia will be more important than regime change in Iraq.

I can hear a voice, abrasive, cackling (Pat Buchanan’s?), asking how we will do all these things. Don’t know yet; it’s a new problem. The alternative to thinking about it is to let your chances of being blown up depend on the mercies of Osama bin Laden II.

Which raises a final long-term question. President Bush and his toothy cronies in Ben Cohen’s ad see terrorism and terror regimes as a serious priority, and a problem with many stages. They did not rest with freezing a few assets, or toppling the Taliban; they evidently believe there is a long haul ahead. Have they mobilized the nation sufficiently for the task? There has been no shift to war production, no draft, none of the “good” fascism that accompanied both the world wars of the 20th-century in this country. One sign of such a general mobilization would have been an attack, led by the White House, on Ken Lay and the Enron villains as profiteers in wartime.

Those steps have not been taken. We seem to be confident that improvements in the technique of warmaking make the general mobilization, pioneered by the French Revolution, unnecessary. Political calculations, and fears of a backlash, encourage the administration in its confidence. Are they right?