America’s war planners were presented last week with three developments that would seem to call for radical modification or postponement of any military action against Iraq. But in fact these events-the defection of our presumed ally Turkey, the capture of an important Al Qaeda leader and a long-overdue concession on weapons verification by Saddam Hussein-only point up how urgent it is that we maintain forceful pressure on the Iraqi dictator and demonstrate to the world that we have no intention of rethinking our military options regarding his fate. The threat of extreme force against Iraq has indicated to the world what fate awaits suspected or established state sponsors of terror, and has caused many wavering governments either to narrow their tolerance of terrorist groups or to step up active opposition to them. In this way, our military preparations, our moves against Saddam and the success of our own counterterrorist units around the globe have been revealed as integrated and interdependent.
The first strategic problem dropped in the laps of our defense chiefs, the decision by the Turkish parliament not to allow the anti-Saddam coalition to base some 62,000 troops along the Iraqi border, has as much to do with prolonged wrangling over how much “foreign aid” the United States would pay for basing rights as it does with any true sense of solidarity with fellow Muslims. It is highly likely that the decision will be reversed, and soon: The Turkish stock market and inflation rate reacted to the news that no new American money would be forthcoming by plummeting and rising, respectively. Then, too, the showy Turkish rejection may have been just that: a very public denial of military and diplomatic prostitution that the Turks felt they needed to make before they could quietly return to the business of pimping their prime resource.
From a strategic point of view, it is by no means necessary that Turkey participate in the campaign. Those who think it is are falling into the trap of linear thinking that has traditionally bedeviled American military leaders, from Ulysses Grant to Dwight Eisenhower and beyond. Linear thinkers believe that to achieve a military objective, one must move one’s forces along an unbroken line into enemy territory until that objective is eventually obtained, never allowing fronts to become confused or individual units to get ahead of either their lines of support or their comrades on their flanks-even if a decisive opportunity opens up before them. America’s greatest military campaigns have actually defied such morbidly conservative thinking: William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War made a mockery of it (and nearly destroyed Grant’s nervous system in the process), as did the American armored sweep through France in the summer and fall of 1944, which succeeded despite Eisenhower’s fears that the tanks were running too far ahead of both his plodding plans and their gas and food supplies. Yet linear thinking has always managed to reassert itself within the American military establishment, and it may well do so again now: The Pentagon is awash in generals as unimaginative as Grant and Eisenhower, men who don’t like the kind of risks that were taken in Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his advisers, and who may use a final Turkish refusal as a pretext to declare once again that the progressive planning of their civilian superiors poses an unacceptable hazard, and that the incursion into Iraq should be scrapped if overwhelming (overkilling) force cannot be assembled.
Just as Abraham Lincoln gravitated toward and supported Sherman’s unorthodox ideas for breaking the power of the South, so George W. Bush must prevent conservative Pentagon thinkers from overemphasizing the risks of a non-linear assault and ensure that Mr. Rumsfeld retains operational control. It is true that the loss of Turkey as a staging ground will put far more emphasis on the hazardous work of American Special Forces behind Iraqi lines; and it is also true that most of these units will need to be dropped to their initial positions by air-but there are air bases outside Turkey that can serve this purpose, including one concrete field constructed inside the Kurdish-controlled sector of northern Iraq. Even armored units might be airlifted from these other bases-though if our Special Forces and light-infantry units can effectively coordinate with Iraqi opposition forces and anti-Saddam military units, the need to use armor in Iraq may be obviated altogether. American Special Forces have over the years proved enormously self-reliant inside enemy-held territory, even when operating in relatively large formations; and they are certainly capable of being not only transported but resupplied by air. We should remember, in this context, that American tactical control of the skies above Iraq will likely be achieved before, during or very soon after any invasion begins-if, indeed, it has not been already.
Turkey’s defection may actually be a blessing in disguise: A smaller number of troops operating in the north-probably fewer than 30,000-will be enough to perform such primary missions as protecting oil fields in the area, but not too many to make the Iraqis worry about the theft of their national integrity. Also, if Turkey refuses to allow the use of its airfields, it will be more difficult to coordinate the kind of blanket bombing campaign that inevitably results in unacceptable levels of civilian casualties-another blessing. And, of course, with Turkey out of the picture, the Bush administration will be $26 billion closer to paying for its war.
As for the second development, the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed-one of Al Qaeda’s chief operations officers and the alleged architect of the Sept. 11 attacks-the event was greeted with more of the media’s incurable compulsion to toss around terms like “genius” and “mastermind” when discussing terrorists and their operations. The truth is that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is no more deserving of those epithets than Mohammed Atta, who was also called the “criminal mastermind” behind the 9/11 hijackings. In time it became clear that Atta was in fact a drearily mundane man, possessed of only average intelligence, who had a knack for using that very innocuousness-along with an almost medieval devotion to his mission-to manipulate the modern world’s maze of overworked and often incompetent immigration, identification and security bureaucracies. Despite his extraordinary bloodthirstiness, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is only marginally more impressive.
My intention here is not to underestimate our enemy, but to try to understand him better at a moment when terrorist violence, because of the Iraq crisis, is a principal public concern-and when the entire topic of terrorists and terrorism is once again being shamefully sensationalized in the media.
A terrorist need not possess a complex strategic mind or tactical vision. What he does need is vulgar ease with viciousness, and the doggedness required to duel with the brutally dull-witted machinery of today’s consumer, information and immigration agencies. The deadliest people in the world today rely on essentially the same tactics that teenagers use to get into bars and crack porn Web sites; they have the same basic level of weapons inventiveness as warring prison inmates, low-level safecrackers and arsonists. It takes neither a mastermind to find the holes in our domestic security-a state of affairs that has dramatically worsened with the ascension of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge-nor a genius to exploit them.
Why are these points relevant to America’s military intentions in Iraq? Because-elementary and archaic as their tactical formulations may be-the drones of Al Qaeda constitute a strong-willed and single-minded weapons-delivery system. Should they get hold of a powerful weapon (a plague of some sort, say-a terror that harks back, like their fundamentalist philosophy, to the Middle Ages), they are smart enough to know that unleashing just one cataclysmic device could well hurl the United States into an economic and social collapse severe enough to erode or destroy our status as global hegemon and force our partial withdrawal-at least temporarily-from much of the business of the international community.
Enter Saddam Hussein, who is eminently capable of recognizing America’s vulnerability to this kind of assault. Is Saddam foolish enough to launch an attack himself? By no means; but he is determined to befriend and encourage those who are. He is also canny enough to realize, after decades of unsuccessful conventional wars, that his best opportunity to seize territory from his neighbors is now contingent on the destabilizing violence of terrorism: If terrorism-which is supra-national and thus immune to any policy of containment-can bring the United States to a point of international impotence, he can make another grab at regional hegemony. He has therefore worked over the past decade to tighten his ties not only to average Muslims but to Muslim terrorists-particularly, but not exclusively, Palestinian suicide bombers. At the same time, by spending heavily in weapons and military programs and thus worsening food shortages and delaying infrastructure repair within Iraq, he has aggravated the anti-Western sentiment bred in his own people by the international embargo.
There is simply no way to contain this kind of behavior. Indeed, the cruise missiles and economic sanctions and no-fly zones that were supposed to achieve containment have instead relieved Saddam’s former isolation among Muslim leaders and peoples. When containment fosters regional solidarity, it is time to recognize its utter bankruptcy as a strategy.
Those who believe that Saddam would never play the terrorist card-that he is himself too worried about such groups to ever release weapons of mass destruction to them-are simply not listening to his own very plausible analysis of the current crisis. Saddam has repeatedly predicted that “Armageddon” will ensue if the U.S. attacks Iraq. He could be right. If Al Qaeda and others take a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as the moment to initiate a string of attacks, including setting off a W.M.D., the resulting devastation may be felt far more sharply in America than American bombs will be felt in Iraq. The Iraqis, Saddam believes, have grown inured to American aggression; Americans, on the other hand, will have no idea how to cope with another, even more horrifying attack on their own soil.
How much clearer need it be that for us to ignore the officially unacknowledged but de facto and substantial identification of interests between Saddam and international terrorism, or to speak of regime change in Iraq as distracting or diverting us from the war on terror, is both inaccurate and enormously dangerous? The two efforts-forceful coercion (or elimination) of Saddam and rooting out terrorist cells and leaders-have in fact become part and parcel of the same struggle.
Both Saddam and Osama bin Laden have come grudgingly to a very similar conclusion (making it past time for us to do the same). As Osama himself pointed out in his last audiotaped message, the forging of common cause by the nationalist dictator and the supranational terrorist may be distasteful to the pure soldiers of Al Qaeda, but if it results in the defeat of the primary enemies of Islam, then the faithful must hold their noses and swallow. On Saddam’s side, meanwhile, the alliance that dares not speak its name may be fraught with danger. Fundamentalists may see his suddenly rediscovered faith and his ridiculous Mother of All Battles Mosque for the shams they are, and may fully intend to send the Iraqi dictator the way of the Americans once that greater enemy is defeated. But Saddam has never indicated that he considers any person or group within his own part of the world a worthy adversary, and this is likely not a prospect that disturbs his fantasies of himself as the leader of a revived Islamic empire.
We must also remember that Al Qaeda and its fellow terrorist organizations have not yet demonstrated the ability to brew chemical weapons more powerful than ricin (which cannot be used effectively on more than the relatively “limited” scale of, say, a subway car), or the as-yet-unidentified nerve agent or cyanide gas with which several of their courageous warriors in Afghanistan gigglingly poisoned puppies and dogs on a videotape that was discovered after the allied invasion of that country. Nor is it likely that they will ever create anything more powerful, at least on their own: Terrorists in caves and huts using high-school chemistry sets cannot whip up chemical or biological agents of sufficient strength or in sufficient quantities to kill thousands and even millions of people. Indeed, there are relatively few places in the world where such weapons can be created: They include the United States, Russia-and Iraq.
In truth, one thing alone has thus far prevented Saddam from giving Al Qaeda or another terrorist group a W.M.D.: the forceful determination of the United States. That and the suspicion-bred in Saddam’s mind by our determination-that the American government would trace any rogue W.M.D. back to him and unleash a punishment so severe that he himself, for all his bunkers and doubles, could not hope to survive it.
This hesitation on the part of the Iraqi leader makes it doubly important that we not allow our resolve to be weakened-not even by last week’s third important event: Saddam’s sudden declaration that he will not only continue to destroy the full complement of illegal Al Samoud missiles, but will also reveal the location of buried stockpiles of biochemical weapons whose poisonous agents-he claims-are no longer active. Given Saddam’s lifetime of deadly duplicity, his last-minute promise offers little real hope for peace. But it does clarify an issue: Saddam has now effectively admitted that for more than 12 years, he has indeed been violating U.N. dictates. The darkest assessment of his character and behavior has been borne out, and his addiction to both mendacity and the development of W.M.D.’s has once again been demonstrated.
Is it really possible that those who oppose military action in Iraq will go on arguing that Saddam can be contained, that he has neither any connection to nor any interest in being connected to international terrorism, and that he does not in fact long for the moment when antiwar sentiment in the West will hobble the determination of his enemies and oblige them to call home the forces arrayed against him, clearing the way for his plans for regional hegemony? The application of enlightened force remains our best and only hope for eradicating these dangers, as well as for limiting the destructiveness of terrorist organizations. Anyone who believes otherwise, anyone who claims or hopes that we can buy ourselves some sort of mercy or indulgence from either Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden by relaxing the diplomacy of force, is blind to the established behavior of both tyrant and terrorist. Take the tragically deluded souls who are currently traveling to Baghdad to become human shields: Delighted with their own righteousness, these would-be ambassadors of peace tour the country and celebrate in hotel rooms, all courtesy of a mass murderer who watches their antics with silent satisfaction, as he mentally tattoos the word “HOSTAGE” across their foolish foreheads. While we should never ignorantly pursue hostilities, we must also avoid coming to terms with an enemy without understanding him. By doing just that, the human shields have committed an almost certainly suicidal error-one that we as a nation must avoid.
Caleb Carr is the author of The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians , an updated edition of which is being published this month by Random House.