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Losing the War

(Reprinted and expanded from SOBRANS, January 2003, page 1)
Text dropped from the print edition or modified solely for reasons of space appears in blue.

On Thanksgiving Day, suicide bombers blew up an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, killing a dozen people. At the same time, terrorists fired shoulder-borne anti-aircraft missiles at an Israeli airliner taking off from the nearby airport, narrowly missing it.

Al-Qaeda was suspected of being behind the coordinated attacks, as well as an earlier bombing in Bali that killed 200 tourists; but nobody can really know. Terrorism is a game any number can play, and only the players themselves know who they are. They may be loosely related Islamic fanatics rather than a single organization, more on the model of a Mafia than a state. Militant Islamists are now known to be proliferating in unlikely places, such as South America’s Triple Border, the lawless area where Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay meet. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs have migrated there in recent years.

What seems most unlikely is that the terrorists in Kenya had anything to do with Iraq — the target of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism.” Westerners are only beginning to understand the turmoil in the Muslim world, and Bush doesn’t seem to grasp it at all. Jonathan Raban, writing in the Seattle Times, reports that the Islamists bitterly hate the Arab states Bush persists in seeing as the problem; they dream of a huge Muslim empire, a restored caliphate, without internal borders, under Koranic law. They regard the Arab states as artificial creations of Western imperalism (which they are) and they consider their rulers “usurpers” who have betrayed Islam. Raban notes that Osama bin Laden’s messages never refer to Saudi Arabia by name, since he doesn’t recognize it; in fact, few Arabs have any loyalty to what the West thinks of as “Arab states.”

This means that Bush is taking aim at the wrong target. It may be deliberate on his part. Sensing that he can’t defeat al-Qaeda — and can’t even find it — he may have chosen a more palpable enemy who can easily be scapegoated and defeated, one Arab villain serving his purpose as well as another. That way he can claim to be winning his war, thereby satisfying the public expectation that he “do something about terrorism.” And forgetting his own words when he said that this is “a new kind of war.”

Since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda has been strangely quiet. If the Kenya attacks were its work, it’s rather surprising that it took so long to get around to using cheap anti-aircraft missiles against passenger planes. Even a few such operations could destroy the precarious airline industry and make tourism virtually a thing of the past.

What gives? Has bin Laden run out of resources already? That seems doubtful. Is he biding his time with patient determination — waiting, perhaps, for a real Arab-American war to begin in Iraq, inflaming the whole Muslim world and setting the stage for his next big strike against the West?

And what might such a strike be? It would probably involve more than box-cutters. There are new rumors that he has been buying small nuclear weapons from former KGB men in Russia. A few of his “martyrs” in London, Paris, or Washington could bring suicide bombing to an unimaginable new level.

At first it seemed that a “war on terrorism” could be neither won nor lost. Al-Qaeda and its allies could never defeat the U.S. military in direct combat, but they were too elusive and diffuse for the U.S. forces to destroy. That assessment may prove too optimistic.

If the Islamists can destroy one major Western city, that will be that. The “war on terrorism” will be lost.

Perhaps Bush should be preparing a contingency plan for surrender — but to whom? “To whom it may concern”? Could we even be sure that a surrender, in the event, say, of the destruction of Paris, would be accepted? Or would the enemy take out a few more cities for good measure? Bush clearly hasn’t thought through such possibilities. He has been madly confident of victory from the start, with no conception of what defeat might be like. He still thinks he is fighting his father’s war.

A decade ago, Francis Fukuyama announced “the end of history.” And a happy ending it was, with “democratic capitalism” triumphant all over the world. What we may face now is something like the literal end of modern Western history. And it won’t be happy.

Joseph Sobran

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