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Words in a Time of War

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Asymmetric Warfare and Dumb Luck

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Mark Danner
Mark Danner is Chancellor's Professor of Journalism and English at the University of California at Berkeley and...

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It was Dick Cheney, more than any other official, who set the terms for the post-9/11 world we all share.

Now, here's an astonishing fact: Fewer than half a dozen years into this "uni-polar moment," the greatest military power in the history of the world stands on the brink of defeat in Iraq. Its vastly expensive and all-powerful military has been humbled by a congeries of secret organizations fighting mainly by means of suicide vests, car bombs and improvised explosive devices--all of them cheap, simple, and effective, indeed so effective that these techniques now comprise a kind of ready-made insurgency kit freely available on the Internet and spreading in popularity around the world, most obviously to Afghanistan, that land of few targets.

As I stand here, one of our two major political parties advocates the withdrawal--gradual, or otherwise--of American combat forces from Iraq and many in the other party are feeling the increasing urge to go along. As for the Bush Administration's broader War on Terror, as the State Department detailed recently in its annual report on the subject, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has never been higher, nor more effective. True, Al Qaeda has not attacked again within the United States. They do not need to. They are alive and flourishing. Indeed, it might even be said that they are winning. For their goal, despite the rhetoric of the Bush Administration, was not simply to kill Americans but, by challenging the United States in this spectacular fashion, to recruit great numbers to their cause and to move their insurgency into the heart of the Middle East. And all these things they have done.

How could such a thing have happened? In their choice of enemy, one might say that the terrorists of Al Qaeda had a great deal of dumb luck, for they attacked a country run by an Administration that had a radical conception of the potency of power. At the heart of the principle of asymmetric warfare--Al Qaeda's kind of warfare--is the notion of using your opponents' power against him. How does a small group of insurgents without an army, or even heavy weapons, defeat the greatest conventional military force the world has ever known? How do you defeat such an army if you don't have an army? Well, you borrow your enemy's. And this is precisely what Al Qaeda did.

Using the classic strategy of provocation, the group tried to tempt the superpower into its adopted homeland. The original strategy behind the 9/11 attacks--apart from humbling the superpower and creating the greatest recruiting poster the world had ever seen--was to lure the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan, where the one remaining superpower (like the Soviet Union before it) was to be trapped, stranded, and destroyed. It was to prepare for this war that Osama bin Laden arranged for the assassination, two days before 9/11--via bombs secreted in the video cameras of two terrorists posing as reporters--of the Afghan Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massood, who would have been the United States' most powerful ally.

Well aware of the Soviets' Afghanistan debacle--after all, the US had supplied most of the weapons that defeated the Soviets there--the Bush Administration tried to avoid a quagmire by sending plenty of air support, lots of cash, and, most important, very few troops, relying instead on its Afghan allies. But if bin Laden was disappointed in this, he would soon have a far more valuable gift: the invasion of Iraq, a country that, unlike Afghanistan, was at the heart of the Middle East and central to Arab concerns, and, what's more, a nation that sat squarely on the critical Sunni-Shia divide, a potential ignition switch for Al Qaeda's great dream of a regional civil war. It is on that precipice that we find ourselves teetering today.

Critical to this strange and unlikely history were the Administration's peculiar ideas about power and its relation to reality--and beneath that a familiar imperial attitude, if put forward in a strikingly crude and harsh form: "We're an empire now and when we act we create our own reality." Power, untrammeled by law or custom; power, unlimited by the so-called weapons of the weak, be they international institutions, courts, or terrorism--power can remake reality. It is no accident that one of Karl Rove's heroes is President William McKinley, who stood at the apex of America's first imperial moment, and led the country into a glorious colonial adventure in the Philippines that was also meant to be the military equivalent of a stroll in the park and that, in the event, led to several years of bloody insurgency--an insurgency, it bears noticing, that was only finally put down with the help of the extensive use of torture, most notably water-boarding, which has made its reappearance in the imperial battles of our own times.

If we are an empire now, as Mr. Rove says, perhaps we should add, as he might not, that we are also a democracy, and therein, Rhetoric graduates of 2007, lies the rub. A democratic empire, as even the Athenians discovered, is an odd beast, like one of those mythological creatures born equally of lion and bird, or man and horse. If one longs to invade Iraq to restore the empire's prestige, one must convince the democracy's people of the necessity of such a step. Herein lies the pathos of the famous weapons-of-mass-destruction issue, which has become a kind of synecdoche for the entire lying mess of the past few years. The center stage of our public life is now dominated by a simple melodrama: Bush wanted to invade Iraq; Bush told Americans that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; Iraq did not have such weapons. Therefore Bush lied, and the war was born of lies and deception.

I hesitate to use that most overused of rhetorical terms--irony--to describe the emergence of this narrative at the center of our national life, but nonetheless, and with apologies: It is ironic. The fact is that officials of the Bush administration did believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, though they vastly exaggerated the evidence they had to prove it and, even more, the threat that those weapons might have posed, had they been there. In doing this, the officials believed themselves to be "framing a guilty man"; that is, like cops planting a bit of evidence in the murderer's car, they believed their underlying case was true; they just needed to dramatize it a bit to make it clear and convincing to the public. What matter, once the tanks were rumbling through Baghdad and the war was won? Weapons would be found, surely; and if only a few were found, who would care? By then, the United States military would have created a new reality.

I have often had a daydream about this. I see a solitary Army private--a cook perhaps, or a quartermaster--breaking the padlock on some forgotten warehouse on an Iraqi military base, poking about and finding a few hundred, even a few thousand, old artillery shells, leaking chemicals. These shells--forgotten, unusable--might have dated from the time of the first Gulf War, when Iraq unquestionably possessed chemical munitions. (Indeed, in the 1980s, the United States had supplied targeting intelligence that helped the Iraqis use them effectively against the Iranians.) And though now they had been forgotten, leaking, unusable, still they would indeed be weapons of mass destruction--to use the misleading and absurd construction that has headlined our age--and my solitary cook or quartermaster would be a hero, for he would have, all unwittingly, "proved" the case.

My daydream could easily have come to pass. Why not? It is nigh unto miraculous that the Iraqi regime, even with the help of the United Nations, managed so thoroughly to destroy or remove its once existing stockpile. And if my private had found those leaky old shells what would have been changed thereby? Yes, the Administration could have pointed to them in triumph and trumpeted the proven character of Saddam's threat. So much less embarrassing than the "weapons of mass destruction program related activities" that the administration still doggedly asserts were "discovered." But, in fact, the underlying calculus would have remained: that, in the months leading up to the war, the Administration relentlessly exaggerated the threat Saddam posed to the United States and relentlessly understated the risk the United States would run in invading and occupying Iraq. And it would have remained true and incontestable that--as the quaintly fact-bound British Foreign Secretary put it eight months before the war, in a secret British cabinet meeting made famous by the so-called Downing Street Memo--"the case [for attacking Iraq] was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

Which is to say, the weapons were a rhetorical prop and, satisfying as it has been to see the administration beaten about the head with that prop, we forget this underlying fact at our peril. The issue was never whether the weapons were there or not; indeed, had the weapons really been the issue, why could the Administration not let the UN inspectors take the time to find them (as, of course, they never would have)? The administration needed, wanted, had to have, the Iraq war. The weapons were but a symbol, the necessary casus belli, what Hitchcock called the Maguffin--that glowing mysterious object in the suitcase in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction: that is, a satisfyingly concrete object on which to fasten a rhetorical or narrative end, in this case a war to restore American prestige, project its power, remake the Middle East.

The famous weapons were chosen to play this leading role for "bureaucratic reasons," as Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defense and until quite recently the unhappy President of the World Bank, once remarked to a lucky journalist. Had a handful of those weapons been found, the underlying truth would have remained: Saddam posed nowhere remotely near the threat to the United States that would have justified running the enormous metaphysical risk that a war of choice with Iraq posed. Of course, when you are focused on magical phrases like "preponderant power" and "the uni-polar moment," matters like numbers of troops at your disposal--and the simple fact that the United States had too few to sustain a long-term occupation of a country the size of Iraq--must seem mundane indeed.

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