Unlikely Doves: Counter-terrorism Experts

The threat of terrorism cannot be effectively countered unless the United States changes its arrogant, me-first global ways and faces up to the fact that many people in other lands are -- rightly or wrongly -- damn angry at it. This proposition has become something of a mantra among progressives who counsel restraint in response to the horrific attacks of September 11. But it also is a sentiment popular within a subset of the national security establishment: counter-terrorism experts.

I am not suggesting that all the I-know-terrorism talking heads you watch on television are sensitive souls who place a priority on understanding root causes. But since September 11, I have attended several what-to-do-about terrorism meetings in Washington, and I have been surprised to see that many prominent terrorism wonks believe the United States cannot rely solely on a military response and must also re-examine its foreign policy and actions abroad in order to diminish the threat of terrorism at home.

At one conference, Jerrold Post, who was a psychological profiler at the CIA for 21 years and who pioneered the government's effort to fathom the psychology of terrorism, noted the "real dilemma" is the existence of "roiling hatred within the Arab world directed at the United States ... America doesn't have the vaguest idea how much hatred."

Terrorists, Post maintained, exploit people's "feelings of despair over economic conditions ... and [over] totalitarian regimes." He noted the effort against terrorism is "not a military struggle in many ways." Post added, "I do worry about the militarization of the conflict, particularly when civilian populations become casualties ... There is a hazard in the [war] metaphor, if taken too literally ... It could widen that polarization [between the United States and large segments of the Arab world]."

Shibley Telhami, an academic and mainstream think-tanker specializing in the Middle East, said of the Osam bin Laden outfit, "this group captures a popular mood in the region." He also suggested that the United States must mount a "reduction of anger" initiative and that "the shortest answer is moving on the Israeli-Arab peace process."

Some of the people who know terrorism best are warning the public not to expect too much from military force -- in terms of reducing the threat of terrorism. At the same meeting, Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation, said military action, while appropriate, "should not be seen as the answer." H. Allen Holmes, a former assistant secretary at both the Defense Department and the Department of State, asserted that any use of force must be accompanied by a U.S. diplomatic effort that seeks to improve the image of America overseas. "We must provide assistance and listen to other states, including states heretofore regarded as rogue states," he said, adding that "there is a strong belief [in the Middle East] that great powers manipulate the governments of the region, and the United States is seen by many as the big manipulator and has become identified with governments unpopular in the region."

A rough consensus might be the following: the attack of September 11 -- the work of evil fascistic extremists -- should not be viewed free of geopolitical context. None of these experts are rationalizing the attack. They are merely realistically assessing larger factors that must be considered when crafting a coherent counterterrorism strategy. After the conference, Holmes, who has served as ambassador to Japan, South Korea and other nations, elaborated: "In a war on terrorism, there will be no victory. We can contain it, slow it down, diminish it. But only if we put together a grand coalition for the long haul to do something about the sources of terrorism. Pakistan has 40 percent illiteracy, a low GNP, so the mosques are turning out terrorists ... We will never abandon Israel, but we need a different idea of how to be a broker. We are so identified with one side of that conflict."

Holmes needed no translator: to curtail terrorism, the United States must change its foreign policies. Doing so will not sway the most fanatical and murderous thugs, such as Osama bin Laden and his crew. They appear to crave a bloody religious war not better wages for Yemeni workers. But the goal -- long-term, to be sure -- is to make it harder for mass-murderers of this sort to recruit followers and win support from portions of the public (such as those Pakistanis who have demonstrated in favor of bin Laden) _and_ to render it easier for the United States and other nations to form multilateral endeavors that can root out and punish terrorists.

A just conclusion to the Israel-Palestinian conflict would probably not convince bin Laden to renounce his war against Americans and Jews. But a resolution there could remove one large complication in the effort to align nations (and their people) against bin Laden. A counterterrorism strategy that takes into account US foreign policy in this manner is not on the minds of many members of Congress or Bush Administration officials. President Bush does keep saying his war on terrorism is a battle for freedom and tolerance that pits "legitimate" governments against rogues. But try telling that to dissidents in Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Or Pakistan, now ruled by a general who gained power through a coup. The only foreign policy changes Bush seems to be contemplating are those that lend support to ruthless heads of state who sign up for Bush's war. See Vladimir Putin and Chechnya.

Several days after the abovementioned conference, the House intelligence subcommittee on terrorism held a rare public hearing. Appearing as a witness, Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman who recently served on a national commission on terrorism, noted that members of the commission visited 28 countries and encountered "a deep resentment about what the United States stood for and were told that managing that resentment will be one of the major foreign policy challenges" for the United States.

None of the members of the committee asked Hamilton to expand upon this. Instead, the lawmakers mostly wondered about which agencies were best prepared to respond to terrorist attacks and how much much authority would be granted to Tom Ridge, who's been appointed by Bush to a new Cabinet-level counterterrorism position. After the hearing, I asked Hamilton what could be done to manage the resentment he mentioned. He first noted there is a "sharp distinction between resentment and hostility." The latter motivated the September 11 attackers, and that antipathy cannot be countered. "The broader foreign policy problem," he explained, "is resentment. Hostility swims in the resentment."

So what can be done about this resentment? Hamilton had only the mildest of suggestions: "What you do is listen. Style makes a difference in the conduct of American foreign policy. We have a reputation for not listening, for being very arrogant, for insisting it is done our way."

My next question was obvious: beyond listening better, what concrete policy measures should the United States adopt and has the Bush administration bolstered America's reputation for being arrogant? Before I could finish the query, Hamilton was gone. Even though he had raised the resentment issue, he, too, appeared more comfortable discussing bureaucratic reorganizations.

The need to think beyond military solutions was also raised at a bizarre talk given by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter before a group of military policymeisters, defense contractors, and Defense Department employees a few days after the attack. Weeks before September 11, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a Pentagon-friendly think tank, had asked Baxter, who was a lead guitarist for the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan and a music-technology wiz before fashioning himself into a military-technology expert, to present the case for a national missile defense. After the World Trace Center and Pentagon attacks, Baxter -- with his droopy mustache and old-guy pony tail -- was still happy to do so. He argued that in the post-9/11 world, missile defense remains "imperative" because China still could intimidate the United States by threatening to launch one or more of its two dozen or so nuclear missiles. Beijing, he claimed, would not be deterred by a U.S. counterstrike: "If we launch a nuclear attack against China -- all we do is solve their housing crisis." He maintained that Chinese leaders do not think about "protecting the public." So imagine, he commanded his audience, if in the midst of another September 11-like event, China moved against Taiwan and told Washington, back off or we'll take out Los Angeles. How could the president appear on television and say, I am going to prosecute a war in Taiwan, and America must prepare for further casualties?

Here was an undiluted Star Wars fanatic. What was interesting, however, was that even a hawk like Baxter, who is a consultant to the Pentagon, saw the limits of a counterterrorism policy that depends upon military action. The problem, as he put it, is the United States faces an adversary driven by powerful forces: "You live in a dirt-poor place, but if you blow yourself up in the name of Allah, you'll get 73 virgins, all the dope you can smoke, a backstage passes to Bruce Springsteen ... How do we nullify and negate that threat?" Simple, he said: "The way to keep a kamikaze pilot out of aircraft ... is to deal with it at the source" -- that is, the motivation.

The goal of U.S. policy, he said, should be to "re-engineer the perceptions of our enemies." Suicide bombers have to be convinced "they get nothing for dying for Allah," and the people who support terrorists -- leaders or commoners -- have to be persuaded such violence is an insult to Islam and counterproductive. So Baxter proposed a Manhattan Project of "perception engineering," which would explore and develop a variety of means: psychological warfare, propaganda campaigns designed by advertising executives ("these guys were selling Chevrolets when they were crap with the 'heartbeat of America'"); nanomachines that can invade the circulatory system and effect the brain and thought patterns of the target; cultural products that can engender warm feelings toward the United States. "This World War III is a different war," Baxter commented. "It's an information war ... a war fought with ideas ... I can give you a valium and make you feel good. I can give you a musical score and engineer your perceptions ... All this is doable."

The audience's positive response was intriguing. Most listeners appeared to accept his premise that motivation and causation had to be addressed. Baxter, of course, skipped past the possibility that persons who harbor ill-will toward the United States might possess legitimate grievances about, say, economic conditions, the repressive conduct of governments backed by Washington, or the pervasive influence of American culture. His answer was not to solve problems, but to manipulate the responses to problems. Nevertheless, his kooky proposal focused on ideas, not missiles.

Actually, the key to a counter-terrorism strategy is ideals, not missiles. If the evidence is strong that bin Laden and his gang executed the September 11 attack -- and as of this writing, the Bush Administration has yet to present the case -- then these evildoers ought to be targeted. It would be better to capture bin Laden and his lieutenants, than to blast them -- especially if the latter entails civilian deaths, causes a larger refugee crisis and, thus, fuels further resentment. But even if bin Laden is, as the war pundits like to say, "taken out," a difficult set of tasks will remain: to reconfigure U.S. policy, to make changes in American conduct abroad, and to transform not perceptions but the ugly realities faced by many in the Third World. The job, no less, is to make the United States a force for social justice overseas. Yes, that's a leftie cliche. But don't take the word of do-gooding, Kumbaya progressives. Just ask some of the national security experts.

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