Tuesday, March 23, 2004


James Mann described how the United States National Command Authority practiced dispersal during the height of the Cold War to ensure continued civilian leadership in the event of an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Under the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations the U.S. government had built large underground installations at Mount Weather, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and near Camp David, along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, each of which could serve as a military command post for the President in time of war. Yet a crucial problem remained: what might happen if the President couldn't make it to one of those bunkers in time. ...

One of the questions studied in these exercises was what concrete steps a team might take to establish its credibility. What might be done to demonstrate to the American public, to U.S. allies, and to the Soviet leadership that "President" John Block or "President" Malcolm Baldrige was now running the country, and that he should be treated as the legitimate leader of the United States? One option was to have the new "President" order an American submarine up from the depths to the surface of the ocean—since the power to surface a submarine would be a clear sign that he was now in full control of U.S. military forces. This standard—control of the military—is one of the tests the U.S. government uses in deciding whether to deal with a foreign leader after a coup d'état.

America has traditionally been fortunate in that executive power is been vested in an office rather than a man. The man may change, but the office endures. America has been changing or reelecting its leader every four years for over two centuries now. However, terrorist organizations like Hamas not being constitutional democracies, do not have the benefit of an orderly transition and one of the most mischievous effects of Ariel Sharon's killing of Sheik Yassin has been to put the gore-encrused top rung of the ladder up for grabs.

Two weeks before an IDF Hellfire missile pulped Sheik Yassin, low-level fighting had already broken out in Gaza in anticipation of an Israeli withdrawal. The problem, which will be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with clandestine organizations or gangs, was who would control the turf when the Big Boys left it open.

Gunmen killed an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a street ambush overnight, feeding fears of growing lawlessness and chaos ahead of a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Arafat denounced the killing of Khalil al-Zaben, 59, as a "dirty assassination" and convened his Cabinet and national security council today to discuss what was seen as one of the most serious challenges yet to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority has been weakened by more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, and armed gangs, included gunmen with ties to Arafat's Fatah movement, are increasingly controlling the streets.

With Yassin's death the problem can only get worse. Organizations like Al Qaeda and Hamas are in many respects indistinguishable from protection rackets and derive a large part of their income from the control of certain territories. Analogous organizations like the Communist New People's Army in the Philippines, (officially a terrorist organization but headquartered in the Netherlands), for example, charge all  public officials in the Philippines a 'permit to campaign' -- a few hundred thousand dollars for the privilege of standing for office under a constitution they don't recognize. Internal factions within that Communist organization regularly assassinate each other over the partition of their stipend from the Euroleft. The same kind of competition for turf is bound to plague Hamas. The frenzy in the Gaza strip tonight probably has less to do with the preparations to strike back at Israel then a frantic attempt to locate the secret bank account numbers that Sheik Yassin may have had in his possession.

The Israeli strike against the terrorist top tier exploits the weakness inherent in terrorist organizations which are unstable alliances based on a delicate balance of internal intimidation. None of them, the Palestinian Authority included, are either transparent or accountable. They are exceptionally vulnerable to changes in their leadership. They can stand the loss of any number of teenage fighters or youthful suicide bombers without much damage but are rocked -- as Yassin's death illustrates -- by death at the top. Twenty million Soviet casualties in World War 2 were a statistic, but the death of Stalin marked the end of an epoch. Had the Israeli missile simply incinerated a 19-year old Hamas illiterate foot soldier it would have been another day in Gaza, hardly worth the notice of the press, but since its target was the terrorist leadership the moral calculus elevated it to a sacrilege. Yet it does not alter the fact that the foreign offices of Europe will be scratching their heads tonight to see who the letters of condolence to Hamas should be addressed to. Perhaps they should wait until a new leader climbs to the pinnacle of the bloody pole before bowing at his feet.