Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Return of Bill Whittle

Long ago, in a graduate school far, far away I sat listening to a lecture on deterrence, a concept which apparently had two parts. The first part of deterrence was to make enemy aggression pointless by making the thing which he aimed to achieve by conquest unattainable. During the Cold War, deterrence took the form of emptying any Soviet military victory of meaning by ensuring that any attempt at aggression beyond a certain threshold would result in their extinction. The second part was to guarantee the first part. It had a special name: commitment, which meant ensuring you could not chicken out when the time came.

Bill Whittle in Eject, Eject, Eject! has a two part series of posts which argues that an unconditional commitment to the carrot, as he puts it, is a logical rejection of deterrence.

I used to be a carrot man. Like most larval liberals, I grew up in a life that would be unrecognizable to all but the thinnest sliver of humans that ever lived on this great rock in space – that thin, thin sliver being everyone and everything you and I know and take for granted. ... So believing in the power of goodwill and friendship, of handshakes and agreement and compromise, of trusting to the good and noble in mankind was easy for me, for the consequences of being wrong in that belief cost me nothing at all. I’d never been robbed, raped, beaten or victimized in any way. That belief in goodwill, compromise, concession and trust grew as a result of being surrounded by decent people in a well-ordered, lawful society, with a long history of compromise and cooperation.

As Whittle grew older, he discovered a class of persons for whom the carrot meant absolutely nothing, in the same way that bread holds no interest for wolves. He says, there "are psychopaths who’d kill you for a nickel and think nothing more about it -- they’d trade your life, and the welfare of your spouse and children, for two hours of getting high and it would not bother them in the least." September 11 and what he learned about the world subsequently convinced Whittle that some psychopaths actually led large organizations and nations.

Dictatorships, on the other hand -- well, you’re down to the limits of one man’s sanity, ego, vanity and judgment. And when you consider the kind of person it takes to rule absolutely and totally the lives of millions of others -- many of them more intelligent, educated and capable -- then what you are left with is a giant, enormous, destructive Iron Giant -- a state -- with a tiny, desperate, paranoid, perpetually fearful psychopath pulling the levers. Dictatorships put the power of millions, the muscle and capability of entire nations, behind the guy with the gun in that dark alley. ... Nineteen people -- some barely literate -- killed almost three thousand of the most highly skilled and productive citizens on the planet. I told my Dad that morning I just saw our Pearl Harbor. He immediately replied, "No you didn’t. After Pearl Harbor we knew who to attack." He was right. That’s the point of terrorism, of course. Deniability.

Deniability offered no protection to the Japanese militarists. On December 7, 1941 very few Japanese people were personally guilty of the atrocities of their militaristic government. The number of evil individuals in Japan was arguably as small as the proportion of Al Qaeda to the population of Saudi Arabia. Yet because of the peculiar convention in which citizens were held collectively responsible for the acts of their sovereigns the "second part guaranteed the first part" and the American war machine ground inexorably toward Tokyo and all of its hapless citizens.

But the "deniability" of September 11 had a curious effect on a nation still beholden to the convention that populations were only responsible for the acts of sovereigns. It ensured that America could chicken out when the time came. That fact, Bill Whittle argues, did not escape John Kerry, and it bothers him. During his debate with President Bush, Senator Kerry laid out his counter-terrorist strategy:

SENATOR KERRY: I have a better plan for homeland security. I have a better plan to be able to fight the war on terror by strengthening our military, strengthening our intelligence, by going after the financing more authoritatively, by doing what we need to do to rebuild the alliances, by reaching out to the Muslim world, which the president has almost not done, and beginning to isolate the radical Islamic Muslims, not have them isolate the United States of America. ...

SENATOR KERRY: But we also have to be smart, Jim. And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking if off to Iraq where the 9/11 Commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein.

All of which sounds perfectly reasonable from a certain point of view. What's missing is the incentive for any nuclear-armed terrorist group not to incinerate an American city. Because liability has been limited by preannounced national policy -- by Kerry's policy at least -- to the immediate circle of plotters, the terms of asymmetric warfare have been accepted beyond the wildest hopes of the enemy. Unilateral assured destruction will only be met by a limited, compartmentalized response. And even that response will be contingent on passing the Global Test.

I should emphasize that a limited, compartmentalized response may actually be the most appropriate policy under the circumstances, given the vast power of the United States and the military weakness of its enemies. The Global War on Terror has been just that: a proportionate, measured response using a mere fraction of American military strength. Whittle quotes George Bush:

Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.

But providing the underlying rigidity was deterrence: an America that could literally annihilate the enemy society and had the willingness to use those means if sufficiently provoked.

Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

Philosophically, the choice between Bush and Kerry is not over the fine-tuning of policy options; it is between limited response with deterrence on the one hand, and limited response with yet more limited response on the other hand. A large number of the Administration's critics accuse it of not providing "enough boots on the ground" in Iraq, of emboldening insurgents by "backing down" in Fallujah yet are perfectly willing to decouple terrorist acts from state sponsors and make any American retaliatory action contingent on passing the Global Test. To be able to chicken out if a nuclear weapon goes off in New York City is to live in a world without deterrence; a world where our enemies misunderstand us even as we have misunderstood ourselves; where nuclear weapons may be used seriously because they were never taken seriously. A world where you grow up, all at once, with only belated revenge for a meal. Oh brave new world that has such people in it.