Advice to a Superpower
Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks.” Milton’s words perfectly describe America today. After the horror of September 11 the world has seen America gather its strength, summon its allies and proceed to wage war halfway across the globe against its enemy—and ours.
America will never be the same again. It has proved to itself and to others that it is in truth (not just in name) the only global superpower, indeed a power that enjoys a level of superiority over its actual or potential rivals unmatched by any other nation in modern times. Consequently, the world outside America should never be the same either. There will, of course, arise new threats from new directions. But as long as America works to maintain its technological lead, there is no reason why any challenge to American dominance should succeed. And that in turn will help ensure stability and peace.
Yet, as President Bush has reminded Americans, there is no room for complacency. America and its allies, indeed the Western world and its values, are still under deadly threat. That threat must be eliminated, and now is the time to act vigorously.
In many respects the challenge of Islamic terror is unique, hence the difficulty Western intelligence services encountered trying to predict and prevent its onslaughts. The enemy is not, of course, a religion—most Muslims deplore what has occurred. Nor is it a single state, though this form of terrorism needs the support of states to give it succor. Perhaps the best parallel is with early Communism. Islamic extremism today, like Bolshevism in the past, is an armed doctrine. It is an aggressive ideology promoted by fanatical, well-armed devotees. And, like Communism, it requires an all-embracing long-term strategy to defeat it.
The first phase of that strategy had to be a military assault on the enemy in Afghanistan, a phase that is now approaching its end. I believe that while the new interim government there deserves support, the United States is right not to allow itself to become bogged down with ambitious nation-building in that treacherous territory. Some would disagree, arguing that the lesson of the present crisis is that neglect of failed states causes terrorism. But this is trite. It implies a level of global interventionism that almost everyone recognizes is quite impractical.
The more important lesson is that the West failed to act early and strongly enough against al-Qaeda and the regime that harbored it. And because there is always a choice in where you concentrate international efforts, it is best that the United States, as the only global military superpower, deploy its energies militarily rather than on social work. Trying to promote civil society and democratic institutions in Afghanistan is best left to others—and since those “others” now include the British, I only hope that we, too, are going to be realistic about what can (and cannot) be achieved.
The second phase of the war against terrorism should be to strike at other centers of Islamic terror that have taken root in Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. This will require first-rate intelligence, shrewd diplomacy and a continued extensive military commitment. Our enemies have had years to entrench themselves, and they will not be dislodged without fierce and bloody resistance.
The third phase is to deal with those hostile states that support terrorism and seek to acquire or trade in weapons of mass destruction. We have gotten into the habit of calling them “rogue” states. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of imagining that they will always and on every issue fit into the same slot.
For example, Iran and Syria were both sharply critical of Usama bin Laden, the Taliban and the attacks of September 11. Nevertheless, they are both enemies of Western values and interests. Both have energetically backed terrorism: the former has just been caught out dispatching arms to foment violence against Israel. Iran is also making strides toward developing long-range missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads.
Other critics of September 11 are a menace, too. Libya, for example, still hates the West and would dearly like revenge against us. And Sudan undertakes genocide against its own citizens in the name of Islam. As for North Korea, the regime of Kim Jong Il is as mad as ever and is the world’s main proliferator of long-range ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.
The most notorious rogue is, without doubt, Saddam Hussein—proof if ever we needed it that yesterday’s unfinished business becomes tomorrow’s headache. Saddam Hussein will never comply with the conditions we demand of him. His aim is, in fact, quite clear: to develop weapons of mass destruction so as to challenge us with impunity.
How and when, not whether, to remove him are the only important questions. Again, solving this problem will demand the best available intelligence. It will require, as in Aghanistan, the mobilization of internal resistance. It will probably also involve a massive use of force. America’s allies, above all Britain, should extend strong support to President Bush in the decisions he makes on Iraq.
The events of September 11 are a terrible reminder that freedom demands eternal vigilance. And for too long we have not been vigilant. We have harbored those who hated us, tolerated those who threatened us and indulged those who weakened us. As a result, we remain, for example, all but defenseless against ballistic missiles that could be launched against our cities. A missile defense system will begin to change that. But change must go deeper still. The West as a whole needs to strengthen its resolve against rogue regimes and upgrade its defenses. The good news is that America has a President who can offer the leadership necessary to do so.*
* Copyright © 2002. The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.
Prime Minister of Great Britain, 1979-1990