"We Win"

I was semi-diligent on my semi-vacation about finally getting around to reading James Fallows' article in the Atlantic Monthly, "Declaring Victory." Herewith my report.

Fallows basically has (a) good news; (b) bad news; (c) a recommendation. The recommendation is that we (as the title indicates) "declare victory" in the War on Terror. I'll look at that last, because I think it's the weakest part of the article.

The Good News. Fallows says that there is a broad consensus among the experts he consulted (about 60 of them) that al-Qaeda has been dramatically degraded in its ability to fund and organize large-scale attacks like 9/11. They do not (if they ever did) pose a significant threat to America's existence. (The term "existential threat" appears a lot in Fallows' article, and has caught on among the commenters too.)

Fallows does not discount the possibility of future terrorist attacks killing many, many Americans. In fact, he sees it as likely:

Yes, there could be another attack tomorrow, and most authorities assume that some attempts to blow up trains, bridges, buildings, or airplanes in America will eventually succeed. No modern nation is immune to politically inspired violence, and even the best-executed antiterrorism strategy will not be airtight.
But, Fallows says, let's keep that "in perspective": those kinds of things, bad as they are, aren't likely to do us in as a nation. And we've made them much harder to pull off today, as compared with five years ago.

Also, Fallows notes, a domestic-origin threat is less likely in America, because we've done a better job than Europe and Britain in assimilating Muslims into our society. That's not particularly relevant to his recommendation, but his argument is convincing, and it is good news, as far as it goes.

The Bad News. Among the experts Fallows consulted, nobody much likes the Iraq situation, although the arguments given have the distinct smells of second-guessing, score-settling, and goalpost-moving. Interestingly, few of the experts favored near-term American withdrawal from Iraq.) Many echoed the usual refrain that Iraq was a "distraction" from the War on Terror.

More generally, Fallows detects, or at least manufactures, consensus on the point that our reaction to terrorism is what constitutes the "existential danger" to America. Iraq is one example of this, but he also cites "willy-nilly spending on security" and "the erosion of America's moral authority" as others. (Presumably this last is caused by allegations of torture and other misbehavior in Iraq and Guantanamo.)

The Recommendation. Given the above, Fallows' solution/recommendation is that we declare that the "global war on terror" is over.

Fallows glancingly refers to America "cowering defensively"; he quotes an imaginary Bin Laden advisor gloating that Americans "live as if terrified". He refers numerous times to inevitable "overreaction" if the war isn't declared to be over. It's a recurring theme that the real problem is us doing dangerous and counterproductive things, and that will stop if we simply declare victory.

But it's a pretty flimsy argument. Yes, it's easy to grant that a lot of spending on "security" is misdirected and even makes us less safe. But it's not that way because of overheated brains in the feverish grip of wartime rhetoric; it's simply business as usual for Federal Government, where (a) the measure of how important you think an issue is to spend more money on it; (b) bureaucrats have every incentive to engage in ass-covering behavior, whether it's effective at thwarting terror attacks or not (as long as they're seen to be "doing something", and can't be blamed for anything); (c) our Congressional representatives engage in the the usual pork-barrelling to direct Federal funds to their local districts.

In short, the major problem isn't fear, but stupidity and business-as-usual. And declaring the war on terror to be "over" doesn't change that dynamic one bit.

Neither is it evident that the good news will continue if we declare victory in the war on terror. The sucesses against terror that Fallows outlines have occurred while we were using the "war" tactics that he now deems unnecessary and counterproductive. Can we drop the "war" metaphor now and still continue the policies that gave us this beneficial result? Hey, maybe. But it looks much like wishful thinking; Fallows doesn't really show that it's likely.

For example, Fallows reports what seems to me to be a really good recommendation:

In most cases, [his experts] argue, money dabbed out for a security fence here and a screening machine there would be far better spent on robust emergency-response systems. No matter how much they spend, state and federal authorities cannot possibly protect every place from every threat. But they could come close to ensuring that if things were to go wrong, relief and repair would be there fast.
That makes sense. But it makes sense totally independent of Fallows "declare victory" strategy.

So I recommend reading the article for that kind of thing, not really so much for the feelgood rhetoric of "we won."

Fallows' article is not available online to non-subscribers, unfortunately. However, you can read Fallows' restatement of his thesis after the thwarting of the recent airline bombing plot here. He's interviewed about his article here.