Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

A Meditation in Time of War

John Bedell

As I write we seem to be at war.  It is strange sort of war because we cannot name our enemies and do not know where they are.  We can only guess why they are fighting and what they hope to achieve.  It is a war that may prove difficult for us to win but that, I think, will be almost impossible for us to lose.  Yesterday's carnage was the worst terrorist attack in history, probably the most violent day in North America since 1865.  Yet today finds the US stronger than before.  The people are more united, our government's freedom of action increased.   A dozen similar attacks or a hundred would only have the same result.

Today the talk has all been of military retaliation, of where to send the troops and the planes.  But since this shadow war is all about terror and resolve I think a different sort of retaliation will prove at least as effective: as soon as possible, we must rebuild the World Trade Center.  By rebuilding instead of memorializing we show that we are not cowed, and that we still have faith in the future of our system.  Since the original was one of our ugliest creations we need not restore it exactly as it was.  I think there is something to be gained by making it even better.  It would be especially appropriate if at least one of the new buildings is the tallest in the world, just as the first towers were when they opened.  That would demonstrate our contempt for those who thought that by their acts of murder and demolition they would terrify America.

And what then?  After we have, let us hope, killed the terrorists and dismantled their "networks", what will happen?  Military victory may have little long-term impact since more volunteers will step into the terrorists' places and build up new networks.  As biotechnology advances and the ability to breed or even engineer deadly organisms becomes more widespread, the danger of terrorism will only increase.  Where is our refuge?  Our best experience with former enemies was with Japan and Germany after World War II, but to conquer and reconstruct the Middle East seems absurd--nor are we likely to have an enemy as convenient as Soviet Union was for forcing former enemies to become our friends.  We must look for less total solutions.  Yet, it seems to me, we must follow the formula that worked before: democracy and prosperity are the keys to peace.  If we work for freedom and wealth in the Middle East and everywhere else in the world, we will be working for peace and against terror.  We may always have fanatics to deal with, but I am certain that we will have fewer of them in a world of less hunger and more respect for human dignity. 

September 12, 2001 

Avoiding the Old Mistakes


I spent the weekend soaking up the beautiful weather and thinking about the coming war. I expect that we will be at war for a long time to come and I wanted to think through what this means.

I am only an amateur historian, so I probably missed many important analogies, but here are a few lessons from history that I hope we do not forget.

  1. It is possible to win a war against criminal behavior. The proof is that we defeated the Barbary Coast pirates in 1804. But the more recent and more relevant war against drugs and drug cartels shows how incredibly difficult it is to get effective international cooperation against well financed criminal conspiracies. This is not going to be easy.

  2. If there is a hell on earth, it is Afghanistan. If we land troops in Afghanistan, we should plan to have them out of there within a few days. I have been urging everyone I know to see the film "The Beast" -- a very harsh and completely believable film about a Russian tank on its own in the Afghan wastelands. Go rent it and then contemplate the challenge of attacking bin Laden's camps. In fact, I hope GWB goes to see it. The Russian experience in Afghanistan proves that it is a truly terrible place where a handful of implacable fanatics can defeat a modern army.

  3. One foreign policy goal should not be allowed to trump all others. We let anti-communism erase all other strategic goals and we paid a terrible price.  Not only did we get mired down in VietNam, but we committed crimes in places like Chile that will always be a stain on our name but accomplished no strategic purpose. We backed the Afghan rebels against the Russians because Russia was the capital of the "evil empire." We backed the Afghans despite the fact that the Afghan rebel leaders were entirely untrustworthy anti-American fanatics. Once communism collapsed in the USSR, we dropped the Afghan cause like a bad habit and they felt betrayed and allied themselves with the terror network. All because we adopted a "with us or against us on communism " foreign policy. If anti-terrorism becomes so important that it overwhelms our desire to promote world economic growth and trade, or the enhancement of democracy in places that are just learning how to do it, or nuclear containment, or environmental protection, or international cooperation to prevent the spread of AIDS, then we will have failed no matter how many terrorists we kill. For example, I fear that we will accept Pakistan as a legitimate nuclear weapons power just to get them to help find bin Laden. That would be a terrible mistake. America should be against terrorism because we believe in liberty and human rights, not because we were grievously wounded and require revenge. 

  4. We should finish what we start. Part of bin Laden's anti-Americanism is based in our insertion into the Arab world to fight Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden sees us as defilers of Islam for having stationed airplanes and troops in Saudi Arabia, home of Islam's holiest places. Defeating Iraq was unforgivable, so he is now avenging acts committed by Bush the Elder. I was never fully convinced that it was necessary to fight Iraq (Kuwait was never a US ally -- just another occasionally friendly seller of oil). But once having entered the fray, the really big mistake was not to completely disassemble the Iraqi army and eliminate Saddam Hussein when we had the chance. The notion that our sole war aim was clearing the Iraqis out of Kuwait was the problem. The war aim should have been the elimination of Iraq as a military or terror wielding power. If we bomb a few camps and kill a few trainees and call it quits there we will have the same problem; it will go on and on. Even killing Osama bin Laden will not end this problem. I agree with Colin Powell that the terror networks must be eliminated "root and branch" or the problem will continue. But Colin Powell was consistently wrong regarding Kuwait-Iraq policy and I am not encouraged that he really understands our previous mistakes. And he is the best we have in this administration.

  5. This must not become a partisan war. VietNam, after LBJ, increasingly became a war where the opposition was in the Democratic party and the support was in the Republican. Anyone remember that Bob Dole called Korea "another Democrat war?"   Once the support for a war is limited to one party, the effort is doomed. We have a level of national unity on this matter that has not been achieved since, I would guess, Pearl Harbor. Bush would be well advised to draw a major Democratic figure, someone like George Mitchell, into his administration and into the leadership circle that is deciding anti-terrorist policy so that this remains a true bi-partisan effort. FDR and Truman did this by drawing powerful Republican Senator Vandenburg into their counsels, and that kind of cooperation needs to be institutionalized now. 

  6. We should pay for the costs of anti-terrorism up front. LBJ made a terrible mistake in not seeking a tax increase to pay for the VietNam war, and the resulting deficits caused a persistent inflation that bedeviled the American economy for more than a decade afterwards.   If this war is going to cost billions, then we should have an anti-terrorism surtax to pay for it. Nobody would object, so now is the time to ask for it. I am a political realist and I do not expect GWB to ask for a surtax, so be prepared for a seriously screwed up economy.

  7. Civil liberties will suffer. They did in WWII (the Japanese internment), WWI (the harassment of all kinds of immigrant groups), the Civil War (the illegal suspension of habeus corpus by Lincoln), and every other war as well. We should be vigilant about this, but because each erosion of our rights will seem necessary and appropriate at the time, this will be very hard to manage.

As I thought about these problems, I realize once again what awesome power this rich and unified nation can bring to bear. I just hope that someone at the top has been reading the history books.

A Response to Alejandro

John Bedell

I think there is much wisdom in this piece, especially number 3:  we should never see the world entirely in terms of one policy goal.  Alejandro is right that we did many foolish and evil things during the Cold War because we let fighting communism become our sole guiding principle.  But by this I do not mean that we should seek some nebulous balance of goals; I mean that we should never stop thinking about the world in moral terms.  We should never become so caught up in any struggle that we stop asking whether what we are doing is right or wrong.

I believe that our "interests," even conceived in the most narrowly geopolitical terms, will be best served by not doing things in this war that we will repent later.  We cannot win in the long run if our every military victory leaves a residue of burning hatred and deep resentment around the Middle East.  I do not mean that we should adopt a policy of appeasement or do only what self-appointed spokesmen for "Arab popular opinion" think is acceptable.  I mean that if we act in ways that even we think are of questionable morality, we will surely end up more hated than we were before.

This leads me to where I disagree with Alejandro:  what does it mean to "finish what we start"?  Yes, we won a major victory against the Barbary Pirates, and we did it without overthrowing their sultanates and imposing governments of our own choice on them.  I think that any attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein would have been disastrous.  It would, first of all, have broken up the marvelous coalition of Americans, Europeans, and Arabs that fought the war, so that the end would have been acrimonious rather than celebratory. I think it would also have involved the US in unending meddling in Iraqi politics:  as we learned in Viet Nam, once you overthrow one government, you become responsible for the one that replaces it.  We still have troops in Germany and Japan; is that what we want in Iraq?  I don't think so.  Nor do I think the removal of Saddam would help us very much in the struggle against terrorism.  Surely the terrorists would only be more angered by the imposition of a US-sponsored government over 20 million Arabs; and, without the threat of Saddam, the Saudis and Kuwaitis would probably be much less friendly.

I don't think we should ever do anything because it seems to follow naturally from what we have done before:  we shouldn't finish things just because we start them.  Instead we should ask ourselves, at every point along the way, whether what we are doing is right.  Then we will avoid that kind of sins that still blacken the name of America, and, I think, we will serve our interests better as well.


From the 
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In war, Resolution; in defeat, Defiance; in victory, Magnanimity.

--Winston Churchill


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