The Earthling

Introduction: The Bush Team Fails To Get the Big Picture

After the attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush administration depicted the war on terrorism as something that, like past wars, would have a definite ending. Secretary of State Colin Powell said we would get terrorism “by its branch and root.” And President Bush’s pledges of clear-cut victory weren’t confined to his memorably ambitious vow to “rid the world of evil-doers.” Even in less exuberant moments, he said his goal was to “rout out and destroy global terrorism.” The war would be complex and multifaceted, and it might not be brief, but “its outcome is certain,” Bush said. “This will not be an age of terror.”

By the spring of 2002, the message had changed. Gone was the theme of certain triumph, replaced by an official sense of perpetual dread. In May, climaxing a cascade of spooky administration pronouncements, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that anti-American terrorists would “inevitably” obtain weapons of mass destruction and use them.

Some people thought the new pessimism was tactical, a pre-emptive strike against charges that any coming terrorism had gone unforeseen. And maybe it was. But it was also acknowledgment of the truth: Wars on terrorism have very little in common with regular wars. The initial, sheerly military phase—which the Bush administration had handled capably—was just the beginning. Now, a year after 9/11, pretty much everyone realizes that we’d better have a very good, very long-run strategy.

I don’t think we do. I think the Bush administration’s long-run plan, to the extent that one can be discerned, is at best inadequate and at worst disastrous. So, what’s my long-run plan? (Or, as a Slate reader put it via e-mail, after one of my carping columns about Bush policy, “OK, big shot … What’s the solution?”) Over the next two weeks, in daily installments, I’ll lay out my answer: a long-term strategy for America’s war on terrorism.

My argument will come in readily attackable form. It will be organized around a series of propositions—conveniently printed in boldface—that, I claim, describe the mess we’re in. Interspersed with these descriptive propositions will be policy prescriptions in italics. To refute me, all you have to do is either show that the bold-faced sentences are wrong or show that the italicized sentences don’t follow from them.

Warning: Some of the propositions will be a bit cosmic, dealing with large-scale social, technological, and historical trends. I believe we’re standing at a genuine threshold in history, rivaled in significance by only a few past thresholds, and that any diagnosis of our plight that doesn’t include some ambitious observations about, say, the future of information technology or the history of the nation-state isn’t up to the challenge.

Seven years ago, I wrote an article for the New Republic about the growing threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. It would be an exaggeration to say that the piece spurred an overhaul of American policy—or even to say that it had any discernible impact, aside from briefly freaking out my wife. After Sept. 11—and the subsequent anthrax episode, and reports that al-Qaida was in the market for nukes—I thought: Well, at least now Washington will take more seriously the increasingly precarious world we live in. In a sense, Washington did. For example, Rumsfeld offered the aforementioned assurance that someday an American city would get decimated. Further, there was heightened vigilance and plans to institutionalize “homeland security.” But still, virtually nobody—and certainly nobody with great influence in Washington—got what I considered to be the picture.

The picture is this: If you look back over history, you will see enduringly disastrous phases—decades if not centuries of lethal contagious disease, of ruinous war, of societal collapse, of imperial decline. Sometimes these things “just happen,” but sometimes they happen because of momentous technological and social changes whose import humankind fails to reckon with. The premise of this series is that right now we’re undergoing such change, and so far we’re failing to reckon with it. These are dramatic times, and tomorrow I’ll start with my dramatic propositions. The first one will be: Al-Qaida and radical Islam are not the problem.