Are We Overestimating the Enemy, Again?

About forty-five long years ago I worked with an argumentative young Foreign Service officer, the late William Turpin, who was an expert on the Soviet economy. He explained to me, and to anyone else who would listen, that the Soviet economy was a Potemkin village, a fraud, a farce sustained by total control of information at their end and a total willingness to believe at ours. The simple fact that the Soviets could not, under their system, figure out how much it cost them to produce any given item, from shoes to ICBM’s, meant that they allocated their resources blindly, and wasted them on a colossal scale. True, they could concentrate on key sectors like space and nuclear weapons, and achieve impressive results. But take the economy as a whole and the vaunted Soviet Union was a paper tiger.

Nobody listened to Bill, because the people we worked for wanted to believe the opposite. Our foreign policy, and beyond that what could be called our very national ethos or sense of purpose, was posited on the assumption that we were locked in a death struggle with a powerful as well as remorseless foe. It seemed that something in our national character required us to inflate the threat beyond the reality, once we had determined that it was indeed the enemy of our choice.

It turns out that Bill was right, mostly, and the Soviet Union fell apart largely because of the structural weaknesses he had described. For many Americans, that created a vacancy of sorts. It is not apparent that there was anything in the American psyche that absolutely required us to identify a new adversary, but anyhow, along came the infamous 9/11 attack, and there we were again, locked in another struggle to the death, this time against an adversary described as international terrorism. Once again, it became essential to inflate the threat into something powerful as well as remorseless. What started as a guerrilla action by a few Arab soreheads, frustrated over Palestine and cultural encroachment by the West, grew in our imagination to a global black cloud of hostility, mostly nameless and faceless, but vaguely associated with Islam and Arabs, and given the face and name of Usama bin Laden.

Ever since 9/11, the United States Government has been hyperventilating over this largely undefined and intangible foe. Admittedly, 9/11 was a shocking and powerful demonstration of the ability of a small group of suicidal malcontents to wreak disproportionate harm on a technologically advanced society. Obviously, we all had to rally around and work out countermeasures. But the nature of our response so far has been predicated–and sold to the American public–on the assumption that this is a new war and not a police action. Is this perhaps a misperception, and is the threat actually one that can and should be contained by a kind of beefed-up Interpol? If so, our misdiagnosis of the nature of the threat has led to shockingly wrong prescriptions as to what we should be doing to counter it. One need only consider the egregiously wrong attack on a peripheral target, Iraq, and the efforts within America to curtail basic freedoms in the name of fighting the enemy. We are paying a heavy price to engage an enemy that may be a lot less powerful than we seem to think it is. Is it necessary?

A contemporary equivalent of my old friend Bill Turpin is Professor Juan Cole at the University of Michigan. He is perhaps the leading American expert on the Shia community of Iraq, and his assessments of political developments in the Middle East continue to be highly regarded–despite the fact that like Bill Turpin he has fallen out of favor with the Bush administration, for presenting facts that disagree with administration positions. I have just read a new assessment of his, that provoked me into writing this comment. He cites a recent bin Laden video broadcast, interprets it as a sign of weakness, and concludes: “The narrow, sectarian and politically unskilfull character of this speech is the most hopeful sign I have seen in some time that al-Qaeda is a doomed political force, a mere Baader-Meinhof Gang or Red Army Faction with greater geographical reach.” [Post of 12/28 on <http://www.juancole.com/>]

Very well. Optimism is out of fashion these days. But we need to reflect on our propensity to inflate the enemy in our imaginations, and ponder whether the price we are paying these days is worth it.

Carl Coon 12/30/04

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