Jeff Goldstein has a look into al-Qaeda’s ‘last warning’ of an impending massive attack on the US. It’s quite possible this is just more bluster – al-Qaeda has never announced specifics of their attacks before they’ve happened – our best warnings have come from chatter within the organization rather than specific warnings from the group.
At the same time, what would happen if al-Qaeda slipped a nuke into a major American city?
The atrocity of September 11, 2001 brought out the US’ latent Jacksonian impulses which resulted in the utter destruction of both the Taliban and the Hussein regime in Iraq. However, as Walter Russell Mead notes of America’s Jacksonianism:
For the first Jacksonian rule of war is that wars must be fought with all available force. The use of limited force is deeply repugnant. Jacksonians see war as a switch that is either “on” or “off.” They do not like the idea of violence on a dimmer switch. Either the stakes are important enough to fight forâ€”in which case you should fight with everything you haveâ€”or they are not, in which case you should mind your own business and stay home. To engage in a limited war is one of the costliest political decisions an American president can makeâ€”neither Truman nor Johnson survived it.
Right now, Bush is paying the same price. The American people don’t like lengthy engagements, and they don’t like “limited wars.” Their idea is to go to war, kick the living hell out of the enemy until they’re unable to offer any resistance, and leave. The idea of nation-building goes against the grain of American martial policy, and President Bush is quickly realizing that the growing dissatisfaction with the situation in Iraq can only be managed for so long. Our greatest military limitation is not in troop strength or munitions, it’s in our unwillingness to fight wars of attrition – and al-Qaeda knows this.
If al-Qaeda were to launch an attack more devastating than September 11, America’s Jacksonian impulses would kick into hyperdrive. Mead provides us an example of what we can do when provoked into action:
In the last five months of World War II, American bombing raids claimed the lives of more than 900,000 Japanese civiliansâ€”not counting the casualties from the atomic strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is more than twice the total number of combat deaths that the United States has suffered in all its foreign wars combined.
On one night, that of March 9-10, 1945, 234 Superfortresses dropped 1,167 tons of incendiary bombs over downtown Tokyo; 83,793 Japanese bodies were found in the charred remainsâ€”a number greater than the 80,942 combat fatalities that the United States sustained in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined.
Since the Second World War, the United States has continued to employ devastating force against both civilian and military targets. Out of a pre-war population of 9.49 million, an estimated 1 million North Korean civilians are believed to have died as a result of U.S. actions during the 1950-53 conflict. During the same war, 33,870 American soldiers died in combat, meaning that U.S. forces killed approximately thirty North Korean civilians for every American soldier who died in action. The United States dropped almost three times as much explosive tonnage in the Vietnam War as was used in the Second World War, and something on the order of 365,000 Vietnamese civilians are believed to have been killed during the period of American involvement.
If Iran armed a terrorist with a nuclear weapon, Tehran would be flattened into the ground. If Bashar al-Assad looked the other way while weaponized anthrax fell into the hands of terrorists, Damascus would be uninhabitable for centuries. Put this nation’s back to the wall, and we have the ability to respond with a force that is nothing less than apocalyptic. We have more than enough firepower to devastate the world more than once over. The only thing holding us back from using it is the fact that we’re too rational a people to even consider using it. However, every nation has limits.
The problem with this fact, is that despite Duncan Black, that isn’t necessarily going to stop al-Qaeda from acting. Deterrance works very well when you have a rational actor on the other side of the equation – or you have an actor that is not prone to dramatically misreading the situation. Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, or Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad are all the types of people who are either motived by something other than self-preservation or prone to tragic and fatal miscalculations of American intentions.
National Review‘s Jim Geraghty worries that we’re close to a “tipping point” vis-à-vis the Muslim world. The battles in Iraq, the Danish cartoon fiasco, and the abject irrationality of the Arab world has convinced many Americans that despite the President’s amiable rhetoric, maybe Muslims really are the enemy. It’s hard not to think that when the Muslim world continues to be represented by the groups that preach hatred, intolerance, and terror. As Geraghty writes:
And more and more, I think Glenn Reynolds had it right; the entire Tipping Point phenomenon can be summed up as action and reaction. The Bush Administrationâ€™s reaction to the cartoon riots was comparably milquetoast. The violence and threats committed over the cartoons shocked, frightened and really, really angered Americans. They want somebody to smack the Muslim world back onto its heels and set them straight: â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter how offensive a cartoon is, youâ€™re not allowed to riot, burn down embassies and kill people over it.â€
That’s America’s Jacksonianism reasserting itself once more. Eventually, we may very well reach a tipping point in which the majority of Americans simply decide that the Arab world isn’t worth it. The fact is that while Bush has gone out of his way to point out that all Muslims are not our enemy, those admonishments don’t quite match what the people of this country see every day on the news. Another attack would push America’s Jacksonian impulses further to the forefront than they have been in decades – and when America engages in total war, we unless more firepower than anyone.
It remains to be seen if that’s really part of al-Qaeda’s true objective – to provoke a final battle between Islam and the West. If it is, they may get their wish. And when they do, it will end in the complete, utter, and rapid defeat. In the wake of that, the Middle East will be shattered, the oil economy will undergo a massive and painful change, and the ideological civil war within the West may be dramatically altered. I’m not so certain that another major attack on Europe wouldn’t finally wake the long-slumbering spirit of European militarism as well.
At the same time, no one’s interests are served by such a conflict. If it all possible, it must be prevented. That means that truly moderate Muslims must begin to speak and act out. The democratization of Iraq is designed to assist in empowering moderates, but the short-term prognosis for that is unfortunately poor. Over the long-term the liberation of the people of Iraq from the Hussein regime may be the watershed moment in the history of the Middle East when the political culture began to change – but it is far too early to determine that. Ultimately, it is only the Muslim world which can choose their fate. If they allow al-Qaeda to push them into a battle with the West, military history has indicated that the West’s military dominance is no accident of fate or geography.
If it is total war they want, al-Qaeda will get total war. The problem is that far too many on both sides will die if that happens. With each provocation, the American Jacksonian spirit grows stronger and stronger, and despite the fecklessness of academia, media, and the other nomenklatura of contemporary American society, the last thing the Muslim world would want to do is further inflame those sensibilities. Al-Qaeda should have learned once that when Americans write vengeance on their hearts the results are devastating – the next time they may find that what we’ve done in the years since September 11, 2001 has been only a fraction of what we are truly capable of.