The True War Is With Phantoms

In his State of the Union address, President Bush declared that “the gravest danger in the war on terror facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”

These threats are indeed serious and require a response. But elevating them to our top priority masks our inability to grasp that the greatest challenge from the terrorist threat today resides outside the control of states—even menacing ones.

The focus on hostile states like Iraq and North Korea is inevitably undermining our ability to confront the true dangers to our national security: shadowy, nonstate groups that are increasingly able to organize and to seek weapons of mass destruction.

In fact, the road to war now being followed may lead to even greater dangers by unwittingly creating conditions favorable to these groups.

While the U.S. has the power to deter or defeat the most powerful states—having faced Stalinist Russia and Maoist China—it cannot effectively counter nonstate groups in the globalization era without considerable global cooperation.

Consider the behavior of militant nonstate groups in the Middle East. Their ability to operate and thrive is enhanced by the severe instability of certain regions. The groups attacking Israelis, for example, have proliferated in the last several decades in areas where central authority is the weakest: Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories.

By comparison, in states that are most hostile to Israel, such as Syria—whose Golan Heights remain under Israeli occupation—direct operations against Israel have been minimal. The reason? Israel has the ability to deter Syria, which is sensitive to Israel’s punishing power.

But it is much harder to know whom to punish in places like Lebanon, where the government does not have the capacity to control shadowy nonstate groups.

As a result, significant deployments of Israel’s military forces, including occupation of Lebanese territories in the 1980s and 1990s, have failed to defeat or fully deter militant groups.

Certainly, states often employ terrorism as an instrument of policy. Many governments also support nonstate militant groups when it suits them. But because they are sensitive to deterrence and punishment by more powerful states, they set limits.

For example, both Syria and Iran have supported Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yet although Hezbollah has attacked Israeli targets—mostly Israeli soldiers on or near Lebanese soil—the group has not unleashed suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv. Had it done so, the consequences for Syria could have been severe.

The real and haunting danger is that independent, global terrorist groups like Al Qaeda will acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Most proliferation experts agree that the most likely source of such weapons would not be governments—even malevolent ones—but lawless areas in failing states, such as some nations of the former Soviet Union or even Pakistan if its government collapses. Rather than being primarily an instrument of states, terrorism is the anti-state.

Those who committed the horror of 9/11—none of whom came from “terrorist states”—did so with nothing more than box cutters and a willingness to die. States were hardly essential players.

Even today, after the defeat of the Taliban and the significant resources that have been deployed, Al Qaeda remains on the loose, with Osama bin Laden possibly surviving to kill another day. Where do most of Al Qaeda’s fighters hide? Mainly in states that are now our allies, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in areas that are not fully under control.

Instability is the home of terrorism.

The train of war against Iraq may have already left the station. Yet we must not allow the prospect of watching the defeat of a ruthless dictator to blind us to the possible consequences: more regional instability, more potential recruitment of motivated terrorists and more reluctance by states around the world to cooperate with anti-terror efforts when the U.S. needs global cooperation the most.

In the end, we must ask ourselves this question: Is the downfall of Saddam Hussein worth the rise of another Bin Laden?