Thursday, January 13, 2005

World War IV

I have just finished reading Norman Podhoretz's remarkable article "The War Against World War IV", which has been posted online by Commentary. This is more or less a sequel to his earlier, even more remarkable piece on "World War IV".

Podhoretz's view is, as you might guess, that we are engaged in a world-historical conflict as significant as World War II or the Cold War (World War III). It is called the "War on Terror", but it is in fact a long, twilight struggle against Islamic fanaticism. Afghanistan and Iraq have merely been battles in this larger war, and there will be others to come. Podhoretz gives an impressive account of the background and present state of affairs. In the present article, he talks about the array of groups opposed to the grand strategy being pursued by the Administration. Save time for a long and thoughtful read.

I grew up during World War III. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, I told my students, "Look around you. Pay attention. Something amazing is happening. A terrible shadow is being lifted from the world. A few years from now, people coming to college will hardly know what it was all about. You are the last generation who will understand."

How does the new war compare to the old? On the one hand, it hardly seems a fair comparison. The Soviet Union was run by ruthless men of global ambitions who controlled a gigantic military complex and were armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. A bunch of medieval religious fascists, scattered across a part of the world whose combined GDP (in spite of massive oil revenue) would make a poor showing for a single European country, hardly seems a threat of the same scale. And so the apocalyptic rhetoric seems out of place. Or does it?

Everybody took a different lesson from 9/11. Here's mine.

We live in a rich, open, highly technological civilization. On a whole this is a Very Good Thing. But a side-effect of this state of affairs is that all kinds of dangerous stuff is around, more or less available for anyone with the will to seize it.

Think of it from the point of view of physics. An airliner full of jet fuel represents an immense amount of energy that can be directed to a destructive purpose. A giant skyscraper is the same. (A few days after 9/11, I estimated that the graviational potential energy released by the collapse of the WTC towers was about the same as the chemical energy released by the explosion of the fuel on the airliners that struck them.) And there are hundreds of airliners and hundreds of huge important buildings, not to mention thousands of other places where we have piled up lots of energy in one place, ready to be released.

Consider what a modest explosion might do aboard a LNG tanker -- on its way, say, to the Distrigas terminal in Boston harbor.

So an enemy need not actually have the technological and industrial base to build powerful weapons. Our own civilization can be turned against us. We see this in a small way in Iraq. The terrorists there make improvised explosive devices (IEDs) out of cell phones and old military munitions. They do not have the technological base to make the cell phones or the munitions, of course, but both are easy enough to come by.

What this means is a narrowing of the gap between catastrophe and the capabilities of a small and dedicated group. Just because the enemy is not a powerful, developed nation-state does not mean that it cannot command the resources of one. Upon occasion, they can use ours.

This is a dilemma whose solution I do not see. We want a wealthy civilization with lots of useful technology all over the place. We want an open society, where people can go about their business without having to justify themselves to the authorities. Our economy and our culture and our whole society are based on distributed power, liberty and elaborate webs of mutual trust. This is good, this works, this is the way we ought to live. But this also makes our society vulnerable in ways that are new and scary.

One of the things that has impressed me about the President and his Administration is how quickly and thoroughly they came to understand such truths. They "got" it right away, and they are trying very hard to find a way to avert catastrophe. They are trying to change the rules. I do not believe that another 9/11-scale attack, or even a nuclear or biological attack on one of our cities, would spell our doom. We are far too resilient for that. But it would open the door to a horrifying future. The grand strategy of taking the fight to the enemy, of trying to remake the political culture of the Middle East, is terribly risky; but it is worth the risk if we can keep from opening that door.


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