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Where’s the Big Idea?


I don’t know who edits the New York Times Saturday op-ed page but there should be some sort of special prize to whomever puts out such a consistently engaging end-of-week wrap up – particularly since Saturday’s papers are the least read.
Today’s pieces on leadership and intelligence – and how one confuses and manipulates the other – are definitely worth reading. (You can, however, skip David Brooks’ shrilly partisan denunciation of former Bush administration security advisor Richard Clarke). Peter Neuman’s piece on how 9/11 was filtered through the Cold War expectations of the Bush Administration is a nicely nonpartisan (Neuman teaches in England, home of John Keegan, the best, and most readable military historian out there). Neuman talks persuasively about the Bush administration’s belief that terrorism must be state-sponsored and how that attitude led to what was clearly a dismissal of growing concerns voiced by folks like Clarke.

Neuman comes close to articulating something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. The Bush folks – and to some extent the Clinton people – just didn’t think it was possible for a bunch of rag-tag militants, fooling around in the Afghan mountains to get over here from there and do the damage they did. Thinking that only large entities – governments – could war war-like campaigns, they went – they all went – looking for just such opponents.
Neuman says this is the result of Cold War thinking. But it is also another episode in a long parade of disintermediation – the doing away of the middle — which often turns into the doing away of the structure and recognized authority. For the most part, Internet people think this is good. Remember all that happy talk in the mid-1990s about the withering away of the state since ‘net based communication would make it all so easy? International terrorism is the nasty dark underside of all that theorizing – talk that focused not on the need to manage change but on how much money change would make the self-dubbed change agents.
As former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a 9/11 commissioner, observed last week, it didn’t take much to slip through the protections the U.S had set up; just about $500,000 and some craftiness. One man with a satellite phone (to talk), a laptop (to send money and communicate) and some willing followers (to act) removed a national landmark and took 3,000 lives. These days, state-sponsored terrorism is as old-fashioned as rotary-dial phones
Europeans, who live so close together and move pretty freely between borders, seem to best understand this. That’s why they see the fight against Islamic radical terrorism as a struggle for vigilance, a struggle that is often without flashy rewards and often with dramatic set-backs. That search for rewards – we bombed them, we caught them, they’re punished, presto, the world is a safer place – seems to haunt U.S. attitudes toward terror. And that’s not just on one side of the political spectrum: Take a look at all those “I can’t believe I’m a hawk” Liberals who supported the Iraqi invasion. I’ve said here for a while that confusion – deeply emotional confusion over 9/11 — has motivated this countries’ attitude toward the Iraqi War. Half-joking, I think many of those disbelieving hawks share the same thought that the Bush folks did: They can’t believe what’s happened to them, they can’t believe their world could be so changed by what should – if the old rules applied – be such a small force of men from such a distant and backward place.
Democrats have long struggled to find a way to fight off charges from the right that they are soft on national defense. Now would be a good time to start thinking – and acting – in new ways. I know my world has changed. Would someone please tell me what going to done about it?

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 8:29 PM | Permalink

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