Responding to terror -- the extremes

January 27, 2002|By Tom Bowman | By Tom Bowman,Sun Staff

The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has Failed And Why It Will Fail Again,

by Caleb Carr. Random House. 272 pages. $19.95.

Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, by Robert D. Kaplan. Random House. 198 pages. $22.95.

Now that Americans are recovering from the initial shock of Sept. 11, and the U.S. military is mopping up in Afghanistan, it's a good time to sit back and ponder this new world we live in and the political responses to global terrorists.

How does this country deal with these shadowy foes who were able to kill thousands of Americans on our own soil, seemingly without warning? Should the U.S. descend to their level and root them out, unleash the CIA so it can return to the bad old days? Why do people turn to terrorism and is it possible to stamp out this scourge like the fascism of old?

Two celebrated writers have weighed in with some rough travel maps for our times. The first could be labeled the Road to Idealism, while the second is perhaps better titled the Road to Realism.

The first is The Lessons of Terror by novelist and military historian Caleb Carr, who argues that the targeting of civilians -- a strategy or tactic that extends from the Roman legions to the Irish nationalists -- has never been helpful in achieving a group's political goals.

That being said, Carr contends that the U.S. must abandon its past practice of total war to devise "new forms of warfare" to fight the terrorists, who have wrongly been seen as criminals but are more accurately organized and disciplined paramilitary units. Warfare against them should be "limited and progressive" and begin with the elimination of what he sees as a bumbling and cold-blooded CIA, whose covert methods are designed to "fight a dirty enemy with dirty methods."

Washington leaders should turn over the CIA's duties to the FBI and the codebreaking and eavesdropping NSA. The Pentagon, meanwhile, should curtail large-scale bombing and rely on precision weaponry to avoid civilian casualties as it sets out to eliminate terrorists or their state sponsors. Green Berets and other special operations troops should be put to greater use. If need be, the U.S. must mount go-it-alone pre-emptive strikes against terrorists or their sponsors before they strike, Carr writes.

Meanwhile, Robert D. Kaplan, a journalist and writer, who took readers on a sobering ride through southern Europe in Balkan Ghosts, now has toured through history searching for answers to the war, political upheaval and poverty he has witnessed during his worldwide travels. He has returned with a series of essays: Warrior Politics.

A self-described pessimist and skeptic, Kaplan longs for the days of colonialism in these pages, dismisses the media and others with their high talk of values and human rights, and argues that America may have to embrace European-style pragmatism as opposed to its Wilsonian morality. The United States must use its power sparingly, focusing on its national interests rather than every human-suffering-of-the-moment that pops up on CNN.

Kaplan, calling on observers of government from Plutarch and Sun-Tzu to Machiavelli and Churchill, says that the enlightened pagan self-interest of "moral priorities" rather than Christian moral absolutism should be the guide for U.S. policymakers in this century. Like it or not, the United States has become the sole imperial power and it should pursue that role like hardheaded pragmatists.

"A century of disastrous utopian hopes has brought us back to imperialism," he writes, noting that the search for Osama bin Laden is similar to Britain's pursuit of the Mahdist army in Sudan in the late 1880s. We are now in a sort of replay of the Victorian era, when the British mounted campaigns to "deal with nasty little wars in anarchic corners of the globe."

So where a CIA that in the past tried to assassinate some foreign leaders or spurred a coup troubles Carr, Kaplan says that, with bin Laden and others lurking about, the law against assassinations should be scrapped or sidestepped. And the best and the brightest will be needed at the CIA in the future to warn of terrorist attacks.

The U.S. media and others often heap scorn on espionage, Kaplan says, but spying will be needed to prevent the country from stumbling into unnecessary wars.

Where Carr sees the Marshall Plan in almost angelic terms as one of "the greatest acts of not only civilian but military generosity," Kaplan's pragmatic view is that the plan "was not a gift to Europe but an effort to contain Soviet expansion." And that is the type of realism that Kaplan embraces. "Seasoned policy makers like Marshall were not guided by sympathy but by necessity and self interest," he notes.

Using the wisdom of the ages, Kaplan offers U.S. policymakers and citizenry a reasonable and hardheaded guide to the likely turbulence of the new century. It is a book that would make Henry Kissinger swoon or grow misty for the old days.

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