Relearning important lessons on terrorism

August 25, 2006|By Victor Davis Hanson | Victor Davis Hanson,Hoover Institution at Stanford University

What old lessons about terrorism are we in the West finding ourselves having to relearn?

First, death is the mantra of terrorists. In urban landscapes, they hide among apartment buildings, use human shields and welcome all fatalities - friendly or hostile, combatant or civilian. Death of any kind, they think, makes the liberal West recoil but allows them to pose as oppressed victims.

Their nihilistic hatred intimidates, rather than repels, third parties - whether "moderate" Arabs, Europeans who back off from peacekeeping in Lebanon, or the Western public at large. We worry about incurring charges of "Islamophobia" when we should be stressing our liberal values and unabashedly contrasting Western civilization with the seventh-century barbarism of the jihadists.

Second, windfall petrol-dollar profits (now around $500 billion annually) financially fuel radical Islam. Iranian cash allowed Hezbollah to acquire the sophisticated weaponry needed to achieve parity in ambushes with the Israel Defense Forces. Islamists may eventually be better equipped with weapons they buy than we are with munitions we make.

Third, as Israel's experience in Lebanon demonstrated, air power alone can never defeat terrorists. Precision bombing is a tempting option for Westerners because it ensures few if any of our own casualties. But jihadists are able to portray guided weapons as being as indiscriminate as carpet-bombing.

Fourth, the use of old shoot-and-scoot missiles - Katyushas, Qassams and worse to come - is altering the strategic calculus, as they now number in the many thousands. The fear of Hezbollah's near-limitless mobile launchers enabled terrorists to put whole Israeli cities in bomb shelters and almost shut down the country's economy.

Israel needs a breakthrough in missile defense and may have to target the conventional assets of terrorist sponsors - the power grid of Syria, for example - to restore deterrence.

Fifth, intelligence remains lousy. The lapses are not just an American problem but stymie the Israeli Mossad as well. The latter had little idea of the anti-tank weapons and impenetrable bunkers of Hezbollah a few miles from the border. Western reliance on drones and satellites yields little on-the-ground information. Meanwhile, free societies broadcast on television much of their own debates and plans.

Sixth, there is little evidence of either the efficacy or morality of the vaunted "multilateral" diplomacy. Cash-hungry Russia sold its best weapons to terrorists. And oil-hungry China supplies Iran with missiles.

And seventh, the reputation of the international media in the Middle East for accuracy and fairness has been lost. In the recent war in Lebanon, news agencies were accused by bloggers of publishing staged photos, and Reuters was embarrassed that one of its freelancers had doctored war-zone photos.

Despite the enormous advantages of Western militaries, there is no guarantee we can keep ahead of terrorists - especially since they are becoming more adept while we seem tired and unsure about whom, why and how we should fight.

So far, the U.S. has been able to dodge the latest terrorist bullets. So far, Afghanistan and Iraq are clinging to their newfound democracies. So far, Israel has been able to survive Hamas and Hezbollah, and these groups' state sponsors in Iran and Syria.

But unless we in the West adapt more quickly than do canny Islamic terrorists in this constantly evolving war, cease our internecine fighting and stop forgetting what we've learned about our enemies, there will be disasters to come far worse than Sept. 11.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His column appears in The Sun on Fridays. His e-mail is

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