Foreign Policy

The State of War and Domestic Terrorism

Chet Richards and John Mueller discuss where we're at five years after the 9/11 attacks.

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Chet Richards on the future of the military
Interview by Jesse Walker

Since 1989 a small tribe of military analysts has explored the rise of "fourth generation" warfare, a term coined in the Marine Corps Gazette to describe conflicts that pit a state against a transnational, nonstate opponent. Unlike traditional guerrillas, who try to overthrow their host government, these nonstate groups take on external states. For an example, look no further than this year's war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Chet Richards, 59, has spent more time than most pondering the implications of such conflicts. A retired Air Force Reserve colonel, Richards is the editor of the invaluable Web site Defense and the National Interest (d-n-i.net) and the author, most recently, of Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead (Center for Defense Information, 2006). Written with far more wit and clarity than is usually found in military texts, his book argues that the Department of Defense, designed to wage the Cold War, is ill-suited to protect Americans against the threats we face today. It examines a range of strategic and structural alternatives, including such radical notions as privatization.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker spoke with Richards in July. A longer version of their conversation is online here.

Reason: If Dick Cheney called you tomorrow and asked for your advice on how to proceed in Iraq, what would you tell him?

Chet Richards: I'd say, "Dickie, you've got two choices: Get in or get out." And by "get in," I mean open your Roman history. You can see how it has to be done. We're talking 27 million people in Iraq, so figure a couple percent, 500,000 to a million people, and lock the place down.

If you're not going to do that, then just get out. We've got enough force in there to be an irritant and a target, but not nearly enough to influence the situation. If we tell them, "Hey, we're out of here by the end of the year, you guys figure it out," then we at least give them some incentive to come up with arrangements that they can live with.

Reason: Suppose Cheney were to ask you about Afghanistan. How would your advice be different?

Richards: The classic solution to Afghanistan is just get out. If we could somehow change them, I'd say great. But people have been trying to do that for a long, long time.

We can probably do raids that ensure the Al Qaeda training camps don't become particularly effective. If we had to we could put about a thousand special forces into an area and operate for a couple of weeks, disrupt the hell out of it, and then just leave. In the meantime they'll grow poppies, and they'll fight among themselves. Let them play that game of polo with each other's heads and have a great time back in the 13th century.

I worry about Pakistan a lot more than Afghanistan. They have a well-educated population, they've managed to cobble together several nuclear devices, they can operate F-16s quite nicely, and yet they probably harbor more of what we'd call Islamic extremists than any other country in the world. They have a lot more potential to cause us problems, especially if the government is ever overthrown by Taliban look-alikes.

Reason: Your book suggests a broad restructuring of the U.S. military.

Richards: What we have right now is a military set up to fight large-scale state-vs.-state war. So you have to ask, who would we fight?

If a country has nuclear weapons, you really can't have a large-scale conventional war. You can have a military theater, but the fate of either side is not going to be decided purely through conventional weapons.

What about the nonnuclear powers? Well, some of them are U.S. allies. Germany, Italy, Norway—looking down through the rest of human history, I guess you couldn't totally rule out a war with them, but in a world of limited resources you'd be hard put to spend billions and keep a big force just in case we fight a war with Italy someday.

So who's left? Brazil is an ally right now, but at some point it might have a Hugo Chavez–type revolution. There's Hugo himself. There's Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. There's the junta in Myanmar. These guys all put together spend about $3 billion a year on defense. How much do we spend? Five-hundred billion? There's something wrong with this picture.

We're spending half a trillion dollars, and when you look around, who's it going to defend us from? It didn't defend us from Al Qaeda. What are all these armored divisions doing out there, these mech divisions, all this other stuff that's basically left over from the Cold War and for that matter even World War II? We should shrink the force down to match the threat. Keep a residual force, and get rid of the rest of that nonsense.

Then you ask what you need to fight nonstate threats. There are a lot of nonstate threats—gangs, for example—that are law enforcement problems. Armored divisions aren't going to help you much there. So what about security threats that are a step up from that? Al Qaeda, or something like the FARC in Colombia if somehow we were to come into contact with them—if Mexico starts to go south, for example. [Israeli historian Martin] van Creveld said that basically, those are already private military organizations, and people who can afford it are already turning to other private military organizations to protect themselves from them.

So then you start looking around, and you see there's a huge industry out there today supplying this stuff. So why don't we harness that? Why leave [national security] in the hands of a state-sponsored bureaucracy, which has proven to be the least efficient, the least creative, the least dynamic sector of our society?

Reason: I'm naturally sympathetic to turning government functions over to private enterprise, but I'm also naturally suspicious of government contractors. When you talk about contracting with private companies, how do you avoid the problems we've had with, say, Pentagon procurement?

Richards: I'm not sure you can. But if you have competition, and if you've got incentives for companies to rat out other companies if they break the law, then at least you have a mechanism for shutting down the ones that break the rules too egregiously and put the perpetrators in jail.

Over on the government side, unless you're willing to court-martial somebody, those mechanisms aren't there at all. When was the last time we court-martialed the commanding general of a division? But if you're the commanding general of a professional company and you're not getting the job done, you lose your contract. And if you start doing illegal things, you can be dragged into both civil and criminal court.

Reason: What's the possibility of private military companies being retained by Americans who aren't in the government? Say some people decide they want to assist the people in Darfur and raise the funds and hire a company to do the job.

Richards: I think there's a 100 percent chance of that happening. I couldn't tell you when.

Reason: Do you think it's desirable?

Richards: Oh, yeah. Again, let's have some competition there.

I'm not sure private military companies, the way we have them right now, are going to evolve into what I'm talking about. They might. But they bring a lot of baggage with them.

Reason: Your book compares the Department of Defense to "the experience of large commercial organizations since the end of WWII. Most of them will go out of business before they make the changes necessary to survive." Government bureaucracies tend to be even more calcified than large corporations. How likely do you think it is that the military will restructure itself, in the directions you suggest or any other directions?

Richards: Not until they lose a big war.

Reason: Do you see them losing a big war anytime soon?

Richards: Nope.

Reason: So do you feel like you're writing science fiction? Or do you think the change is going to come from some direction; you just can't predict where?

Richards: I think it's the latter. What's going on today just can't go on.

It's like working for General Motors 10 or 15 years ago. The handwriting was on the wall. Their market share was starting to come down. Their quality was still terrible. Their costs were going through the roof. You might not have predicted that it would be Toyota that finally shoved you over the brink. You just knew that you were eventually going to open up a big enough hole that somebody was going to walk through it.

General Motors is not going to make it. But thank God for Toyota. As General Motors goes down and outsources more U.S. jobs overseas, Toyota is insourcing more jobs into the United States. It and other companies that have adopted the Toyota-type production system are building better cars—faster, cheaper, quieter, more fuel-efficient.

Reason: So can I quote you as saying Al Qaeda is the Toyota of the military-industrial complex?

Richards: Probably more like the Yugo.

Residual Warfare
John Mueller on the future of terrorism
Interview by Nick Gillespie

In powerful, well-received books such as Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (1989) and The Remnants of War (2004), John Mueller argues persuasively that traditional global conflicts along the lines of World War I and World War II are effectively part of history, analogous to dueling and slavery, institutions whose time and support have come and gone. If world war in which highly advanced societies battle it out for global supremacy is gone, warfare continues nonetheless, generally within a given country's or region's borders, generally under weak governments, and generally fought by irregulars and terrorists who act more like criminal gangs than conventional armies (think the Balkans and Rwanda). Such "residual warfare," says Mueller, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies and a professor of political science at Ohio State University, requires policing actions, not a conventional military response.

Mueller is also the author of Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery (2000), in which he contends that "capitalism is much better than its image, while democracy has turned out to be much worse than its image." In 2002 he participated in a reason online debate about whether the United States should invade Iraq, taking the nay position because, to his mind, Saddam Hussein was "a feeble tyrant" who posed little or no threat to America.

Mueller's next book, tentatively titled Devils and Duct Tape and forthcoming next year from the Free Press, applies his brand of contrarian analysis to questions of terrorism and homeland security. Based on "Six Rather Unusual Propositions About Terrorism," his controversial 2005 article for the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, the new book will suggest, among other things, that the real cost of terrorism comes from governmental overreaction rather than direct damage to lives and property; that the "terrorism industry" stokes fear and anxiety; and that governments should try to reduce citizens' fears as inexpensively as possible rather than trying to eliminate low-probability threats of violence.

Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie talked with Mueller in late May, as the professor was finishing a stint as a scholar in residence at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

Reason: What's the main reason that we haven't seen another major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11?

John Mueller: After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese seemed to be 20 feet tall militarily, when in fact they were not. I think we've been viewing Al Qaeda as being vastly more capable and nefarious than it is. It seems very likely that there are few if any Al Qaeda operatives in the country. And I suspect that's mainly because they're not trying very hard to get here. There are certainly ways to get into the country, as the thousands of illegal immigrants who stream in every day could tell you. Obviously, no one can say for sure, but it's a reasonable hypothesis that there is no needle in the haystack.

Reason: While the U.S. has been spared, there have been other major strikes by Islamist terrorists—in Bali, Spain, and England, for example. These may not have been done by Al Qaeda per se, but they're clearly related to Osama bin Laden's general grievances. What else do you point to in saying that Al Qaeda is a spent force and that nobody else is going to take up the slack?

Mueller: After 9/11, there was a big round-up of Al Qaeda types and semi–Al Qaeda types. Not so much in the United States. In fact, hardly at all in the United States; it mostly took place overseas.

I think 9/11 had a negative effect for the terrorists. They turned off a lot of people with that kind of lunacy and some of their biggest supporters—their ideological supporters—thought it was really stupid. Monstrous maybe, but definitely stupid, as it turned the United States against them. Pakistan immediately turned against the Taliban. That was a big deal. The terrorism that has happened since has mostly been in Arab countries such as Morocco.

It's worth remembering that there was basically no outcry from clerics—even radical ones—after the United States invaded Afghanistan. It's not that they supported the invasion, but they didn't oppose it. They strongly opposed the Soviet invasion in 1979, and they opposed the attack on Iraq. But not the one on Afghanistan, which sort of shows the negative effect the 9/11 attacks had on radical Islamists.

Reason: In "Six Rather Unusual Propositions About Terrorism," you lay out various conceptual mistakes people make regarding terrorist violence. For instance, you note that terrorism "generally has only limited direct effects" and that its true costs come mostly from overreaction, not from bombs or deaths themselves. You go after the idea that Al Qaeda—or any similar Islamist terrorist group—can really threaten our way of life.

Mueller: I don't see how they can, unless we do it to ourselves. If there's a bad incident someplace and we start, say, repealing the Bill of Rights, that would be one thing.

Reason: Some people would argue that we're in the beginning stages of that, whether you're talking about the PATRIOT Act, the profusion of "national security letters" (which allow the FBI a warrantless, secret means by which to search citizens' records), or the massive surveillance programs in place.

Mueller: I don't think we're remotely close to losing our way of life, but there are certainly restrictions on privacy and civil liberties and unfair persecutions of some people. Obviously, those things are worrisome, but you'd have to go a lot farther than that to consider it the destruction of the American way of life.

The amount of damage done by international terrorists each year is remarkably limited. Outside of 9/11, a few hundred people around the globe are killed each year by terrorism, which is not much more than the number of people who die drowning in bathtubs in the United States. However tragic and horrible and disgusting it is, the amount of damage terrorists do is not very significant. Even when factoring in 9/11, your chance over your lifetime of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 80,000, or about the same as being hit by an asteroid.

Reason: So where does the overreaction come from?

Mueller: A feeling of revenge, a feeling of outrage. A feeling that we have to do something without tempering it.

Reason: Five years out, do you see signs that we are pulling back from overreaction, or does something happen where the initial reaction gets hardened into policy and attitudes?

Mueller: I think mostly the latter. Once policies and attitudes are institutionalized and internalized, they just keep going. An analogy has to do with domestic Communists in the postwar U.S. After the 1950s, they basically ceased to exist and certainly weren't a threat, but people still seemed to voice a considerable amount of concern about them, and all the anti-communist legislation that was passed in the McCarthy era basically stayed around for a long time until it was gradually dismantled by the Supreme Court [in the '70s and '80s]. The anxiety and the laws stemming from 9/11 will be there for decades.

Reason: You argue that one way to reduce anxiety is to remember the nearly continuous predictions made by highly placed people in the government that a "major" terrorist attack is imminent. Why doesn't the public remember such failed predictions?

Mueller: It beats me. I think the press should do more of a job of keeping that on our minds. We had all those claims by [former Attorney General John] Ashcroft that he had information of terrorist plans that were 90 percent or 70 percent complete and that we'd get attacked in 2003 and 2004. But it didn't happen, and no one goes to Ashcroft or whomever and says, "What the hell were you talking about?"

Reason: So what's the most effective way to ratchet down the fear—and the policies and the spending?

Mueller: Most of the risk-analysis literature suggests it's very hard to change course. Once these ideas and laws get embedded in a population, it's tough to actually reduce them. Certainly no one seems to be trying. Nobody's going around saying that terrorists don't seem to be terribly effective and that we can absorb the costs of what they do.

We shouldn't spend billions of dollars trying to protect tens of thousands of "potential targets." One target identified by the Department of Homeland Security was a water park in Florida called Weeki Wachee Springs, whose response was to suggest they get some federal funding. There are countless other examples: a small town in Washington state, for instance, that has decontamination suits no one knows how to use.

We should save the money and then if something happens, we should use it to fix things, and then go after the people who actually did the crime.

It seems to me that this is something that ought to be considered a reasonable point of view. I can certainly understand disagreement, though I've gotten less disagreement than I've expected.