Fight Smart

From an Osama Bin Laden videotape, released by Al Jazeera on November 1, 2004:

All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.

All Praise is due to Allah.

So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah.

I hope the NSA will not notice this blog entry. I hope that I will not have Secret Service agents on my doorstep accusing me of collaborating with the enemy. You cannot take anything for granted from our president anymore, including the right of due process. Yet there is a fundamental truth in this statement from our enemy Osama bin Laden: this War on Terror is bankrupting our country.

It used to be when you fought an all out war, both sides ended up equally impoverished. This certainly was true of our Allies in Europe after both world wars, and they were the victors. Freedom is certainly priceless and beats totalitarianism. Terrorism though is a new modus operandi for conducting a war. We are like medieval armies using catapults to deal with an army that has discovered cannons and gunpowder. We need to rethink how a nation deals with this new kind of threat.

In our new reality, nation against nation wars are becoming obsolete. Now, a handful of people with minimal amounts of money can rather effectively gum up the works of a free society. Smart terrorists like bin Laden know how to yank our chain for maximum effectiveness. From their perspective, we are like a dog chasing its tail, distracted and spending most of our time and money on fruitless efforts. The War on Terror has been enormously expensive so far and arguably, the meter just started running. The Iraq War has cost at least $250B to date. Since Bush still has three years in office, he has already said some future president will have to decide when to withdraw troops from Iraq. Considering current obligations in the pipeline, the cost of the Iraq War alone will end up as $500B at least. It could conceivably cost a trillion dollars, or more. That’s $1,000,000,000,000.

This is just the cost of the war in Iraq. Then there is the destruction of al Qaeda, bringing bin Laden to justice, and ensuring that Afghanistan cannot harbor terrorists like al Qaeda again. That costs maybe $30B or so a year. On top of that, there is also the cost of making us safer here at home. Those costs are harder to quantify, since all sorts of dubious expenditures are being charged to the War on Terror.

All this money of course has to come from somewhere. Thus far, it has come from borrowing. Lenders of course are not giving away money; they expect to get it back with interest. This means that, all things being equal, our government will be paying more interest (as a percent of the budget) in years ahead than we do now. Consequently, either government programs like Social Security and Medicare will be chopped in the future, or when we pass our national credit limit, taxes are going to go way up, with the obvious decrease in our general standard of living. In addition, there are indirect costs for all of us. All this federal borrowing also drives up the cost of private borrowing. While interest rates are low by historical standards, they would be even less expensive if the government was not sucking away so much of the available capital.

It took al Qaeda a couple hundred thousand dollars to instigate 9/11. In return, we will likely spend $1-$2 trillion in direct costs, and those are only the ones we can project today. To put it another way, for every $1 spent by al Qaeda to destroy America, we will spend at least $1,000,000. As you can see, bin Laden may be a reprehensible troll, but he is not stupid. He knows how to get maximum leverage for his money. He stated it clearly: we cannot continue to afford the War on Terror forever.

Nevertheless, bin Laden got a surprise bonus from President Bush. I doubt even he expected quite his slavishly Pavlovian response. A rational president might have concentrated forces on where the problem was acute, which was arguably in Afghanistan. However, Bush imagined a much larger threat to America from terrorism than was actually there. Consequently, we got a badly planned War in Iraq.

It was like bin Laden, after hitting the jackpot, next won the grand prize in the state lottery. Our focus shifted from him to Saddam Hussein. 130,000 troops, instead of combing the Afghanistan countryside, got to hang out indefinitely in Iraq instead. Muslims, many of whom were indifferent to America prior to the invasion, got to watch our armies shoot up their fellow Muslims live on Al Jazeera. Instead of empathy from many Muslims for 9/11, we now had their antipathy. Many who would have never considered jihad found it a holy cause to which they could commit. We both squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and made the War on Terror worse. Lovely. Not.

Meanwhile, other emerging first world countries like China and India also indirectly caught a break. It is hard for America to focus on its economic future when it is fighting a costly and indefinite War on Terror. Their capital is freer to improve their economies and offer a competitive advantage to their nations.

Am I the only American who thinks the actual threat from al Qaeda is vastly over-inflated? I do not want to discount the horror of 9/11. I witnessed the Pentagon burning that day. I felt the terror too. Yes, nearly 3000 of our citizens died horrible deaths. Yet look how it was accomplished. It was done on the cheap. Now, in our ultra-paranoid mode, we assume of our enemy much more powerful than he likely will ever be again.

The War on Terror needs to be reframed and scoped down. By making it bigger than it needs to be, we are both bankrupting ourselves and losing our focus. It can be boiled down to a few major tasks.

First, we need to get rid of those who perpetrated and funded 9/11. We need to deny them refuge, cut off their assets, stop their recruiting and kill those directly responsible if we can. This will not be done overnight. It will take decades. To accomplish it though does not require us to have 130,000 troops in Iraq.

Second, and arguably most important of all, we need to secure vulnerable nuclear stockpiles across the world. It has gotten short shrift from this administration. If we have to redeploy 130,000 troops, let us volunteer them for use in foreign countries to secure these stockpiles until they are properly secured. Otherwise, our borders and ports could sure use a lot more security than they have.

Third, we need to do better dealing with North Korea. Unfortunately, if North Korea really does have nuclear weapons, there is not much we can do other than constructive engagement. Anything that will lessen their leader’s paranoia is good, unless it helps him acquire more nuclear material or gives him the means to deliver them. Mostly North Korea must be contained until the time when, if ever, saner heads prevail there. We should encourage North and South Korea to work through their long-standing problems. We must be careful not to make the situation worse. I doubt that statements saying how evil their regime is will be constructive.

As for Iran, their nuclear efforts can still be checked. Our War on Terror was something of a bonus for Iran too. Thanks to us, Iraq, which used to be Iran’s implacable enemy, will likely Balkanize into separate ethnic states. Shiite Iraq is likely to be Iran’s friend, not their enemy. Kurdistan is unlikely to be their enemy. Although the Taliban were reprehensible folk, Iran considered their extreme form of theocracy a threat to their state. We removed Iran’s two biggest external threats.

Iran needs constructive engagement and a reduction in all the pointless, ineffective and hateful rhetoric. It needs a bold stroke. You can rule that happening while Bush is in office. It needs a Nixon in China sort of engagement. If I were president, I would propose flying to Iran for direct talks. While there, I would apologize again for our involvement keeping the Shah of Iran in power, and basically just let them vent. After the venting is over, I will bet you would see moves toward constructive engagement.

These are all difficult, but not impossible tasks. However, they are not impossible, amorphous and Herculean tasks like our current unfocused war on terror. We need to stop biting off more than we can chew.

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