Defeating suicide terrorism

Dying to Win by Robert Pape

Dying to Win by Robert Pape

To win the war on terrorism, the United States and other democracies under fire must seek to prevent the rise of a new, larger generation of anti- American terrorists. Given the close association of foreign occupation and suicide terrorism, this goal can be achieved only if the United States substantially alters its military policy toward the Persian Gulf.

The present realities in the region create an important opportunity to develop a new strategy for victory in the war on terrorism. Saddam Hussein’s control of Iraq was the core reason that the United States has stationed tens of thousands of combat forces in multiple countries on the Arabian Peninsula since 1990. Republican and Democratic administrations both supported this policy, believing that Saddam’s regime posed a threat to Persian Gulf oil and to our allies in the region. Today, this is no longer true. With Saddam Hussein out of power, Iraq is poised to become an American ally. Whether one supported the war in Iraq or not, we should acknowledge that the emergence of Iraq as an American ally creates an opening for the United States to fundamentally recast its military policy toward the region as a whole.

Historically, American strategy for the Persian Gulf rested on the concept of “off-shore” balancing. For decades prior to 1990, the United States recognised that access to Persian Gulf oil was crucial to the world’s economy and that threats could emerge from multiple directions, including domestic instability in the region. To meet these challenges, US administrations from Harry Truman’s to Ronald Reagan’s used foreign assistance to build strong alliances with key local states, while developing the capability to rapidly deploy American combat forces into the region should a crisis emerge. During the 1980s, the United States formed an alliance with Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which not only helped contain the threat from Iran but also built the critical infrastructure that allowed for the rapid deployment of American power to defeat Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait in 1990.

Off-shore balancing is again America’s best strategy for the Persian Gulf. Now that the United States has removed Saddam Hussein from power and shepherded Iraq through the foundational phases of a democratic transition, American combat presence in the Persian Gulf provides diminishing returns to US security. Whether the transition to democracy in Iraq goes well or not, the mere presence of tens of thousands of US troops in the region is likely to fuel continued fear of foreign occupation that will encourage anti-American terrorism in the future. Hence, our objective should be to withdraw all American combat forces from the region expeditiously, while working with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states to ensure that they maintain the critical infrastructure for a rapid return of US forces should that prove necessary.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

The purpose of off-shore balancing is to preserve access to Persian Gulf oil, not to manage the internal politics of states in the region. To achieve this goal, it is important to have the friendliest possible relations with all three of the major states-Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran-or with at least two of them, if their behaviour toward one another makes cooperative relations with all three impossible. This means refraining from the use of military coercion unless one of these countries actually attacks another or otherwise immediately threatens the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. This also means stationing no American combat troops on the ground, but maintaining permanent readiness to intervene massively and rapidly if necessary, including maintaining the current infrastructure of military bases in the region.

The United States may or may not have to fight another Gulf War someday. If we do, the cardinal purpose should be the same as for the first Gulf War in 1991-protecting oil-not the same as the purpose of the second in 2003-regime change. Democratisation is the long-run future of states in the Persian Gulf. The United States can play an important role in facilitating democratic transitions at arm’s length, just as it did in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and just as it is doing in Egypt and on the West Bank today. However, seeking to impose democracy on Iran or Saudi Arabia by force can trigger nationalist sentiments that encourage anti-American terrorism and large-scale internal turmoil-which, ultimately, threaten America’s core interests. Together, Iran and Saudi Arabia have 100 million Muslims-four times the population of Iraq. While we can topple their regimes, post war reconstruction would be even more complex and debilitating than it has been in Iraq, and preventing chaos from breaking out across the region may become impossible for America’s already overstretched army.

Conquest is also not the best policy for dealing with the possibility that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons. Since Tehran could conceal major nuclear facilities, air strikes, the seizure of chunks of territory, or other limited military options cannot guarantee to set back the country’s nuclear development. Only a massive invasion to occupy the entire country-three times the size of Iraq-would suffice. Further, the United States should expect Iranian retaliation, either in the region or at home, because the fires that drove the popular revolution against America’s ally, the Shah of Iran, in 1979 could be re-ignited with even greater force against an actual invasion. Most importantly, Iran’s political leaders from the Ayatollah Khomeini to today’s clerics have never demonstrated a reckless disregard for America’s capacity to retaliate for unprovoked aggression against it, and so we have no actual basis to doubt that we could live with a nuclear Iran. In this case, the risks of action outweigh the risks of deterrence. To limit the danger, the United States should join Europe’s current effort to encourage Iran to abide by the limits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty by using access to trade as a means of strengthening the moderates in the regime.

Off-shore balancing is America’s best strategy, but it is not perfect and has risks. The balance of power among Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia as well as internal instability in these states is likely to pose important challenges for decades to come. However, the United States has powerful economic and diplomatic tools to manage the local balance of power, while removal of American combat forces from the region is likely to diminish the main source of instability to the Saudi regime. Further, American naval power would remain a formidable military instrument for influence in the region, should immediate uses of power prove necessary. Above all, a return to off-shore balancing will send an unmistakable signal that the United States is not in the business of empire, and will thus suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere that breeds anti-American suicide terrorism.

Sometimes the right policy is to sacrifice nonessentials to get the best deal on core interests-in this case, oil-while maintaining the power to enforce that deal. This is what off-shore balancing does. By assuring the local populations in the Persian Gulf that the United States has no imperial designs, it reduces al-Qaeda’s power to mobilise popular support, while safeguarding America’s core interests in the region. Al-Qaeda leaders could try to tout this as “appeasement”, but fewer and fewer will bother to listen.

Ultimately, energy independence would be an even better alternative to off-shore balancing, since it would reduce our stake in the Persian Gulf altogether. To do this, the United States must reduce our dependence on imported oil. Since nearly all American oil fields have passed their peak and are now in decline, energy independence must mean greater reliance on alternative energy sources and conservation-something that is completely up to us.

Victory will take time. The threat of suicide terrorism against Americans has been building for over a decade, and we cannot reverse the underlying causes quickly. For this reason, it is crucial to immediately tighten border and immigration controls, while continuing to use offensive military action against al-Qaeda terrorists whom we locate. At the same time, the United States should lay the groundwork for withdrawing all American troops from the Persian Gulf and should adopt the strategy of off-shore balancing to secure our interests in the region. In the long term, the United States should work toward energy independence, thus reducing the need for heavy involvement in the region as a whole. These measures will not provide a perfect solution, but they can make it substantially more difficult for al-Qaeda to carry out future attacks in the United States, and, ultimately, make it harder to explain to Muslims why they should attack
America at all.

For nearly ten years, al-Qaeda suicide terrorists have been dying to win. With the right strategy, however, it is the United States that is poised for victory.

See the extract published in Issue 52 – Dying to Win

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.