The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 31-40
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The Imbalance of Terror
In the eyes of history, the 10 years from December 25, 1991, until September 11, 2001, may become known as the interwar years. Just as the 20 years from 1919 to 1939 have no organizing principle to define them, so too the last 10 years may be independently unrecognizable to the future. From the day the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin until the day the twin towers collapsed, the shape of the world to come was impossible to imagine. Granted, new trends distinct from the Cold War were emerging. A limited, regional war in the Persian Gulf had gathered together one of the major coalitions in the history of warfare. Three major actors--the United States, Russia, and China--worked with a curious mix of cooperation and confrontation. Intrastate wars were blooming in the Balkans, Indonesia, Central Asia, and Africa, but ethnic rivalries were hardly the only feature of these conflicts, even in the chaos of Africa. Globalization was an economic, rather than strategic, concept and its very meaning remained elusive. The information revolution was changing the nature of conflict, but exactly how was difficult to assess. Simply stated, no clear picture was emerging from these different elements.
One thing, however, was already clear: by the end of the last century, hopes concerning a "new world order" had vanished. The strategic literature was full of "new threats." Rapid change was indeed feared by many, particularly with the appearance of two additional declared nuclear powers in 1998, with the intractable problems posed by Iraq and North Korea, and with the modernization of the Chinese military. Possible failures of deterrence were often contemplated, and missile defenses were supposed to protect people and troops at [End Page 31] home and abroad. The question at the beginning of September 2001 was whether such defenses would increase international security or insecurity.
The vocabulary used to describe the international situation did not reflect the striking difference between expectations at the beginning and at the end of the 1990s. For want of something better, observers retained the term "post-Cold War" as the least imperfect way to name the 10 years that followed the Soviet Union's breakup. Now, something different, something unrecognizable, something irreconcilable with concepts inherited from past experiences of either war or terrorism has come into being. This new phenomenon, however, does have a name: asymmetric warfare. Significant thought had already been given to asymmetric threats before September 11, but it had been nothing but a way of thinking. Such an extraordinary attack, in real time and real space, gave asymmetry a horrific shape.
The Terrorist Agenda
Those who planned the attacks seem to have operated from a list detailing the striking differences between the United States and themselves and to have played on those differences as much as they could. Their strategy can be described as follows:
- Have no center and strike at the heart of the superpower.
Although the United States may have become increasingly non-Clausewitzian in its approach to warfare, the terrorists adhered to the old recipe of warfare's most famous theoretician: inflict the most powerful blow at the center of gravity of your enemy. The World Trade Center, as a symbol of U.S. economic might and U.S.-led globalization, was precisely that point. The decapitation of U.S. political and military power with strikes on the Pentagon and possibly the White House or the Capitol was supposed to finish off the task. President George W. Bush correctly described the terrorist attack as an act of war. This trauma has been far worse than during the 1950s when Sputnik revealed the vulnerability of U.S. territory. Although that threat was much more serious, putting the entire United States within a fraction of an hour's journey of Soviet nuclear missiles, it remained unreal because it was theoretical. Today's threat is no longer "potential": lower Manhattan lies in ruins. The terrorists correctly calculated the psychological effect.
- The United States wants life at any...