Copping a plea

I’ve always tended to be a “reactive” thinker. Most of the time, I need an outside catalyst to trigger my ideas and insights. And it’s usually from reading those with whom I disagree that gives me the vital elements that let me pull things together.

Today, I find that both an author at Wizbang Blue and a writer for the Boston Globe have, independently, put forth a similar argument in how to fight the War On Terror — and in both cases, have helped me crystallize my thoughts on just why they’re wrong.

Both authors argue the notion that terrorism is, first and foremost, a criminal problem. Paul Hamilton cites the policework after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, while the unnamed Globe editor praises the British efforts following last summer’s subway and bus bombings.

Both make very valid points: it was policework, good old-fashioned policework, that tracked down the terrorists and prevented future attacks. But as essential as it is, it can not be the only approach used. It can not even be the main approach used — for two very important reasons.

First up, the police are trained to stop criminals. That might sound like I’m stating the obvious, but it’s such a fundamental point that it bears stressing. They are fully oriented towards stopping people whose purpose is to violate the laws for their personal gain. Terrorists are, technically, criminals, but their motivations and deeds are far beyond the scope of average law enforcement. Just to name two factors: criminals tend to be highly motivated to survive, so they can properly enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of their labors. They also dislike public attention, so they can continue their crimes. Those two factors alone don’t apply to most terrorists; the most committed not only don’t mind dying in the commission of their deeds, but actively seek it out, and want public attention for their actions.

I’ve said before, clumsily, and I’ll say it again: terrorists are not criminals, and they are not soldiers. They share elements with both groups, and therefore must be fought on both levels.

The second point is even more important. The police, and law enforcement in general, is a reactive element. In both examples cited, the terrorists got in the first blow, and only after their attacks did law enforcement get them. They stopped future attacks, but they did not stop the initial ones.

Law enforcement mechanisms simply aren’t equipped to stop many terrorist attacks. In the case of 9/11, the planning was carried out from outside the United States, beyond our jurisdiction, and nearly all of the prep work done within the United States was within the letter of the law. In fact, no major laws were broken (apart from some immigration laws that are far more often ignored than enforced) by the hijackers until they actually seized the planes — and there were no police on board to stop them.

Simply put, the police are our primary defensive force. But wars are never won by defense, but offense. And that’s the role of the military. They are the ones who will go out and find our enemies before they can strike. They are the ones who will stand between them and us, who will soak up the attacks before they can reach us, and will strike back and destroy the attackers.

That’s what they are doing in Afghanistan, in Iraq, on the high seas, and anywhere else we need them.

I had a very lengthy and thoughtful discussion with David Anderson via Instant Message last night about this. (Yes, he’s a liberal with moonbat leanings, but he’s still a good guy, and I think of him as a friend.) He asked me if I still believe we can “win” in Iraq, and how far I think we should go to do so.

I answered him honestly: I think we have to. For better or worse, Iraq has become the central battlefield. (I think it was the right choice, but it’s a moot point to argue now.) We have made our stand there.

Others cite Viet Nam as a model for Iraq, where we made our stand and stuck it out far beyond the point where any benefits to us were outstripped by the costs. That’s one comparison, but I think other, more recent examples are far more germane.

In Somalia, we went in with the best of intentions, then got involved in a fight that we had no firm resolve in winning, tried to “fight fair,” limited our efforts, and eventually let ourselves be chased out.

In Iran, we had a long-time supporter in the Shah. But when he weakened, we tossed him overboard, saying that he had been too oppressive. The theocratic dictatorship that replaced him, however, was far, far worse.

In Iraq itself, after Desert Storm, we actively encouraged Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam’s government — then, when the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north did just that, we left them high and dry and let Saddam massacre them and crush their rebellion.

Not quite so recently, but still relevant, is the Bay Of Pigs incident. There, we trained, armed, transported, and supported Cuban dissidents in their efforts to topple Fidel Castro — but at the last minute, we cut them off and left them to stand — and die — alone.

The lesson learned by these, and other incidents, is this: do not trust the United States. We will not keep our word, we will not stand by our friends, we will back down in the face of vastly inferior forces if there is enough bloodshed, enough carnage, enough mayhem.

It’s a valid argument, but a fundamentally wrong one. I believe that the United States is better than that, and our word is good and our resolve is strong. But the more examples to the contrary that we allow, the higher the price we will have to pay when we eventually have to disprove that assumption.

What is the formula to “winning” in Iraq? Hell, what is the definition of “winning?” I’ve always defined it as “the existence of a stable Iraqi government that is strong enough to stand on its own from threats both within and without, yet not pose an active threat to others.” I think that is still a viable goal, and I think that the latest “surge” strategy is the current best hope towards achieving that.

Will it ultimately work? I don’t know. There’s an old military aphorism that “no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” Military plans have the annoying challenge that they are always actively opposed by highly motivated (and, often, highly flexible and highly capable) people whose very lives depend on making those plans fail. They very well may find a way to thwart this strategy — at which point, we’ll need to find a new one. In war, the winner is usually the one who make the last adaptation.

But they are never won by the side that fights a purely defensive fight — and that’s the role of the police.

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