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American Diplomacy
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January 2008

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Our former editor, now a contributing editor, compares the current terrorist threat facing the United States and the West to the challenges facing them during the twentieth century with its two world wars and the Cold War. He finds the dire warnings issuing from Washington to be overdrawn, and repeats Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski's concern that they may create a culture of fear and restrictions on personal liberties, which he believes unwarranted. (For a report on Dr. Brzezinski's speech, see: Global Security Challenges.) — Assoc. Pub.

Looming Threats — Then and Now
By Henry E. Mattox, Contributing Editor

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a recent talk before a large, attentive audience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, quoted President Bush: “We [the United States] are in the defining ideological struggle of the twenty-first century.” Dr. Brzezinski then raised a question as to whether anyone could have predicted from the same vantage point with any accuracy what were to be the central struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He opined that the President's statement might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating a culture of fear and a loss of personal freedoms in the United States and other Western nations — if it has not already done so. It might well represent the politics of fear.

We do not presume to speak further for Dr. Brzezinski. Nevertheless, a stultifying aura of apprehension in light of the current radical Islamic threat does strike one as not only tragic and burdensome, but also as possibly not fully warranted. The reason: The United States and the West during the twentieth century faced challenges in turn from Imperial Germany and its allies, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and their allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies. Each of those confrontations proved costly, and the first two were close-run victories. The third, too, involved the very real threat of mass destruction on an unimaginable scale, although it ended in complete collapse of the Soviet opponent without a nuclear holocaust.

Each of those prolonged twentieth century crises was successfully overcome, and each presented a far greater menace to America and its Western allies than the danger posed to the West today by Al Qaeda and its ilk. American entry into the First World War enabled the Allies to stave off German domination of Europe. In World War II, Britain's stubborn courage and Japan's strategic misjudgment in attacking Pearl Harbor (plus Germany's blunder in promptly declaring war on the United States) brought America into an eventually victorious effort against the initially powerful Axis.

The third major confrontation of the twentieth century, the Cold War, arose from the competing interests of erstwhile allies. Almost a half-century of off-and-on confrontation resulted, a nuclear face-off that was dangerous in the extreme. It lasted until the internal collapse and dissolution of the principal opponent of the West, the Soviet Union, occurred toward the century's end.

Few if any of these twentieth century wars and rumors of wars could have very credibly been predicted in, say, 1908, a century ago. It would have taken a truly prescient seer to foresee fully the rise in the industrial powers' technology. The resultant greater lethality of weaponry led to the slaughter in the trenches on the Western Front in 1914-18. Some 11 percent of France's entire pre-war population was killed or wounded during the war. Eight percent of Great Britain's population died or suffered wounds, as did nine percent of Germany's population. America, a late entrant into the conflict, nonetheless had 100,000 men killed or wounded in just the Argonne region of France. (See http://www.richthofen.com/ww1sum/ .)

Nor likely could the Second World War have been predicted in 1908 by anyone, prescient world political leader or not. That reprise of the First World War proved to be a very much more destructive and widespread mass killing of civilians and military alike — this due importantly to even more lethal weapons of war and munitions, including the introduction of the atomic bomb. World War II was the deadliest clash of nations of all time; tens of millions died. Who would have envisioned it some three decades or more earlier? And who could have foreseen the following decades-long period of stand-off between the West and the Soviet-dominated world characterized by the pervasive specter of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)? One recalls that the two principal powers came dangerously close to letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

So consider and compare these still-early years of the twenty-first century with our experience in the previous hundred years. The United States now faces alarms and excursions and warnings about the threat of radical Islam. Cautionary notices from the administration in Washington foretelling dire consequences that might follow from a failure, for example, to permit untrammeled wiretapping of U.S. citizens and the use of torture as an interrogation procedure. The nation continues a seemingly endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Truly extraordinary federal budgetary requirements associated with the “war on terror” continue and increase year by year, to the point that the national debt has grown to the astonishing total of well over $9 trillion. Not billion — trillion.

All of this comes about despite the relative weakness in nearly all respects of the countries that harbor fanatical elements opposed to the United States and the comparative feebleness of the terrorist organizations themselves. Those foes are not the martial juggernauts of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. They are probably well financed, but essentially small terrorist groups. Al Qaeda's lethal success of 9/11, largely due to lapses in security arrangements and the unexpected total structural collapse of the Twin Towers, without doubt was surprising in its extent to its planners. Other Islamic extremist successes since, all considerably more limited in scope, have included the attack on an American warship in Yemen in 2000 and bombings of transportation systems in Madrid (2004) and London (2005).

To be sure, one significant element has been introduced into the equation: the frequent use of suicide tactics in pursuing radical Islamist goals. Looking back, even the Bosnian assassin who set off World War I by killing the Austro-Hungarian crown prince in 1914 failed in a subsequent ineffectual attempt at suicide and died in prison of TB. One of the few instances of organized self-sacrifice in the twentieth century was the marshalling of several thousand Japanese kamikaze pilots for attacks on U. S. warships late in the Second World War. It was not until the early 1980s that the term “suicide bomber” came into widespread use. The tactic obviously has since come to be used importantly against the West.

Summing up: Care and caution need to be exercised by the United States and other Western powers against the suicide tactics of Muslim extremists. Their attacks can be deadly, although to date mostly on a limited scale. But even with the Twin Towers as a warning of the possibility of greater harm being inflicted, radical Islam simply does not possess more than a small fraction of the potential for harm to the United States that this nation's opponents posed in the two world wars and most particularly in the prolonged nuclear confrontation of the Cold War. The tactics of fear being used in Washington these days thus are not warranted. The threat is real, but limited in power, certainly when contrasted with earlier international dangers this country weathered. Due diligence will suffice.


Henry Mattox, the journal's contributing editor, was a Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1980, serving in France, Portugal, Brazil, Nepal, Haiti, England, and Egypt, in addition to a couple of Washington assignments. After retiring from the Service to North Carolina, he entered academe, studying, writing, and teaching part time, a course of action that led to a Ph.D. in U.S. diplomatic history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1986. He was editor of American Diplomacy from its founding in 1996 until July, 2007.

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