Who goes there?
Fred Ikle has a serious resume. He was a Commissioner on the National Commission on Terrorism, which produced the Report of the National Commission on Terrorism in June 2000 for US President Bill Clinton and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy under Reagan. His recent book, entitled Annihilation from Within and published by Columbia University Press presents an interesting thesis. He seems to argue that the forces of globalization and the rise of powerful technologies widely available to private parties have destroyed — or at least undermined — the predominance of the State. This makes it feasible for the enemies of any society to assault it from within. Here are some passages from the excerpts provided by Columbia Press:
First of all, he dismisses the current crop of Islamists as being too driven by religious visions to present a serious global threat. But they are the harbinger of the real threat.
The fact is that contemporary Islamic terrorism does not have a strategy for victory. It is swayed by impulses animated by a fervidness for revenge and religious utopias. It is as if these jihadist terrorists—enraged by their impotence—seek gratification from bloodshed and self-immolation. While these murderous assaults hurt us, they also spur us to increase our military power and to strengthen the defense of our homeland. What does not kill us makes us stronger.
What he fears is the next strategic genius; the next Hitler; the next Lenin allied to the opportunities of the 21st century. Many readers of this site will notice that we have touched — touched — on these themes only briefly because they seemed too outlandish to consider. But here's Ikle, a former undersecretary of defense, giving the theme his best shot.
The greatest threat to the world order in this century will be the next Hitler or Lenin, a charismatic leader who combines utter ruthlessness with a brilliant strategic sense, cunning, and boundless ambition—and who gains control over just a few weapons of mass destruction.
This new threat, still offstage, now awaits us. Any such evil but charismatic leader will be able to attack a major nation from within even if that nation possesses enormous military strength and capable police forces. If this new tyrant turns out to be strategically intelligent, he could prepare to launch a couple of mass destruction weapons against carefully chosen targets—without training camps in another nation, without help from a foreign terrorist organization, without a military campaign across the nation's borders. He would thus offer no targets for retaliation and render useless a nation's most powerful deterrent forces. By contrast, an expanding caliphate—the utopia that jihadists dream about—would offer the leading democracies plenty of easy targets for retaliation.
The purpose of this new tyrant would not be to destroy landmark buildings, highjack airplanes, attack railroad stations and religious shrines. His aim would be to paralyze the national leadership and spread nationwide panic, to ensure that the center could not hold. He would be well prepared to exploit this chaos by seizing complete control of the nation's government and imposing his dictatorship. Success in any such endeavor would be a shattering event, signifying to democracies everywhere that their world, their basic institutions, their national security strategies, their citizens' everyday lives—that all this was now up for grabs. Living comfortably on borrowed time, most democratic societies lack the will and foresight needed to defend against any such calamity.
It will begin, he thinks, in a country we may not really care about. But it will not stop there.
Non-democratic governments will also be vulnerable—indeed, more vulnerable—to annihilation from within. In those Central Asian republics, for example, where authoritarian rulers confront large Muslim populations who want a fundamentalist Islamic state, the detonation of a single nuclear bomb in the capital would create a political vacuum. This could enable a religious leader (perhaps a cleric like Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr) to mobilize his throngs of followers and seize control of the country.
The problem, he thinks, is built into society's relationship with technology. Technology's imperative is to do what is possible and to accomplish that it will enlist or brush aside the puny belief systems or political ideologies that mankind puts in its way. All it lacks is someone ruthless enough to use technology to gain power without regard to morality. And anyway many of us are convinced that morality does not exist.
The two modes of human thought and activity that split apart some 250 years ago are destined to drift farther apart because disparate aspirations of the two modes aggravate the widening schism. Science and technology do not have a final goal. They pursue a continuing conquest of nature in which disproved theories are replaced by new knowledge. But political endeavors have finite goals. Marxism did not aspire to be followed by capitalism, Islam does not seek to be replaced by Christianity, America's propagation of democracy does not strive to be succeeded by autocratic governments.
This widening divergence in human culture might overwhelm the political order of the world in a way that endangers the survival of all nations. And, bear in mind, only sovereign nations can marshal troops and rally political support to defeat terrorist organizations, deter aggression, enforce UN decisions. When push comes to shove, only nations can keep some order in the world. Annihilation from within is not a temporary peril, but the end point and ultimate impact of this elemental historic force that has gained ever more strength over two centuries. Military history offers no lessons that tell nations how to cope with a continuing global dispersion of cataclysmic means for destruction. Because of the cultural split some 250 years ago, the threat of annihilation from within is now woven into the fabric of our era.
Let us admit it: mankind became entrapped in a Faustian bargain. In the famous medieval legend, Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the magical powers of science (or rather the imagined powers of alchemy in those days). There is much that we can do to avert the worst disaster. But as we begin to discern the trials that lie ahead, our exuberance about unending progress is tempered by a premonition that our "bargain with the devil" might end badly.
Perhaps the storm petrels arrived in New York on September 11 and we have inquisitively gone to visit their nests in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and on the Korean peninsula. And like some scene out of a horror movie, Professor Ikle grasps at our lapels and asks us, 'what did you see? What was sprouting out there?' But such a scene would be to misrepresent the ideas in his book. Only part of the threat is out there. It's complement, the other half of the key, is forging right at home, in the gleaming laboratories of the West. Are we, as Ikle claims, "living comfortably on borrowed time", lacking "the will and foresight needed to defend against any such calamity"?
A number of books including the Shield of Achilles or the Pentagon's New Map have advanced the proposition that we are going through an major historical transition and that we live in a fundamentally different world from that of the Cold War. Yet our mental models are lagged; perhaps the more educated we are, the more lagged we tend to be. Part of the problem facing strategists in the War on Terror, and perhaps even commanders in Iraq, is that a new kind of enemy is taking shape before our eyes. In such a situation survival depends critically on our ability to evolve at a rate equal to or faster than the threats. The terrible rigidity of certain aspects of our strategy, made inevitable by the partisan political necessity never to admit an error or to be reflexively "anything but" what your political rival is, is hurting us far more than any policy itself. It is the laggard response to changing directions, not any particular direction we might happen to steer, which is most damaging.
I don't know whether Ikle's thesis is correct in its particulars, but his intuition that something is out there in the dark, forming, menacing and waiting to strike seems to have a grain of truth. Let's turn on the lights and see.