Victor Davis Hanson

Do we still need to fight a war on terror?

The answer seems to be no for an increasing number in the West who are weary over Afghanistan and Iraq or complacent from the absence of a major attack on the scale of 9/11.

The British Foreign Office has scrapped the phrase "war on terror" as inexact, inflammatory and counterproductive. U.S. Central Command has just dropped the term "long war" to describe the fight against radical Islam.

An influential book making the rounds - "Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them" - argues that the threat from al-Qaida is vastly exaggerated.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, goes further, assuring us that we are terrorized mostly by the false idea of a war on terror - not the jihadists themselves.

Even onetime neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama, who in 1998 called for the preemptive removal of Saddam Hussein, believes "war" is the "wrong metaphor" for our struggle against the terrorists.

Others point out that motley Islamic terrorists lack the resources of the Nazi Wehrmacht or the Soviet Union.

This thinking may seem understandable given the ineffectiveness of al-Qaida to kill many Americans after 9/11. Or it may also reflect hopes that if we only leave Iraq, radical Islam will wither away. But it is dead wrong for a number of reasons.

First, Islamic terrorists plotting attacks are arrested periodically in both Europe and the United States. Just last week a leaked British report detailed al-Qaida's plans for future "large-scale" operations. We shouldn't be blamed for being alarmist when our alarmism has resulted in our safety at home for the past five years.

Second, have we forgotten that Nazi Germany was never able to kill 3,000 Americans on our homeland? Did Japan ever destroy 16 acres in Manhattan or hit the nerve center of the U.S. military? Even the Soviet Union couldn't inflict billions of dollars in damage to the U.S. economy in a single day.

Third, in some ways stateless terrorists can be more dangerous than past conventional threats. Autocrats in some Middle East countries allow indirect financial and psychological support for al-Qaida terrorists without leaving footprints of their intent. They must assume that a single terrorist strike could kill thousands of Americans without our ability to strike back at their capitals. This inability to tie a state to its support for terrorism is our greatest obstacle in this war - and our enemies' greatest advantage.

Fourth, jihadists have already scored successes in all sorts of ways beyond altering the very nature of air travel. Cartoonists now lampoon everyone and everything - except Muslims. The pope must weigh his words carefully. Otherwise, priests and nuns are attacked abroad. A single false Newsweek story about one flushed Koran led to riot and death.

The net result is that terrified millions in Western societies silently accept that for the first time in centuries they cannot talk or write honestly about what they think of Islam and the Koran.

Fifth, everything from our 401(k) plans to municipal water plants depend on sophisticated computers and communications. And you don't need a missile to take them down. Two oceans no longer protect the United States - not when the Internet knows no boundaries, our borders are relatively wide open, and dozens of ships dock and hundreds of flights arrive daily.

A germ, some spent nuclear fuel or a vial of nerve gas could cause as much mayhem and calamity as an armored division in Hitler's army. The Soviets were considered rational enemies who accepted the bleak laws of nuclear deterrence. But the jihadists claim that they welcome death if their martyrdom results in thousands of dead Americans.

Finally, radical Islamists largely arise from the oil-rich Middle East. Since 9/11, the price of oil has skyrocketed, transferring trillions of dollars from successful Western, Indian and Chinese economies to unsuccessful Arab and Iranian autocracies.

Terrorists know that blowing up a Saudi oil field or getting control of Iraqi petroleum reserves - and they attempt both all the time - will alter the world economy. Even their mere threats give us psychological fits and their sponsors more cash.

This is a strange war. Our successes in avoiding attack convince some that the real danger has passed. And when we kill jihadists abroad, we are told it is peripheral to the war or only incites more terrorism.

But despite the current efforts at denial, the war against Islamic terrorism remains real and deadly. We can't wish it away until Middle Eastern dictatorships reform - or we end their oil stranglehold over the world economy.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.