Saturday, January 28, 2006

War, Terrorism and Strategic Threats - I

A recent comment elsewhere on Tacitus spurred me to write this. To quote GT, "But unless they get nukes terrorists are simply not that big a deal. They are not a strategic threat like the Nazis or the USSR."

A point worthy of thought and debate, I think, and it actually ties into a few other themes we've explored here recently, not least the war in Iraq and Kierkegaard's claim that traditional war is "over".

We'll define a "strategic" threat as an existential one, in the sense that it threatens something vital to our system or our system's entire existence. This definition requires that two conditions be met:

  1. The group or system or event must dispose of enough destructive or coercive power with respect to us that it qualifies as such a threat.

  2. It must be likely, either in a stochastic sense or, in the case of human threats, in terms of their interest in causing such coercion or destruction.

The Sun going supernova does not qualify. It meets condition 1), but is highly unlikely and so doesn't meet 2). Conventional terrorism doesn't qualify. It meets condition 2), having been a commonplace for decades (centuries, if we broaden the definition enough) but doesn't meet condition 1) insofar as a handful of people with handguns and grenades, with no further force multipliers, cannot force a group of people 280 million strong to do anything, much less kill them all. The modern U.K. does not qualify, because although it disposes of enough nuclear weaponry to meet hurdle 1), it does not seem predisposed to destroy us on the basis of ideology. (Neither do the French, though I'm sure they'd like to push us around a little and get rid of Hollywood. But I digress.) In this sense, the Third Reich and the USSR qualified because they were uniquely dangerous collections of power during their eras.

The Nazis (and Imperial Japanese), while not yet capable in the 1940s of threatening the United States in an existential way, were clearly bent on arrogating to themselves enough power (either by conventional or technological means) to do so and were having a great deal of success in that direction. They thus met condition 1) in a projective rather than immediate way. As to condition 2), both states found our way of life, relative wealth and implicit threat towards their existence intolerable, and would doubtless have wiped us of the map in an instant if they could.

The USSR, after the era of the latter two had passed, grew into a strategic threat itself. It more clearly disposed of the necessary power to seriously damage, coerce or destroy us, due to its possession of nuclear and biological armaments, and so easily met condition 1). It also found our way of life and relative wealth fairly intolerable, and our existence a threat in and of itself. Perhaps due to their lack of a racialist ideology, they would, in my estimation, rather have coerced or subverted us rather than destroyed us outright, but I have no doubt that a Soviet premier disposing of a magic "destroy the Americans" button would have pushed it if coercion didn't appear to be working. So they also met condition 2). MAD, in fact, can be seen as a way of trying to neutralize a strategic threat by increasing the pain associated with 2) in a mostly-rational threat, as opposed to the traditional way of dealing with threats, which is eliminating condition 1).

I'd argue that, as we progress in to 21st century, smaller and smaller groups become capable of meeting the definition of a strategic threat. The change isn't in condition 2), as there have always been and likely always will be people that dislike our system or feel threatened enough by its existence to want to see us gone. However, the large collections of industrial power required in the 19th and 20th centuries are no longer necessary. Due to the increasing availability of power (I mean actual energy) and technology to leverage the physical and mental abilities of a single human being, ever smaller groups of humans can cause ever larger amounts of disruption and damage.

In 1942, you needed access to an industrial plant to make a really big bomb. This meant a great deal of money to pay for expensive materials, factory time, etc. It meant paying for the time of specialists in chemistry and/or ordnance, specialists that were relatively rare and consequently expensive themselves. It meant managing to put these things together without arousing the ire of the state machinery, which tended to dispose of vast resources as compared to the individual and jealously guarded it prerogatives. You also needed access to a delivery system, which in and of itself implied cash, since big trucks, boats and particularly aircraft were difficult to find just lying around. By 1995, all you needed was a cheap Ryder Truck rental, $1000 or so of commercially (and easily) available fertilizer, a small amount of equally available Tovex & Primadet, cheap and easy to obtain diesel fuel, a rudimentary but effective grasp of the technological advance known as "shaped-charge explosives", and some volunteer labor from a friend who, thanks to other advances, has ridiculous amounts of spare time available.

By 2015, who knows? If Ray Kurzweil is correct, not much. Consider what you could do with cheap energy, on-line access to the Library of Congress and one of Charlie Stross' "cornucopia machines". One fellow who, in his madness, might have early on gotten an idea of what was going on is Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber". To quote from his rambling "manifesto", "The system is currently engaged in a desperate struggle to overcome certain problems that threaten its survival, among which the problems of human behavior are the most important. If the system succeeds in acquiring sufficient control over human behavior quickly enough, it will probably survive. Otherwise it will break down. We think the issue will most likely be resolved within the next several decades, say 40 to 100 years." Of course, our Professor -Verloc-wannabe, "hedgehog" that he is, got any number of things wrong. He does, however, seem to have gotten one big thing right, that is, that modern industrial society is running into problems concerning individual autonomy. Modern society grants the individual ever-increasing power, but that individual empowerment is itself a threat both to others and to the system as a working whole. This is why, to my mind, GT's formulation above is incorrect. Terrorists are, in a way that would have been impossible 50 or 100 years ago, a "strategic" threat.

More to come....

Bernard Guerrero

Link to original Tacitus.

It's the end of the world as we know it...

..and I feel fine!

Yep, Hamas appears to have kicked Fatah's butt, capturing perhaps 57% of the seats up for grabs. And I am, frankly, happy about it. Sure, they're a bunch of terroristic murderers. But this being the ME, one can hardly hold that against them. It's practically de rigueur for a claim of leadership in the region. What I really despise about them is, of course, what they stand for.

That said, I'm still happy they're going to be in power. To be honest, I wish they'd picked up even more seats. Those that don't misunderstand, I think, both the nature of democracy and how useful it can be to both us and the Israelis when applied to a problem like the Palestinian one. Ultimately, the Palestinians have to date been insulated, in a psychological sense, from their desires. Whatever aspirations they may have (whether we care for them or not), the average Palestinian-on-the-street has been able to say, in all honesty, that he didn't have much control over what was happening. He may dislike Israel, he may want to do business with Israel, he may want to push the Jews into the sea, he may want to build coastal resorts for them, but his desires were moot. He could reason, throw political tantrums, threaten, march or beg, and the result was pre-ordained by his PLO masters, masters set in place mostly by historical accident.

This was both painful and yet psychologically comfortable for him. Painful because it meant that he had to deal with massive corruption and violence from a position of humiliating helplessness, comfortable because it meant that whatever went wrong, it could be blamed on outside forces. You can picture him saying, with a fatalistic air, "What can I do about it?"

Well, now he's in charge. For good or ill, he is an active participant in what comes next, and fatalistic posturing is no longer a viable option. "But he's elected a bunch of murderous terrorists!", you cry. "How can this end well?!" It can and will, from my perspective, because the one real virtue of democracy is that it is a workable feedback system. Note that sanctions against dictatorial regimes never seem to have any real lasting impact on their characteristics: Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, Zimbabwe, the list of failures goes on and on. Why? Because the regime doesn't care. It doesn't have to. As long as it can preserve an internal monopoly on force and keep itself from being invaded, the bandits at the top can continue to extract a pretty decent living and a nice measure of personal power from the rest. Sanctions (and most other efforts) directed at a dictatorship are like telling a guy in a car that's being towed that he has to make a right turn. You can cajole, bribe, threaten or hit, but it's basically out of his hands where the whole machine is going to go.

So we come to democracy. Democracy doesn't make people smarter, or nicer, or selfless, or anything else. As Robert Heinlein noted through the voice of Lazarus Long, "Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something. Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let's play that over again, too. Who decides?"

No, the beauty of democracy is that it produces stable outcomes because the voter, by definition, buys into the legitimacy of the outcome. You may or may not get your fondest wish when you vote, but win or lose you are much less likely to say "It's out of my hands." If you are unhappy with the ultimate outcomes, you will switch your vote. Power has thus been given to the folks who are actually affected by policies. This works whether the policies their representatives select are good or bad. If they're to the electorate's liking, the representatives will be re-elected. If they're not, they'll be booted out and, in extreme cases, wholly discredited.

So I say, more power to Hamas. They appear to embody more of what the average Palestinian on the street actually wants (both good and ill, from my perspective), and that can only redound to the good as the feedback mechanism kicks in. Maybe they'll clean up corruption. That's good. Maybe they'll refuse to make peace and step up attacks against Israel. That's bad in the very short run, but good when a feedback mechanism is in place. Because ultimately, in a physical sense, Israel holds most of the cards, so it can only be to the good when the average Palestinian is confronted with the very immediate (and very painful) results of his own freely cast vote. When the Israelis get ticked off at a Hamas-sponsored mass-murder and decide to blow the hell out of a few Hamas-voting communities, Achmed-on-the-street will be confronted with a real choice for perhaps the first time in his life. He'll either make peace or escalate until his very physical existence becomes untenable. And so the feedback mechanism will work its magic. Thesis, antithesis, catharsis, kaboom.

Link to original Tacitus posting.