More Mumbais?

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

The synchronized attacks in Mumbai, by their targeting and timing, designed both to do the maximum amount of damage and to be iconic in nature, frame the recent assassination of a Karzai brother, the shake-up in American command, announced pullbacks, quite understandable curtailing of US aid to Pakistan, and a general impression by Islamists (assuming they indeed turn out to be the culprits) that a weary and insolvent US is retreating into multilateral irrelevance, resulting in not much deterrence left against radical Islam in that part of the world.

One underappreciated fact of our engagement with Pakistan, well aside from its ambiguous role in Afghanistan, was our awkward obligation to restrain India in the face of occasional Pakistan-based terrorism. If the Mumbai attacks prove (as much as anything is ‘proved’ in the wars against terrorism) to have originated from Pakistan, it is likely that a disengaging US will not be so willing or able to restrain India, which would usher in a new cycle of response/counter-response. India, as a great power, will not long allow Mumbai to become a terrorist training ground.

As for the chance of a Mumbai-like bombing here, the prognosis seems ambiguous. On the one hand, Obama has adopted most of the Bush anti-terrorism protocols that he once demonized (Guantanamo, tribunals, preventive detention, renditions, wiretaps, intercepts, a fivefold increase in the drone targeted assassination program, etc.). But to make such a 180-degree turn palatable to his base, Obama et al. have also simultaneously had to boast about trying KSM in a civilian court, showboat about Miranda rights accorded to terrorist suspects, pontificate about the proposed Ground Zero mosque, hector about profiling, etc. — all of which has resulted in weird reactions to everything from the attempted Christmas-day airline bombing to the Fort Hood mass murderer. It is almost as if superficial rhetoric is undoing the perception of deterrence that was so assiduously followed in the first years of the Obama administration.

And we must factor in the fact that US popularity is at an all-time low in the Middle East, lower than during the Bush era, most probably because Obama, with his ‘I’m not Bush’ PR campaign in 2009–10, raised hopes in the Arab world that (in Obama’s words, not mine) Barack Hussein Obama, with Muslims in his family’s past, would be unusually sympathetic to Islamic concerns. When the new president proceeded to continue as before in Iraq and Afghanistan and start a third war in Libya, he sorely dashed those lofty expectations in many minds. Unrealistic hopes, encouraged and then realistically curbed, can prove dangerous.

So we are unsure whether terrorists contemplating bringing back mass murder to the US are still deterred by the Bush/Obama 2.0 protocols that have made it far harder to repeat a 9/11. Perhaps they are, or perhaps they have convinced themselves of the much more widely reported Holder-Obama fantasies about terrorist-suspect rights, and therefore think we are not quite as vigilant as in the past.

The point is that bad actors, whether contemplating conventional wars or unconventional attacks, are often emboldened by even superficial outward signs of appeasement (from Dean Acheson’s slip that Korea was not in the US sphere of defense to April Glaspie’s supposedly casual reference to unconcern with Mesopotamian border disputes, to a few British references to the Malvinas and the withdrawal of an otherwise insignificant ship from the Falklands) — even if the potential target is militarily prepared and quite able to reply in deadly fashion. If I were the administration, I would send out a memo to cut the ‘worry over the rights of the terrorist’ talk, and quietly send messages that the US is fully prepared, as in the past, to take all full measures to prevent an attack, and would respond with overwhelming force to even a small assault.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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