In the Republican lineup of presidential offenders on stage in California last night, Sen. John McCain stood out for his blood-curdling assessment of the stakes in Baghdad. "We must win in Iraq," he said. "If we withdraw, there will be chaos, there will be genocide and they will follow us home."
But there are a couple of big problems with McCain's spiel about the fix we're in. The first is semantic. He was speaking in the future tense; he should have been speaking in the present: there is chaos, there is genocide and they are following us home already.
The second is conceptual. Neither McCain nor any other candidate from either party seems to have learned basic lessons about terrorism and organized crime that have been staring us in the face since the end of the cold war. Indeed, there were times when several of the candidates on stage at the Reagan Library seemed nostalgic for the days of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the now-defunct Evil Empire.
Fortunately, a little book recently published by the influential criminologists Alain Bauer and Xavier Raufer tries to bring public discussion (if not presidential debates) back in line with global realities. The title is straightforward, "World Chaos," and while the prescriptions it offers are neither detailed nor entirely convincing, its basic point is that we've got to get the diagnosis right before we can figure out the most effective treatments—and that hasn't been done.
A core failing of many policymakers, in fact, is their longing for the clear-cut confrontations of the past. For centuries, whether cold or hot, "world" or regional, the basic notion of what constituted war, as such, was not in question. States waged wars. Uniformed armies waged wars. Even in civil conflicts the combatants held on to those legitimizing principles: thus "The War Between the States" in the 1860s, and the uniforms worn by guerrillas, however ragtag they might be, in the Central America of the 1980s.
But the conflicts that exist today no longer fit those paradigms. "Previously clear distinctions—between attack and defense, the state and civil society, the public and private sectors, civilians and the military, war and peace, police and the army, legality and illegality—are being blurred," write Bauer and Raufer. "New forms of confrontation have emerged in which the determining factor is no longer nation or ideology but race, tribe, greed or religious fanaticism."
One might say these cliques of combatants think local, but act global. The ease of international travel, commerce and mass communications allows "chaotic wars" to spread and the groups fighting them to evolve more like metastasizing cancers than hierarchical organizations. "The adversary is increasingly a sort of hybrid, part common criminal and part political," say the authors. "A warlord, a tribal leader or a fanatical fundamentalist might head a militia or terrorist network funded by extortion rackets and trafficking in human beings, arms, drugs, protected species and toxic waste." As such, "for the foreseeable future, warfare, the ultimate form of conflict, will have a criminal dimension."
Last night, the presidential candidates at the Reagan Library one-upped each other with rhetoric about catching Osama bin Laden. "We will do whatever is necessary," McCain proclaimed. "We will track him down. We will capture him. We will bring him to justice, and I will follow him to the gates of hell."
But as Bauer and Raufer point out, if Al Qaeda were the kind of organization where individuals in a clear chain of command were key to operations, it would have been out of action long ago. The Bush administration loves to describe it as a flow chart "with a No. 2 and a No.3," as we saw just this past week with stories that one or another of the “commanders” in Iraq had been killed, or not, or might be missing. Globally, "the United States has alleged that 'two-thirds of the command structure has been eliminated'," write the authors of "World Chaos," "implying some sort of stable or permanent membership," as if Al Qaeda were an Islamic equivalent of the Irish Republican Army, which it certainly is not. The huge emphasis placed by American politicians and bureaucrats on quantitative descriptions of the threat to world order is misleading, they say.
The authors ask us to imagine other organizations with a global presence, like the multinational corporation General Motors, for instance, or the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency: "What would be left of these two giants if, at a world level, 5,000 to 6,000 of their international executives and staff were thrown in prison, had their offices closed down, their records pillaged, their working tools, bank accounts and financial resources confiscated? Nothing." But the conglomeration of criminals, terrorists, thugs and ideologues known as Al Qaeda, unfortunately, is still going strong.
So, what do Bauer and Raufer suggest as a remedy? In this respect they sound like counterinsurgency strategists everywhere: know the way the enemy thinks, be realistic about the way it actually operates (free of your own ideological and political cant), and move quickly, proactively (and, by inference, ruthlessly) against such groups before their crime and violence have a chance to metastasize.
I think we can infer a little more. If world chaos is best viewed as a pathology (a "biology," as Bauer and Raufer put it), and the diagnosis that there's a hybrid DNA made of crime, politics, tribalism and terror is correct, then one thing you need to do is strengthen national governments, whatever their shortcomings. Failed states are to world chaos what open sewers are to cholera.
As the authors point out, sprawling urban agglomerations of the poor in crumbling states, but also in otherwise strong ones, can be breeding grounds for the disease. Consider not only the pressure cooker of Gaza, or Baghdad's Sadr City, but Zarqa in Jordan or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. These areas have to be pacified with a combination of social projects and effective policing.
Perhaps most importantly, instead of asking cops, Feds and counterterrorist organizations to communicate—which the authors suggest means, in many cases, trading outdated watch lists while building up spreadsheets of irrelevant statistics—they have to learn that they are fighting the same fight against forces of chaos that are often all too willing to cooperate in ways government bureaucracies never do.
So, where can you get this book? For the moment, only in France. It's published by the Institute de Criminologie de Paris, at the Université Pantheon-Assas, where Raufer teaches. The very fact of its origins may make it suspect in many American minds. But it's worth remembering that the French were years ahead of the United States in tracking and prosecuting Islamist cells that Washington eventually would call Al Qaeda. They warned of the danger of hijack-suicides on airlines and they provided critical intelligence on some of bin Laden's key acolytes in North America before September 11, 2001. If only more politicians had been listening.
Of course, the French also warned in 2003 against invading Iraq. Instead, the Bush administration went ahead and created a failed state that will breed global chaos for generations to come. Should we listen to them? I think so. Better late than never.