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In this paper I will evaluate the US’ so-called “War on Terror,” its world view since the

beginning of this war through the present, and critique along the way its action or

inaction in various regards. I first establish the principle model of decision-making and

then begin to evaluate the past two years in this context. More specifically than the war

on terror, I look at the US’ interplay with Al Qaeda.

In general when trying to understand the motivation behind a decision of some logical

entity, you can try to model their perception of the world such that any single decision

can be motivated by the appropriate model. On a larger scale this looks like a single

black box into which all decisions are sent into, and serially every decision is sent back

out, so there’s this stream of decisions (for example, “Should we invade Iraq?”) that are

processed one at a time.

It quickly becomes more complicated than this, however, since, for example, a decision

to invade Iraq then prompts a new question, such as “Should we seek international

support?” We also make other assumptions about this decision agent, for example we

assume that its decisions are consistent over small periods of time (such as the

assumption that the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act is consistent with other US

domestic actions at that time).

Nevertheless there is still a world model which we can say motivates all decisions. In

trying to discover the world model for some unknown agent our only choice is to look at

the decisions it has made.


In the past two years the United States’ world model has undergone some changes. Even

before the 2001 attacks there was some amount of attention to WMDs, religious

movements, and rogue nations, but since that event the attention to these things has

increased many times over; there was a sudden change in the US’ world model. Was it

the world that changed suddenly, or just the US’ perception of it? The answer is probably

both. Not only did the US realize that it was not taking these things seriously enough

(otherwise the attacks should not have happened), but the attacks also caused major shifts

in the world brought about by shifts in other peoples’ world-views. Al Qaeda’s attacks

certainly motivated and inspired several future aggressors.

What was the old world? What was our old world model?

What is the new world? What is our new world model?

As mentioned, even outside of the US foreign-policy machinery, the world changed on

September 11th. Although the death of five thousand people was a nice thing for Al

Qaeda to achieve, most of the damage done by the attacks were not on the foundations of

the World Trade Centers, but on the foundations of American public confidence. Just

after the attacks the big looming question was: who would do something like this? The
US air transportation system was temporarily shut down, memorial videos were aired on

TV, and consumer confidence plummeted. Washington acted quickly to try to re-assure

the American public of their security, but no answers were known. It wasn’t long before

the finger was then pointed at religious extremist, perhaps the meanest person on the line-

up you could point the finger at. If it had been a cult movement from California, public

(both domestically and overseas) sentiment would not have been nearly as impacted as it

was. Freak tragedies are tolerable; periodic tragedies are not. The US citizenry became

upset at Al Qaeda and everything they could liken to it, such as Islamic or even Middle

Easterners. Al Jazeera aired public announcements from Bin Ladin asking for support in

the war on the US and other “Zionist” entities. There was a polarization between these

two communities, and everyone in the middle was pushed and pulled by competing views

(Al Jazeera: the Jews hit the World Trade Center).

US foreign policy reflected the sentiment of the American public and began to look for

ways to weaken its enemies. There were a few central resources which Al Qaeda and the

Taliban needed for survival:

• Zealous members

• Time

There were also a few which aren’t absolutely necessary, but help, such as:

• Lots of money
• Expertise (bomb-making, etc.)

• A base of operations

• Wide-scale public support

Al Qaeda had lots of members. It recruited people from all around and trained them in

large camps which, necessarily, attracted attention from other poteintial recruits and

turned new recruits into zealots by means of group psychology and generally speaking,

brain-washing techniques. The US’ best options for undermining the member base of

these operations is not to try to convert current members, since that would prove to be

very difficult. Instead the optimal strategy would significantly reduce the number of

incoming members, perhaps by eliminating their camps or decreasing their attractiveness

through weakening their public image. (Both are discussed below.)

These people also took, and continue to take, their time. They haven’t executed as many

successful operations per unit of time as other extremist groups the US had previously

seen, but they had, and continue to, survived longer. Ironically the reason they have

survived longer might largely be because of their patient nature. The only thing the US

can do to reduce the amount of time they have to make an impact is to pursue other

avenues of “attack” in a timely manner. The observation here is that with every thing Al

Qaeda does against the US it gains power. So ideally the US would starve this

organization of power to the point at which it is too weak to do anything against the US.
Osama Bin Ladin also has a large amount of money. In the 1990s the US froze some of

his money in international accounts, which demonstrates that the US has had this world

model and these things in mind for some time. However Bin Ladin’s persistent bank

account combined with the cheap nature of being involved in the terror business make

this a hard pressure point to press. To put things in perspective, the US has spent over a

billion dollars on a biological weapon vaccination program, while the airplane shoe-

bomber probably spent more on his plane ticket than he did his weapon. Fortunately, for

now, obtaining WMDs is relatively expensive for terrorist organizations, but this may

soon change.

Since the domestic anthrax scare the scientific and government communities have been

asking themselves very important questions about expertise and knowledge, more

specifically the dissemination of such knowledge, as it pertains to the domain of weapons

of terror. There are generally two means by which we can imagine terrorist organizations

obtaining these weapons: direct purchase or in-house development. The two classes of

WMDs at the forefront of our minds are nuclear and biological weapons. With these

observations in mind we now evaluate the availability of these things and/or the

availability of the knowledge to create these things.

The easier of the two, when discussing non-state terrorist organizations, is nuclear

weapons; these devices are complicated and require a significant amount of expertise and

hard-to-acquire equipment to build. Could terrorists buy or steal nuclear weapons?


Perhaps the biggest case to highlight here is that of Russia, since it is known that after the

fall of the USSR nuclear stockpiles have remained very vulnerable to looting relative to

American facility standards. The effects of a nuclear terrorist power could be

catastrophic; if a few planes in the wrong hands could cause such a hiccup in the world

order, how would the public react to a nuclear explosion leveling a downtown

metropolitan area? The US has not made a significant effort to control nuclear weapons,

probably because it considers them to be out of the reach of terrorists. The rational is that

biological weapons are easier to develop or obtain and thus is the prime candidate for use

by a terrorist. The major flaw in this world model is that it assumes that terrorists are

“greedy,” i.e. that they will pursue the most payoff as soon as possible. As pointed out

earlier, however, Al Qaeda has demonstrated a never seen before patience, and might

have the foresight to endure the longer wait needed to obtain a nuclear warhead and thus

reap the orders of magnitude larger panic in the American public that would result from a

nuclear explosion.

In the case of biological weapons, we have seen some government concern over the

release of knowledge which might make it easier for dangerous biological weapons to be

developed. There seems to be two fronts that one can try to abate this problem: stop

dissemination of the relevant information and agents, and also make an effort to develop

and evolve antidotes to potential agents. Many people have talked about a forum through

which biological researchers must register the potentially dangerous or dual-use items

that they have and are using. Most, if not all, large journals have opted to self-regulate

which papers they will publish, probably mostly in fear of forced regulation that might be
harsher. Biological weapons have a large potential for use by a terrorist organization

because of its cheap and self-perpetuating nature. Consequently it has received

proportional attention from the US government, or more specifically the newly-created

Homeland Security Agency. It seems that the US is doing a fairly good job of taking both

possible approaches (limiting spread and developing vaccines).

It should be understood, however, that knowledge about or acquiring nuclear and

biological weapons is not the only thing that the US wants to limit. Chemical weapons

are also classified as WMDs, and have been shown to be very lethal. Even outside the

WMD domain, learning how to fly a plane (even, or perhaps especially, if not how to

land one) or other seemingly harmless knowledge could be used by a creative thinker to

inflict significant damage. This suggests that a more broad strategy is appropriate, that

hunting all of these field mice all day isn’t the correct answer. Instead, public awareness

about these security threats needs to increase, especially within the scientific community.

There has not been a significant effort by the US government to pursue these strategies up

to this point, but the press has done a good job of alarming (perhaps over-alarming)

citizens to this threat. Unfortunately people often behave like children, in that they will

forget something unless if you remind them periodically. Hopefully the government can

keep this at the forefront of their minds before a terrorist can successfully remind them.

Just after the US government got a pretty good idea of the perpetrators of the September

11th attacks, its almost-immediate knee-jerk reaction (in the foreign policy dimension)

was not to go after Al Qaeda’s recruitment pool, middle-eastern public relations, money,
or its scientists. It was, instead, to pursue the goal of ousting the Taliban from

Afghanistan.

This was the country where Al Qaeda recruited and trained a large portion of its

members, and from which it pulled most of its resources. The operation in Afghanistan

was not very long-lived but had a significant impact, the desired impact, on Al Qaeda and

the Taliban. Although the country is still in political flux, it is under occupation by US

forces and thus cannot be used as the recruiting and training ground that it had been in the

past. There is an overwhelming consensus that the US and international community as a

whole did a good thing here. It made a positive impact in human rights in the region,

usurped a lot of power from Al Qaeda, and gave the US government a lot of credibility in

the eyes of its constituents. Looking back, however, we can deduce some information

about the US policy makers’ world model when they made the decision to mobilize

against the Taliban regime. The most significant observation is that they were motivated

and willing to make fiscal, military, and political commitments as a response to the

September 11th attacks. Secondly, it shows that they realize that just as the terrorists can

manipulate psychological conceptions by making attacks, the US could (and did) change

the mindset of terrorists, even outside of Al Qaeda. Effectively the move against the

Taliban sent the message to terrorists around the world that the US was now motivated

enough to dedicate very significant resources to killing them and their organizations.

Unfortunately it does not seem that the invasion of Iraq has had the same positive

outcomes. However before evaluating the outcomes, we should take a look at the
motivations involved in the decision to invade Iraq. The primary argument against going

to war with Iraq was the massive amounts of resources it would require. Secondly an all-

out invasion of Iraq would send shockwaves through the international community, saying

that the US would act without international consensus and that it would strike

preemptively. So whatever considerations for going to war must have outweighed these

unavoidable costs and circumstances. The first of these considerations was probably that,

since the Gulf War, Iraq had always been a problem country to the US. More recently,

and perhaps more relevant, the US suspected that Iraq was developing stockpiles of

WMDs. This was perhaps one of the largest motivations for going to war against Iraq,

and there are a few things we can deduce from it. First, US policy-makers considered

Saddam to be irrational and didn’t know if or who he might have used them on. There

was even a concern during the invasion that Saddam would unleash massive amounts of

these weapons against US forces and perhaps his own people. Furthermore, there was a

fear that Iraq would export these weapons and/or the technology needed to develop them.

Iraq would have most likely exported them to anti-western groups, probably ones that we

would consider to be terrorists.

Perhaps the facet of Al Qaeda that can be significantly attacked but which hasn’t until

recently is its public support. The Israeli and Palestinian conflict has been the largest

issue that Al Qaeda has used to motivate new people to join its ranks, and the US did not

put much effort into convincing middle easterners that it was unbiased up until recently.

Even then, it’s not being very persuasive. The lack of US initiative to oversee the

executing of its roadmap to peace highlights this issue, not only to scholars but to Arabs
as well. Why is the US not putting significant amounts of effort into this right now?

There are a few possible explanations.

One is that the US state department has its hands full at the moment with the busy bee

that the world arena has become. Developing Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as

coordinating with North Korea over their nuclear weapons program is enough to keep

any number of people busy. These are certainly not issues which can be ignored as easily

as the Arab-Israeli crisis can. We already have a commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq as

the principle invaders, and as history has taught us, nation-building is far from trivial.

The North Korea crisis has more immediate (or at least a more overt) threat to US

interests. American dislike of new nuclear powers, its desire to protect and preserve

South Korea, and its desire to convince surrounding countries (for example, Japan) that

developing its own nuclear weapons, make this a trip-wire situation.

Secondly, the US foreign policy decision-makers might not realize the importance of this

issue. (Stated in an unbiased way, they might not think that this is an important issue.) In

this case because one side of the crisis does not have any significant technology or

standing force, it is really just an insurgency and counter-insurgency. This kind of a

battle does not pose any immediate threat to US security, but the important observation

here is that it does significantly threaten US image, which is definitely important. I’m

sure this is in the world model of US foreign policy, but the question quickly becomes

how significant is this? If the US could oversea peace in the Middle East would that be

worth neglecting the North Korea situation for the next six months? It’s a tough call to
make, and the conclusion the US has come to is indicative of the weights of importance it

assigns each of these situations. A possible argument against this is the following. The

US is a powerful nation; it could hire a lot more state department interns and cover all

four corners of the globe. This argument is perhaps premature, however, since it takes a

lot more than man-hours to solve the difficult issues at hand. The US is between a rock

and a tough spot on making this call, but I think it is making the correct one.

Finally, domestic politics might play a role. Since Clinton and previous world leaders

have tried, and failed, to create peace, a quick look at the situation says that the current

administration would also fail in the long run. However, a detailed study would reveal

that the two sides have converged to a state in which they are both willing to make

compromises in the name of long-lasting peace. This atmosphere is a break-through, and

might not last forever. We cannot reliably tell, however, whether or not the

administration’s public opinion numbers are coming into play at this point.

Aside from the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the US has not done a very good job of

convincing middle easterners that it’s doing a good job in Iraq. The US gave Saddam

Hussein twenty-four hours of notice before invading, and its military planners little more

than the enemy. As early as the wide-spread looting of international historical treasures

from Baghdad museums there has been significant criticizing of US preparation in and

dedication to the situation in Iraq. Since then, the steady stream of insurgencies and

attacks on the US military and temporary government officials has weakened the

international community’s perception of US capabilities. Perhaps even worse the US


invaded Iraq unilaterally, or with little support. The US is making some progress,

however. A recent allocation of billions of dollars to reconstruction in Iraq has

demonstrated our dedication to the region and our overall commitment to turning the

country around. This is now a war in public opinion, and the US is making significant

moves to fight it.

Adding insult to injury, many governments in the cradle of civilization consider the US’

attacks on Iraq to be indicative of a more pervasive threat to Middle Eastern sovereignty.

This has been exacerbated by US accusations that Iran has a nuclear bomb development

program. These events are similar to the first domino that fell and led up to the US’

invasion of Iraq. In this arena the US has tried to remain friendly to some Islamic

nations, like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Furthermore, from our world model I can

deduce that the US wants to stay away from getting too involved in other conflicts which

might occupy its resources and/or hurt its image in the minds of Middle Easterners.

Therefore I expect that the US will not become too involved in these proceedings, but

will probably be a leader in the UN’s (and generally the international community’s)

efforts in this arena. This would allow the US to continue to pressure nations to not build

nuclear weapons or have WMD programs, while decreasing tension specifically directed

towards the US as a result of the pressure.


Thus far we have discussed Al Qaeda and the play between it and US that has led up to

our present situation. An important point here is that the US is learning every day, but its

world model may “lag” behind the actual world model since that learning process is not

instantaneous. So if the world doesn’t change we expect the US to converge onto a

correct world model, but if the world does change then we can probably expect to always

be lagging behind. The existence of multiple terrorist organizations is good evidence that

infers that the world is indeed chaotic. In the next five years a new terrorist organization

could appear that does not have the monetary resources of Al Qaeda but has members

with large amounts of expertise in WMDs, and we hope that US foreign policy-makers

will be able to adapt quickly.