The Magazine

The Millennium War

From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: A report from the Mesopotamian front.

Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By AUSTIN BAY
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In street slang, Tahir/Mohammad Bogy, the killer, was strutting his stuff until Iraqi police backed by Green Berets jammed an assault rifle into his nose. Thug arrogance is all too common a feature of the world's hard corners, where the criminals have dominated for so long they are certain their iron wills and unmitigated violence will continue to cow all opponents. It's why the only way to beat the arrogant is to beat them and punch a rifle barrel into the cold amazement of their eyes. I state it crudely with good purpose, for this is a rubber-meets-the-road example of what scholarly strategists mean when they describe war as a clash of wills.

Until mid-April 2003, Mohammad Bogy's bosses, Saddam Hussein and his cadre of yes-men, believed they would once again survive an American-led attack, and personal survival (with a few billion in Swiss and Singaporean banks) is arguably the only End State that matters to a tyrant like Saddam. Dictators may work nationalist, tribalist, religious, or ideological angles, but the big goal is unbridled personal power and glory. Check the bricks in Babylon to confirm megalomania. Nebuchadnezzar placed bricks throughout the city proclaiming his glorious victory over the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem. Saddam, like an anti-Disney, erected tasteless replicas of Babylon's walls, complete with facsimile copies of Nebuchadnezzar's brick boasts--the Saddam bricks substituting his name for Nebuchadnezzar's. It's more evidence of Saddam's most-desired strategic End State: to be history's supreme Mesopotamian potentate, the Great Leader who not only slew Jews to the west and Persians to the east, but once again made Baghdad the epicenter of the world.

A RELIGIOUS END STATE guides al Qaeda: an Islamist end, or eschatology, that marks the final completion of earthly history. These religious imperialists envision an empire of the faithful, the Caliphate restored, then expanded to planetary dimensions. Call it Islamofascist globalization: al Qaeda's definition of victory.

Given the blood the two have spilled in the pursuit of these visions, only a fool will sneer at Saddam and al Qaeda. In a very real way, both the despot and the Islamist imperialist are at war with modernity. The most successful modern political systems liberate human creativity--they are more open than closed, especially to the flow of information and to economic experimentation. A freed imagination ultimately demands a say in governance--which means the end of the tyrant. Recall bin Laden complained of "80 years of Muslim indignation and suffering," the result of Turkish reformer Kemal Atatürk's 1924 decision to end the caliphate. History, going wrong for Islamist expansionists since at least the 16th century, went totally tilt when the caliphate dissolved. Twenty-first century Islamist imperialists aim for global domination, with themselves as the sole interpreters and enforcers of what they deem God's laws. An open system is anathema to theological tyranny.

This means the despot and theo-fascist are at war with the United States, the embodiment of political modernity. Saddam knew this in February 1990 when he spoke in Amman, Jordan, and vaguely alluded to America's unchecked post-Cold War power. Bin Laden knew this when he declared war on the United States in 1996.

The criminal empire and the global caliphate are enemy End States. They are not mutually compatible--at some point these enemies of ours turn on each other. But anyone with experience in the developing world knows the Islamofascists feed off the unfortunate victims of the secular despots. Particularly in the Middle East, the peoples the secular despots rob and oppress supply the Islamofascists' new recruits. That makes it both a great mistake and a dangerous case of psychological denial to talk of Exit Strategy, when there is no exit from a war with such twinned enemies.

Let's stipulate that a world where America has the same sense of security it had on September 10, 2001, is a dream state--not an End State for the global war on terror. Technology is a culprit. Technology has compressed the planet, with positive effects in communication, trade, and transportation; with horrifyingly negative effects in weaponry. Decades ago, radio, phone cables on the seabed, long-range aircraft, and then nuclear weapons shrunk the oceans. September 11 demonstrated that religious killers could turn domestic jumbo jets into strategic bombers--and the oceans were no obstacles. "Technological compression" is a fact; it cannot be reversed. To deny it or ignore it has deadly consequences.