Missing Links

Devour and Conquer

How the White House got its termite problem.

While the world was consumed with the election of its most powerful leader, the termites that gnaw at his power went on gnawing. As the U.S. presidential campaign was raging, for example, the strongest army humanity has ever known — and an important source of U.S. presidential power — had to watch an elderly ayatollah negotiate on its behalf for control of the Iraqi city of Najaf with a previously unknown Islamic cleric, Moktada al-Sadr.

An important protagonist of the American presidential campaign (one who surely was more influential than Ralph Nader in shaping its substance) was Osama bin Laden, another termite. As the United States prepared to strike against Saddam Hussein to preempt him from using weapons of mass destruction or making them available to terrorists in early 2003, a far lesser-known man was busily running a for-profit global network that sold nuclear bomb-making technology to anyone willing to meet his price. We now know that Libya, North Korea, and Iran were once eager customers of Pakistani engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan. We also know that Khan’s lucrative activities posed a far greater danger to the world’s security than did Hussein’s Iraq.

Nuclear termites are not the only ones gnawing. The wishes of the 8,000 Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip are nearly as crucial to any future peace plan in the Middle East as those of the U.S. president. The same applies to the opium-trading warlords that shape contemporary Afghanistan. The White House may be very important in that country, but so are the termites.

And so are the insurgents, terrorists, militias, jihadis, smugglers, rogue armies, transnational criminal networks, and computer hackers that seem to be sprouting everywhere, testing the superpower’s mettle. This taxonomy of termites includes some specimens that are just irritants. But it also includes others able to bring down the tallest skyscrapers. No one termite is as powerful as the man Americans elect as their president. But their size belies their influence. Collectively, they can devour a president’s agenda and touch peoples’ lives as much — or more — than he does.

Of course, these termites had long been expected. In Sovereignty at Bay, a popular 1971 book, Harvard professor Raymond Vernon argued that rapidly growing multinational corporations would render the concept of national sovereignty obsolete. In the 1990s, other authors extended this idea and argued that, in addition to corporations, other nonstate actors were gaining ground and challenging nation-states. In 1997, Jessica T. Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in Foreign Affairs, “The steady concentration of power in the hands of states that began in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia is over….” In his 1999 bestseller, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman spoke of angry men “super-empowered” by the changes wrought by globalization. Unfortunately, these prescient writings failed to prepare the chief residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the surge in violence delivered at the hands of nonstate actors.

But blame for this surprising unawareness doesn’t rest with U.S. presidents alone. In truth, experts who observed the rising influence of nonstate actors in the 1990s viewed it as a largely benign development. It was the era of civil society. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) empowered by democracy, a free press, cheaper travel, and the Internet projected influence and civilizing values worldwide. Banning land mines, fighting environmental degradation, and defending human rights were now missions that could be undertaken by ordinary citizens mobilized on a global scale. Less attention was paid to the fact that the changes in politics and technology that empowered NGOs did the same for terrorists. Admittedly, several expert commissions warned of the threat posed by internationally mobile terrorists, but their recommendations were quickly brushed aside by government officials. In the roaring, globalizing, democratizing, and economically booming 1990s, it was easier to focus on the benevolent ascendancy of a global civil society bent on spreading positive values than on the equally rapid expansion of murderous terrorist networks. The intellectual climate of the 1990s was not one that dwelled on globalization’s dark threats. The luminous possibilities of the times blindsided many experts to the dangers of a world where networks of stateless civilians acquired unprecedented capabilities for inflicting mayhem.

Such was the distraction that while the perpetrators of September 11 were taking flight lessons and buying box cutters, the U.S. defense establishment was consumed debating the merits of a multibillion-dollar, multi-year investment in a national shield against ballistic missiles that can only be lobbed by other nations. This in a country where 60 million people enter on more than 675,000 flights each year, where 116 million vehicles cross land borders, and more than 90,000 merchant ships carrying over 9 million cargo containers come to dock. Within this massive flow, termites are sure to lurk, and national missile defense is of no use.

The 9/11 Commission recently concluded that part of the problem was a “failure of imagination.” U.S. authorities simply failed to envision that terrorists would turn airliners into missiles. That such a failure took place is now clear to everyone. What is far less clear, however, is the failure to imagine more effective ways to deal with the termites that are chipping away at the foundations of the Western world. No problem has ever been solved before it was acknowledged. Recognizing that the White House has a termite problem would go a long way in sparking the search for solutions.

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