war on terror:

 Winning the battles and losing the war


By Jesús A. Rivas

November 2001


The events of September 11, 2001 reset the world’s priorities and created a sense that we no longer have the luxury of living in this country without the fear of attack. This fear has created what some people call the "New Normal." In these lines, I will reflect on my fears since November 2001 and concerns that have been proven right.  I draw from some of my personal experiences in an effort to present my understanding of what is the direction we need to take to return to the pre 9/11 feelings of national security.


Some lessons from my past and lessons from nature

Back when I was a kid in my native Venezuela I had to deal with a school yard bully who regularly abused and mistreated smaller kids.  One day I was tired of abuses and got my self a stick, I sneaked up on the bully and whacked him on the back of the head with all my might.  I dashed to safety during the confusion and soon found my self safely celebrating my revenge against the abusive kid.  As you might imagine, the next day I went to school I had to answer for my actions when the bully saw me.  Being strong headed, as I am, as soon as I had recovered, I found got myself a thicker and heavier stick and repeated my attempt to crack either the skull or the stick and ran to safety.  We played this “game” a couple more cycles until the time that, to my surprise, my the bully did not greet me with a beating when I came back to school.  In fact, I acquired a new respect in his eyes and he never bothered me again.  Thirty years later I am still trying to figure out exactly why the bullying stopped. I never won any of our fights. However, despite losing the battles, I won the war for the peace, that was my original mission. Some of the answers that I’ve arrived at are that I was too tough for him to beat into submission, he could easily bully other kids that would not retaliate, or he got tired of looking over his shoulder fearing my next attack, not to mention how his reputation was being diminished by my retaliations. Whatever the reasons, my behavior worked for me.


When I grew up and became a biologist, I learned that it was not an isolated case. Dr. Judy Stamp from Davies University found a similar scenario studying territoriality in Anole lizards.  She found that although dominant males regularly defeat smaller males in territorial contests, smaller lizards are often able to carve out a piece of that territory for themselves by sheer tenacity. As in my case, the constant challenging from the smaller males would eventually result in the larger male tiring of always fighting the smaller male and surrendering a chunk of his territory. Just like in my own experience, the smaller lizard loses the battles but wins the war. Dr. Stamp argues that the dominant male realizes that an ongoing battle with the smaller males is not an efficient use of energy. In short, he accepts that his resources are better spent protecting the rest of his interests instead of spending precious energy on a stubborn enemy.


I feel that our situation with Muslim fundamentalism has commonality with the experience of the lizards. The smaller lizard has nothing to lose by challenging the dominant lizard since without a territory he is not going to breed or even survive.  However, the dominant lizard has everything to lose by spending his energy and resources continuously fighting the smaller lizard. Just like the big lizard, I believe that the USA has a lot at stake by continuing the fight against a small faction of Muslims that have very little to lose. As my old man used to say: "never fight with someone who is angrier than you for you have nothing to win when you face someone who has nothing to lose."



A Business desicion

The war on terror defies simple solutions for we have emotionals, as well as tactical, and economic issues intermixed.  I would like to share another personal anecdote that will illustrate a point that might orient us in the right direction.  A while back I was vacationing in a remote beach in South America and a mugger held me up, threatening me with a broken glass.  My valuables were only a $30 watch and $10 flip flops.  The robber was about 100 lbs lighter than me and about a foot shorter.  I was convinced that I could disarm him and smash him into the ground.  Yet, I gave him my watch and sandals and walked peacefully out of the encounter.  I do not need to explain to you my train of thought for I am sure that you would have done the same thing.  I had very little to loose surrendering and too much too lose if I fought him and got injured.


If we consider the former examples and reasoning there is not doubt that there is only one thing that we can do regarding the war on terror:  Immediate surrender, for we cannot win it and we would come out ahead if we surrender now.


The nature of the war

I imagine that you might be thinking of the idea of “Surrender”.  Why surrender?  We have the strongest army in the world, what do you mean surrender?”  Well, the question is not what I mean with surrender, the question is what does surrender mean?  Does surrender mean that Osama Bin Laden will sit in the White House, and we will have to learn the Koran, and let our beards grow, and women would have to cover their bodies and faces and wear the burka, and we have to embrace the Taliban?  Clearly not, for that is not what the enemy is asking for us to do.  Surrender means that we have to consider their requests and negotiate with them. 


Now you may say: “Request? They have no requests they just want to kill us, which is why we need to kill them first.”  This would be an understandable misconception due to the large amount of propaganda to which we have been subjected to, but if we look at the facts we see that they do have some requests that we have been ignoring for decades.  They want us to remove our troops from the their identified sacred grounds and to have a more fairer policy regarding the Middle East. 


I want to make sure I am not misunderstood.  I was very scared during September eleventh and I am very sorry and sympathetic for the people and the families of the people that died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and as well as the planes. Being a former firefighter myself, few people felt worse than I at the deaths of so many innocent victims in such an unfair manner.  I do not condone the killing of innocent people no matter the reason, or the country. I agree with every American that the 9/11 events were unacceptable and undeserved and that we need to do everything in our power to prevent similar occurrences. Despite these feelings I believe that instead of plowing over the Muslim world, we would be better served by analyzing the reasons for the attack and removing those reasons from our nation’s foreign policies.


After 9/11 many people were filled up with anger and desired revenge. Those feelings have led to the War on Terror that the majority of the world supported. However, we were dragged into this war without any standards of what constitutes failure or success. How are we to define what it is to win or lose this war? How do we quantify the outcomes? Even now, after 6 years we have not been presented with what it is that we want to do in practical terms. If we base our expectations on the notions of "traditional warfare", we can assume that winning battles implies that we win the war. I do not believe that is the case for the War on Terror.


What does it mean to win the war?

 Probably a good answer would be that we will win the war on terror when we recover our former life style, when we do not have to worry about a airliner dropping on our heads, or a biological attack, or when we can see our economy bounce back without seeing the defense budget sucking dry the funds that the rest of the country needs to function.  After a six years of war on terror, what progress have we made?  Are we less worried about terrorism now?  Is our economy any better? So far the answer is no. Is any of these trends on its way to improve?  The answer is, again, not encouraging.  We are just as afraid and worried about terrorism as we were after 9/11 or even more. Our economy keeps sinking deeper and deeper without any indication that it is going to get better in the foreseeable future. 

Not only we are doing just as bad than after 9/11 but our international policy has turn the public opinion against us, and the more we attack Muslims countries we convey the idea that we are against Islam.  The more this idea catches on, the more young Muslim fundamentalists are likely to turn extremist and be recruited by terrorist networks.  All the while our military budget keeps sucking out more and more money and, worst of all, we no longer have the civil liberties and freedoms that have made this country great.  After all the “progress” of the war on terror, we sure have won the battles, but who is winning the war?


Let’s imagine an extreme case of success following the path that we have taken.  Let’s imagine that we managed to dismantle Al Qaeda and all the other terrorist networks. Let’s consider for a moment that we have plowed over every country that stood up to us and that we did catch every single living terrorist.  Will this mean that we won the war?  Will this mean that we will have peace of mind about our safety at home the way we had it before 9/11?  Is our economy now flourishing better?  The answer to these questions is again, no.  We can kill some of the bad people but while do that we destroy innocent countries (more than one million innocent Iraqis but many accounts) we seed well deserved hatred against the US.  Preemptive prosecution of every Muslim that can potentially become an extremist would not help either.  Recall that it is exactly what they tried to do with the Christians 2000 years ago and it only strengthened the religion.  The only thing we can do to have peace of mind and have our economy come back is to broker a peace treaty with the Muslim extremists and the sooner we do it the better.  There is no path to peace, peace is the path.


The cost of surrendering: an American Choice

Of course there will be a price to pay for every American if we surrender in this war.  We will not have to embrace the Taliban and we will not lose our freedoms but we will have to give up the extra-cheap oil we enjoy in this country. This might come as a surprise for many readers since in this country we seem to be unaware of a fact that is clear for the rest of the world: this war is exclusively about the oil.  Even Alan Greenspan, who is not liberal, said so.  If we gave up our control over Arab grounds we would have to pay the same kind of prices that Europe and Asia pay for the oil, which is on the neighborhood of $8 a gallon.  That would certainly pose a problem and might disrupt in our personal budgets.  This increase in fuel prices would conceivable create increase of other items in the economy but it is something that the country can manage in a relatively short time, just like the other developed countries do.  It would certainly cost a lot less money to the US than to continue and aimless and endless war policy and all the overwhelming expenses that it involves.  Furthermore, with increasing problem of global warming we have better of to wean ourselves off oil anyway.


Most people in this country are not willing to embrace oil-efficient policies or environmentally friendly life styles too readily since this normally means a number of small sacrifices; but these sacrifices are small potatoes if you consider that they are contributing to the national security.  The choice we are given by our leaders is attacking other countries or to forfeit survival.  To this question most people would, understandably, answer: “what ever it takes for our survival”.  But the real question is: the genocide of millions of people in other countries (and make no mistake, losses of many American lives) or pay more money at the gas stations. There might be some Americans that still would choose to go to war when this choice is presented but most Americans would say no to war and would embrace a peaceful solution; although it might involve some smaller sacrifices in our behalf.  On the long run we would develop green technologies and life styles that do not require as much oil consumption, which will benefit every body and direct us toward a long lasting peace and health for the planet.


Something to lose

The required first step we can do in order to win the war on terror is to remove our troops from the Middle East and give a fairer treatment to the Muslim people.  This would be technically surrendering in the war since that is to give in to their request but it would move us much closer to a solution and to recover the peace of mind and our pre-9/11 conditions, effectively a victory!.  Furthermore, giving back some respect to the Islamic sacred grounds would be, just on the one hand, but also it would show the Muslim people that we respect them and their religion. Most importantly, it would give the Muslim fundamentalist something to lose.


It is possible that there might be some extremist that still might want to attack the US (just like there are some Christian extremists that blow up abortion provider hospitals and murder doctors).  So we still would have to be vigilant, but we would not have to worry about their movement getting stronger by the minute as it happens the more we move against islamic countries.  It would essentially split the terrorist movement, take away support, and deter young Muslims from joining their Jihad. It would divide them among the minority that still may want violence against America and the people that acknowledge some respect from the US and fear that they may lose what they have obtained; thus producing a real pro-American movement among the Muslim world.


To give the people something to lose is a most important maneuver in any negotiation.  The presence of a middle class that has something to lose was what made capitalism possible.  A good status of living within a large mass of people prevented them from joining social revolutions or radical causes that could overthrow the systems.  It is that middle class that had too much to lose what provided the grass root support that opposes any radical change in the status quo; including right or left winged extremist, white supremacist or any other extremist organization.  In fact, the most stable countries in the world, such as the developed nations, are those that have a very large middle class with too much to lose if there are drastic changes. 


Giving the Muslims extremist something to lose would be a most convenient tactic for us.  The more we bomb and invade Islamic countries, the more we send the message to all the Muslims that they have no hope of living the way they want and that the best they can do is to join the war against the US.  This reasoning explains the timely message of Bin Laden prior to the invasion of Iraq asking Muslim to join Jihad against the US if we attack Iraq, for his cause benefits from our abuses, thereby encouraging more young Muslims to take extremist path.  If we give them something to lose, on the other hand, we would recruit Muslims out of the lines of terrorist groups.


Strictly business

I realize that emotions can be very powerful and they have the potential to override common sense; especially when it comes to fear.  It is very difficult to get past the issue that we need to bow to a smaller enemy that has attacked us unfairly.  Being the largest country and the most powerful in the world it is hard to conceive that we would have to comply and to come to terms (other than our owns) with smaller countries as there is a matter of pride.  However, the wisest thing to do is not necessarily what pride and emotions demand.  As a mature nation we need to avoid the down fall of the empires of old times that fell trying to subdue all their enemies under their boot instead of brokering peaceful deals with them.  It is perhaps a time for America to move from an old fashioned position of dominance and war and take up what the US does best: Business.  There is no room for pride and arrogance in business and what really counts when it comes to close a deal.  Which people benefit more from having peace in the world? There is not doubt that the American people would benefit more from avoiding wars.  American people have simply a lot more to lose.


The path of peace, the path of wisdom

It was hard for me to surrender my sandals and watch to somebody who took them away unfairly, but I am quite happy I did not risk it and walked out unscathed.  I am sure that the bully that used to abuse me ended up ahead to broker a piece treaty with me and not having to look over his shoulder all the time fearing when I was coming back to retaliate for his abuses.  The difference between mature and non-mature decisions many times resides in how far ahead we are thinking when we take them and this is a moment to think carefully and to look ahead.

The wisdom with which we handle this situation and what degree of maturity we show in this crisis will decide our future.  If we go on the imperial route and try to conquer every country there is as the former empires did, history tells us what the result will be. If, on the other hand, we take a mature path of cooperation and wisdom, we will prove to be the great nation that we have been claiming to be, and will unify the world under a flag of peace and cooperation.