Pundita is on vacation until September 16. The following essay was originally published in July 2005.
"Pundita, I found your post, ...President Bush plays Sherlock Holmes about the possibility that most of the recent terrorist activity that we are seeing is state sponsored. It makes some sense as fairly large amounts of money and specialized expertise would be required to pull off these bombings and national governments are a good source.
My question, which you may have already answered, is what are these state sponsors hoping to accomplish? It seems that it needs to be more than "Leave us alone to do whatever we want."
It is obvious that Iran, North Korea, and Iraq before OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom], are intent on developing nuclear weapons as well as biological and chemical. But I have never understood why. There is some blackmail value to having such weapons but that is very expensive saber rattling.
They can't believe that we would allow them to use such weapons to actually attack someone. I guess my question is what do they gain by sponsoring terrorism and further by developing WMD?
Dale in Minneapolis"
Your question, or rather the way you've set it up, actually represents a few questions and some wrong assumptions so we'll have to unpack your comments before we can arrive at the answer you're seeking.
First, it helps to make sense out of the broad situation if you get very precise in your definition when studying the governments that use terrorism. They are not so much "sponsoring terrorism" as waging war against other states using battle tactics that involve attacks on civilians.
That might sound like hairsplitting but when you're trying to understand something unfamiliar, it's important to be very precise with terminology.
I have written about the "Democracy Stage Show Kit" -- tactics that copycat genuine protest movements but which are used by governments to stage a bloodless coup to put their favored person/faction in power. What we've seen during the past 15 years or so is the refinement of the military equivalent of the DSSK: The Terrorism Stage Show Kit.
State militaries studied a classic warfare model used by oppressed groups under a powerful military state; i.e., "terrorism" and saw its usefulness for waging war against other states without mounting a military incursion. Voilà! The TSSK.
Red China's military did a lot of theoretical work in this area. If you want to learn something about it, News Max has published a translation of Unrestricted Warfare by Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. You can buy the book from the News Max site, which publishes an overview of the book's contents. The basic concept behind unrestricted warfare is that a weak military can 'bleed' an enemy nation through a variety of tactics that fall outside classic battle strategy.
As to where it all began -- I doubt there is anything new under the sun when it comes to military tactics, and if I recall the Soviets deployed the strategy in some cases. But the modern approach I'm discussing probably took shape when the Iranian military got involved in driving the Israelis out of Lebanon. They saw the advantage in copying the classic insurgency model and applying it to waging indirect war against a more powerful military, which they couldn't beat in a head-on confrontation. The Iranians simply turned cars into bombs. We've seen the refinement of that tactic in Iraq. It's an Iranian military signature.
Second, you wrote that I'd posted on the "possibility" that most of the recent terrorist activity that we are seeing is state sponsored. If you go back over the essay, you'll see that I was not speaking in terms of "possibility." By the time President Bush gave the Axis of Evil Speech, he was referencing a tremendous amount of intelligence that had been gathered by US and other intelligence agencies the world over. Much of that intelligence was not new; it's just that it hadn't been integrated and studied as a distinct phenomenon.
However, proving in a court of law that most terrorism today is state sponsored would be not easy, even if all the related intelligence were declassified. This is due to the "Denial & Deception" tactics that governments have the power to deploy. In other words, going after governments that sponsor terrorism is not like Eliot Spitzer telling an American corporation to open its books. Yet at some point in intelligence gathering the pattern overwhelmingly favors government sponsorship behind a terrorist campaign.
On that basis Bush could confidently name Iraq, Iran and North Korea as state sponsors of terrorism -- meaning they were waging war against other governments using the model of terror insurgency as smokescreen. To name other governments would be difficult for various reasons; e.g., sometimes it's only a faction in a government that is sponsoring the terrorism.
To repeat a point I made in the earlier essay, this does not mean all terrorism is state sponsored. It means that this form of warfare defines a military threat that the US and other democracies face during this era. Until this concept was crystallized and articulated, it flew under the radar of US military defense policy simply because terrorism was defined as asymmetrical warfare against states.
Third, with regard to your comment, "They can't believe that we would allow them to use [WMD] weapons to actually attack someone." -- How, pray tell, would we stop them from using such weapons? I mislaid my notes so I can't tell you the exact depth of the tunnels, but Tehran is tunneling as close to the center of the earth as they can afford to pay contractors in order to relocate their nuke weapons facilities deep underground.
After the Israelis bombed Iraq's nuke facility, Saddam Hussein and every other nuke chasing despot got the message: If you want to have a nuke weapon facility, tunnel it so deep it's impregnable to conventional and bunker-busting bombs.
Hussein hooked up with Muammar Qaddafi and the Saudi faction that wanted The Bomb, and with help from several governments and private contractors blasted into a mountain in Libya then tunneled to build a nuke-bomb building factory that would be impregnable to conventional bombs.
That's why al Tuwaitha was abandoned; Hussein transferred the nuclear weapons material from Tuwaitha to the facility to Libya. That's why the US military was lobbying Congress a few years back for funds to build mini-nuke bunker busters. They were trying to find a way to put that mountain factory out of business.
That's also why the Bush administration demanded before the Iraq invasion that the IAEA interview Iraqi nuclear weapons scientists "outside Iraq." If you recall, this led to Iraqi nuke scientists huffily telling the international TV cameras that they didn't see why they had to be dragged outside their country to be interviewed.
So there's a nice example of the old AI "fruit flies" conundrum. The Bush administration was not demanding to interview the scientists working inside Iraq. They wanted the IAEA to interview the 40 or so Iraqi nuke scientists who were working outside Iraq -- specifically, working inside that mountain in Libya.
If you ask why the administration didn't clarify the semantics, because their demand was crystal clear to all the players, including Hussein and Qaddafi. When they heard that, they knew the US military was coming after them. Qaddafi rolled after the Iraq invasion but for a reason known only to himself, Hussein believed that the US invasion of Iraq could be blocked at the United Nations.
We got to Iraq just in time. How close we cut it, we won't know until considerably more military intelligence here and abroad is declassified. Qaddafi gave the US all the data he had on the nuke facility, which included the names of contractors and governments/factions that were involved with it, and which threw tremendous light on A.Q. Khan's 'nuke supermarket' network. But for obvious reasons much of that data remains classified.
Make no mistake, the only feasible quick way to shut down that factory in Libya was by putting Saddam Hussein out of business for good.
The current situation is one that emerged from many incremental steps over a period of a half century. So, part of the answer to your question is simply that despotic regimes believe they can get away with building WMD and sponsoring terrorism because they got away with it for a long time.
During the Cold War if you were a despot, you could get away with a lot if you told the Soviets, "I hate capitalists" or told the NATO bunch, "I hate commies." That's also how the despots got money and weapons expertise. During one period, the US military was ordered to give away to the PLA various weapons technologies. The Chinese didn't even have to steal them.
Today one asks, "Was the US government plumb loco?"
The answer can be found if you recall the old TV series, Northern Exposure. If you started watching the show during the second half of the first season, it was like seeing a documentary on a lunatic asylum. But if you were there from the first episode, the main characters did perfectly understandable things.
The Northern Exposure factor explains US policies that seem certifiably insane when you look at them from outside the context of the history. For example, if you know the constitution of the Islamic regime in Iran, you have to ask what lunatic in the US government decided it would be a great idea to use Iran as a 'Green Belt' against communism in the Middle East. Yet once you get into the swing of Cold War thinking, the concept of a Green Belt makes perfect sense. From that view, it was a great idea to use a government that had sworn to destroy America to offset another enemy government.
In like manner, to you it might sound insane that the Saudis are trying to build nukes so they can wire up their oil wells with them as a defense tactic against the House of Saud being overthrown. But once you get in the swing of the situation and its history, there's a certain logic to it. A logic that does not really reference what the United States would do if they caught the Saudis red-handed.
Ditto for Pyongyang's logic. You would have to know about North Korea's relationship with China to understand why Kim Jong-il, whose main interests are gourmet food and avoiding assassination, would start a nuke program. Because the Chinese military told him to, that's why. Beyond that, and as long as it brings in enough revenue, Kim really couldn't care less.
Kim's number is that he does not believe the United States or South Korea would step in and help him, if he told Beijing to go sit on a tack. The last time he tried standing up to Beijing, on his return from China there was a huge explosion near a train station where his train had passed not hours before. It was probably only a meth factory but Kim got the message: Don't double deal.
I tell you all this so you can understand that the people you're asking about, the governments in question, are not looking at their situation from an American point of view. Nor is America necessarily #1 on their list of reasons for building WMD and sponsoring a terror army or their only reason. This does not mean they have no interest in doing harm to the USA or find no profit in threatening the USA. But their reasons arise from the relationships that mean the most to them, the ones that trouble them the most. Often the USA belongs in neither category.
Again I return to Northern Exposure. The outsiders who somehow stumbled into that town in Alaska found themselves the star and victim of a plot involving the regular cast of characters. The outsiders were just foils, a means to highlight and further complicate the complicated relationships of the regular cast. But no matter how interesting the outsider and his situation, the denizens of Northern Exposure were greatly focused on each other. In like manner, the USA is often just an excuse or a foil, which allows the regimes to avoid outright threats against neighbors.
With all the above taken into consideration, we can return to your question: "...what do they gain by sponsoring terrorism and further by developing WMD?"
The answer is that "they" are not monolithic when we look at motives for sponsoring terror and developing WMD. They have varying reasons:
> Appeasement of a more powerful neighboring government,
>making unrestricted warfare against another government,
> staging what are essentially 'mob' wars with other governments that are also run by a crime syndicate or coalition of syndicates.
Yet there are unifying underlying factors:
> The governments in question are despotic and suppress democracy,
> docile/terrorized populations that accept despotic rule,
> a globalized black market in traditional weapons and WMD materials and technology,
> the willingness of many governments to allow the sale of dual-use technologies and materials to despotic regimes,
> sources of revenue from crime and state-controlled enterprises that allow the regimes to spend many billions USD on building WMD and sponsoring terror armies,
> the long-standing policy of the world's so-called leadership nations to studiously look the other way and in some cases tacitly encourage state-sponsored terrorism.
(An example of the former would be the US looking the other way about China's involvement in helping Pakistan wage terror war against Indian-controlled Kashmir. An example of the latter would be Britain giving a home to front organizations for the Iranian government that wage terror war against Israel.)
To put all this another way: On the morning of September 11, 2001, most of the world's governments could be divided into three categories:
2. Those who tolerated and encouraged rascals.
3. Those too poor to wage terror war and build WMD programs.
This is what happens when we allow business concerns to run the world. It was business concerns -- cost cutting, to be specific -- that made the World Trade Towers a tomb on 9/11 and led to their complete collapse. A more fitting metaphor can't be found to warn that security concerns and commitment to the principles of fair government must come prior to business, if democratic societies are not to collapse.