Book Reviews

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Next Attack; The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right (New York: Times Books, 2005), 330pp.Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Next Attack; The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right (New York: Times Books, 2005), 330pp.

           In their bestseller The Age of Sacred Terror; Radical Islam's War Against America (2002), a widely hailed book that won the Arthur Ross Book Prize given by the Council on Foreign Relations, Benjamin and Simon warned about the threat of terrorism to the United States, a threat which they insisted we did not understand and failed to counter. Then came the September 11 attacks which made them prophets. In their new book the authors warn that more than four years later we still persist in misunderstanding our adversary, and that we face grievous consequences unless we change our thinking, our strategies, and our policies.

           Not quite half way through their book the authors summarize: "It is simply no longer possible to maintain that the United States is winning the war on terror" (p. 126). Despite some limited successes, and the authors are careful to acknowledge these, we have failed at almost every critical juncture. First, in a failure of vision we have linked terrorism to rogue states, or almost exclusively to Al Qaeda, instead of understanding the dynamic of numerous independent non-state actors that function alone. Terrorism is more like a "deadly mold," to quote one analyst, rather than like a "deadly snake" that the administration claims it will behead. In a failure of strategy, we have militarized the problem and what we think is the solution, thinking that sheer force can annihilate the enemy. In their view we have already lost the even more important war of Muslim public opinion. Third, the Iraq war has been a monumental disaster in the authors's opinion. We have played right into the hands of the jihadists, confirmed their view of world history that infidels from the west want to occupy and control their land, created a recruiting bonanza for terrorists around the world, and with Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib we have caused Muslims to view us not only as infidels but as hypocrites who do not honor human rights, rule of law, or democracy. Fourth, the internet revolution has fueled jihadist rage and sense of epic heroism, much like television brought the Vietnam war into the living rooms of Americans. The video of the beheading of Nicholas Berg, to mention one gruesome example, was downloaded at least 15 million times. Technical know-how for bomb-making on the internet makes terrorist training camps almost obsolete. Finally, Benjamin and Simon point to trends in American culture at large that go beyond any single administration. In particular they point to conservative Protestants who have supported Bush en masse, supported Israel uncritically to the detriment of Palestinians, and made despicable and inexcusably disparaging remarks about Islam (cf. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and many others), all of which has reinforced the radical jihadists' stereotypes of America and their view of global history that the pagan infidels of the west want to destroy them. The Madrid bombings on March 11, 2004, in which rogue jihadists detonated ten bombs simultaneously, show how vulnerable we have made ourselves with these multiple failures.

           Why have we not been attacked since September 11? The authors give credit where it is due, but go on to argue that terrorists have no need to attack hard targets in America when they have a field day in Iraq and limitless soft targets in places like Madrid, London, Bali, and Chechnya. But, more ominous still, they believe they will strike here again, with their trademarks of patience and perfectionism, which makes their long section on our many failures in Homeland Security sobering reading. Our preoccupation with a military offensive has shorted the need for pre-emptive defense. Let us pray that Benjamin and Simon are wrong, but they were right in their first book, so let us pray that people listen to them more carefully this time.