The Fourth World War
Jude Wanniski
September 9, 2003


Memo To: Democratic Presidential Candidates
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A Nice Little Empire

There are lots of things going on around the world that you should know about but will not be reading in the American papers, and the "Fourth World War" is one of them. I'm not talking about a doomsday scenario, folks, but a term that is now being used by American CIA and Special Forces agents to describe the actual on-the-ground maneuvers they are engaged in around the world. The war in Iraq is the tip of the imperial iceberg. I'm not sure President Bush understands what's going on, but certainly this is a whole field of operations being directed by the Defense Policy Board and the Pentagon civilians. There is no problem in the Canadian press in discussing these issues. Our press has to wait until you folks raise questions, which enables them to join in so the American people can read what our Canadian neighbors can read. I'm happy the Internet brings us the Toronto Globe & Mail so we can get this kind of look at what our own government is doing "on our behalf." I know a few of you and will forward this, hoping you will find it illuminating. Maybe your supporters will find ways to pass it on to you as well. And thank you Canada.

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The fourth world war

For two years, the U.S. has pursued the culprits behind the 9/11 atrocities with a vengeance that has shocked and awed ally and enemy alike. But even the devastating attacks on the Afghan and Iraqi regimes don't illustrate the true scope of the campaign, DOUG SAUNDERS reports. While everyone was preoccupied with the fireworks, Washington has quietly deployed thousands of agents in a secretive struggle that may last a lifetime


If you happen to find yourself in Nouakchott, a dusty and rarely visited city of three million on the far western edge of the Sahara, you may be surprised to find an unlikely sort of character hanging around government buildings and better hotels. These new strangers, whose ranks have been growing steadily in recent months, are a species of serious-looking American men who bear little resemblance to the oil explorers and motorcycle adventurers who until recently were this city's only foreign visitors.

These men, the first Americans in decades to pay any attention to this poor region, began to appear only in the past two years. With their grim and purposeful presence, they bring a Graham Greene sort of mood to this very remote outpost, but instead of seersucker suits and Panama hats, they tend to wear floppy safari hats and sunglasses, the unofficial uniform of the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Forces.

What are these quiet Americans doing in the capital of Mauritania, a nation that has never made the front pages and sits a continent and a half removed from the immediate interests of the United States? And what are their colleagues in a dozen other far-flung regions doing, handing out money and guns and hard-won secrets to governments and warlords and military men in the southern islands of the Philippines, on the steppes of Uzbekistan, in the dense jungle between Venezuela and Brazil?

The guys in the sunglasses have a name for this not-so-secret campaign. They call it World War Four, an unofficial title that is now used routinely by top officials and ground-level operatives in the U.S. military and the CIA. It is a global war, one of the most expensive and complex in world history. And it will mark its second anniversary this week, on Sept. 11.

The White House would rather it be known as the war on terrorism. But in its strategies, political risk and secrecy, it is more like the Cold War, which the CIA types like to consider World War Three. Its central battles, in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been traditional conflicts. But while the public's attention was focused on those big, controversial and expensive campaigns, the United States was busy launching a broader war whose battlefields have spread quietly to two dozen countries.

Iraq also was a distraction in another way: It was a shocking and awesome display of conventional military might that is not at all typical of the stealth, spy craft, diplomacy and dirty tricks being employed in the wider war on terrorism. Likewise, "although Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan understandably captured the imagination and attention of the press and public," said William Rosenau, a former senior policy adviser in the State Department, "large-scale military operations are arguably the smallest aspect of the counterterrorism campaign. That campaign resembles an iceberg, with the military component at the top, visible above the water."

Below the surface are dozens of operations, some secret and some simply unnoticed, conducted by the CIA, the FBI, the diplomatic corps and small, elite military squads. They have been aided by changes to U.S. laws after Sept. 11 that allow Americans to do things once forbidden -- such as assassinating foreign figures.

And much of the war is being fought by foreign governments that are willing and able to do things Americans wouldn't or couldn't. "We simply don't have the resources, or the inclination, to be everywhere the terrorists and their supporters are, so we have no choice but to co-operate with other countries and their security services," Mr. Rosenau said during a panel discussion in Washington last week.

In some cases, that co-operation has led the United States to endorse and enable activities that are deeply unsavoury, all in the name of stomping out terrorism. "Counterterrorism is now 90 per cent law enforcement and intelligence," said Jonathan Stevenson, a senior strategist with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Since Sept. 11, the only overt military actions have been the Predator [missile] strike in Yemen, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and I don't think there will be many more. I think there's a much higher priority placed on law enforcement and intelligence now. It's not a traditional war."

Whether this is actually a world war, or a large-scale police action, or (as both critics and some supporters say) the gestation of a new American imperialism, there is no question that it has come to span the globe. It has caused mammoth shifts in global allegiances, in the positioning of U.S. military bases and CIA stations, in the flow of aid dollars, soldiers and arms across distant borders, on a scale not seen since the Cold War began.

Over the summer, while the world's attention was focused on Iraq, the Pentagon was busily preparing to shift hundreds of thousands of soldiers to new real estate, in places most Westerners known little about, in preparation for a world war that could last decades. "Everything is going to move everywhere," Pentagon undersecretary Douglas Feith said. "There is not going to be a place in the world where it's going to be the same as it used to be."

On Sept. 11, 2001, the world looked much as it had in the 1950s, even though the Cold War had been over for a decade. Huge concentrations of American soldiers were based in Germany, in Japan's outlying islands, and in South Korea.

It was around this time that Eliot Cohen, a military strategist and historian, referred to "World War Four" in a Wall Street Journal article that caught the eye of many Washington officials. James Woolsey, the former CIA director, began to use the phrase last year in speeches calling for a far wider sphere of covert activity.

The White House officially objected to the phrase as senseless, even offensive: The first two world wars had real enemies and real victories, and together killed 60 million soldiers and civilians. The Cold War wasn't a world war at all, but the avoidance of one. And this new operation is a "war" against an improper noun, whose enemy was not a nation nor even an ideology but a strategy, and its death toll, including both its actual wars, remains in the thousands.

Still, it has caught on, both among the stern-faced guys on the ground and in Washington's hawkish policy circles. General Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, was in Addis Ababa this summer to announce that Africa's east coast had become a region of great strategic importance. "We are in the midst of World War Four," he told his audience, before imploring them to arrest local Islamist leaders in exchange for $100-million in aid, "with an insidious web of international terrorists."

As well, the general and his colleagues are acting as though it's a world war, or at least a global operation on the scale of the Cold War. They are building a new kind of military, one that will be based in lonely places we've never heard of, and doing things we won't often hear about.

"As we pursue the global war on terrorism, we're going to have to go where the terrorists are," explained Gen. James Jones, head of the U.S. military's European Command. "And we're seeing some evidence, at least preliminary, that more and more of these large uncontrolled, ungoverned areas are going to be potential havens for that kind of activity."

So American soldiers and spooks are moving out of Germany and into Africa -- the east now, and soon into the western Sahara and the northern Mediterranean coast as well. They are moving out of Japan and Korea and into Southeast Asia, which has the world's largest Muslim population and is believed to be the area at highest risk of al-Qaeda outbreaks. This fall, large numbers of U.S. soldiers are expected to land in the southern Philippines, whose Muslim terrorists are accused of having links to al-Qaeda.

And the soldiers are also manning bases created in such central Asian republics as Uzbekistan for the Afghan war, and on the Black Sea in Bulgaria and Romania for the Iraq conflict, but now expected to become permanent.

And even farther afield will be hundreds of new outposts that Gen. Jones refers to as "warm bases," "lily pads" and "virtual bases" -- temporary, stealthy or secret operations mounted with the help of local regimes.

This has led the United States into some highly unlikely allegiances, which may or may not be directly related to the immediate threat of Osama bin Laden's circle. For example, it is conducting stealth operations in South America -- in the "tri-border" jungle region between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, and on Venezuela's exotic Margarita Island, both of which are home to large populations of Saudi Arabian expatriates. It is not clear whether there are actual terrorists here, or simply people who have sent money to terrorists, or if accusations of terrorism are being used to support local conflicts and to attract U.S. aid.

"The downside," said Herman Cohen, former U.S. secretary of state for Africa, "is that you can take on the agenda of local leaders."

To understand the astonishing scope and morally swampy ground of this ever-expanding war, it is worth visiting three of its lesser-known outposts.

The unlikely winner: Djibouti

Even American generals have to search for it on a map. It is a tiny, barren speck of sand and lava rock on Africa's upper right-hand corner, a country with no tangible economy, no arable land, no tourism, no reason to matter to anyone other than its 640,000 inhabitants.

That is, until the war on terrorism came along. During the two Iraq wars, the United States used Djibouti's conveniently empty desert for training and war simulations. The generals were impressed with what they found: a nearly vacant stretch of land right across the Red Sea from the Persian Gulf nations, and right next to the eastern African nations believed to be the "next Afghanistan" for their burgeoning community of Islamist terrorists.

Even better, the government of Djibouti was a lot more amenable to American soldiers than was Saudi Arabia, the traditional U.S. base in the region. For only a few million dollars, the Americans could do virtually anything they wanted -- and Djibouti would do almost anything the Americans want.

In August, the United States turned its temporary station at Djibouti's Camp Lemonier into permanent headquarters for the war on terrorism, setting up elaborate electronic listening posts and erecting a small city of concrete buildings. More than 2,000 troops are now stationed there, with more expected to arrive as the United States vacates Saudi Arabia. They will spend years, maybe decades, keeping a close watch on the unstable territories of Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan.

"If I was a terrorist, I'd be going to places like Africa," Sergeant Jim Lewis of the U.S. Army said recently at the Djibouti headquarters. "That's why we're here. To seek them out, do whatever we can to find and kill them."

But Djibouti is typical of the strange new alliances the United States is willing to enter -- and of the abuses it is willing to tolerate in order to achieve its goals. This year, it wrote cheques for $31-million to the tiny country, making it one of the larger recipients of U.S. aid. The cheques go to the government of President Ismael Omar Guelleh, whose party won all the seats in January's general election. Opposition leader Daher Ahed Farah complained that his Democratic Renewal Party received 37 per cent of the vote but failed to win a seat. For his criticisms, he was arrested in March and thrown into Djibouti's notorious Gabode prison. Other opposition leaders are forced to live in exile in France.

The State Department officially says Djibouti's human-rights record has "serious problems," but the Bush administration seems to see this as a potential asset. Last week, Djibouti expelled 100,000 residents, or 15 per cent of its population, to neighbouring countries. One government official explained that these foreign-born residents are "a threat to the peace and security of the country . . . How do we know whether an individual is a terrorist biding his time to cause harm, or not?" The official denied reports that the United States had requested the expulsions.

The poor human-rights record has not hurt Mr. Guelleh's relations with his allies. In late January, shortly after the questionable election, he visited Washington and was personally fêted by President George W. Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld -- a level of access beyond the reach of leaders such as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

When a powerful truck bomb destroyed the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and killed six people a month ago today, local police and military were quick to spring into action. Within a week, they had arrested top officials in Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian branch of al-Qaeda.

And no wonder: They not only had the direct help of U.S. Special Forces soldiers and CIA agents who had flooded into the region after Sept. 11; they had just received a special $50-million U.S. war on terrorism assistance package, half of which went to the police force.

But the bomb's aftermath reminded many people of another explosive event a dozen years earlier. In 1991, Indonesian soldiers had opened fire on protesters demanding independence for East Timor. More than 200 were slaughtered in an event that shocked the world. The Cold War had created endless horrors in Indonesia, where the Americans supported both the army and Islamist separatists, whom it saw as useful opponents to Soviet-backed Communist independence movements.

After the slaughter, the United States began to back away, throwing support to democracy movements throughout Southeast Asia. The one in Indonesia flourished after the 1998 departure of strongman Suharto, and a year later, the United States actually helped East Timor gain independence, using its aid muscle to keep the Indonesian army on the sidelines.

So now, the people of the world's most populous Islamic nation are not exactly happy to see themselves becoming pawns in yet another global war. While the U.S. aid and attention are welcomed by many, they threaten to set back the democracy movement, turn the military back into lawless and dangerous forces, and bring back the old Cold War dynamics.

In exchange for participating in the war on terrorism, the Indonesian government has said it wants U.S. help in fighting what it defines as "terrorist" groups. Chief among these is the Free Aceh Movement, generally recognized as a legitimate party calling for the independence of a former archipelago nation now part of Indonesia. So far, Washington has refused to co-operate, saying its list of terrorist groups includes only those that threaten U.S. interests.

All across Southeast Asia, this pattern is being repeated: fragile democracy movements, enjoying U.S. support after years of Cold War suppression, are being menaced by armies and governments emboldened by the war on terrorism. In Thailand, in Malaysia and in the Philippines, the threat of Islamic terrorism is real -- but so is the threat created by the war against it.

The paradox: Mauritania

To appreciate the strange new ecology of this war fully, it's worth visiting its most distant front, and taking a closer look at those mysterious Americans hanging around that dusty capital on the western edge of the Sahara.

For 19 years, the former French colony of Mauritania has been ruled by a military strongman named Maaouyah Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, in what his partisans describe as a democracy, one that opposition parties accuse of bloodily repressing political dissent.

Until 2001, this was of no interest at all to the United States or any other English-speaking country. The war on terrorism has changed everything. In a nation with a per-capita income of a dollar a day, the prospect of becoming a foreign client is hard to resist. When the United States and its allies drove al-Qaeda and its supporters out of such northern African nations as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia shortly after Sept. 11 (with the help of foreign-aid dollars, secret military campaigns and a new willingness to overlook the countries' abuses), the Mauritanians saw an opportunity.

"We acted because it was obvious to us that this was the thing to do," Mohamedou Ould Michel, the Mauritanian ambassador to the United States, told the Washington Times recently. "In a world situation in which one nation is dominant, it serves the interest of other nations to take this into account."

The United States suspected al-Qaeda cells had moved south into the ancient trade routes that span the Sahara from Sudan to Mauritania. This isn't at all certain -- even senior Pentagon and CIA officials have said they don't really know. But Mr. Taya, whose military regime faces a popular Saudi-backed opposition in elections scheduled this fall, was quick to claim that his country was under threat.

Mauritania has certainly benefited. It received a large share of a $100-million (U.S.) military aid package for friendly West African nations this summer. Starting this month, it will become the prime beneficiary of the Pan-Sahelian Initiative, in which U.S. military advisers provide weapons, vehicles and extensive military training to special terror-fighting squads in Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania.

In exchange for this largesse, it has embraced the Americans, acknowledged Israel's existence, and cracked down hard on its Islamist opposition parties, often with U.S. help. Those parties, whose leaders have been driven into exile in Europe, argue that there never was any al-Qaeda link; rather, they say, Mr. Taya has used the imprimatur of terrorism to ban the opposition and has even tortured some leaders to death in prison -- with full U.S. support.

His co-operation with Washington has yielded the Mauritanian leader even greater fruit. In the predawn hours of June 8, a group of Islamists in the military staged a violent coup d'état, driving tanks into the capital and mounting a two-day gun battle. But in the end the uprising was put down, reportedly with help from the leader's new Western allies.

The Americans tend to view this as a victory. Most observers are frankly amazed at how much support a few million dollars bought. "A little bit of money sure goes a long way out there," laughs Steven Simon, a former senior director of the U.S. National Security Council who now provides private consulting to the Pentagon with the RAND Corporation.

Beyond the possibility of a vaporous enemy, these dubious new allegiances pose another threat, Mr. Simon noted. What if the United States, in its zeal to eliminate the tens of thousands of people trained by al-Qaeda around the world, winds up providing aid and encouragement to unpopular regimes that are doing things almost as bad?

"The risk here is one of the big paradoxes of the war on terrorism," he said. "One of the main grievances these terrorist groups are trying to draw attention to is that the United States is consorting with evil regimes that repress their people. But if the United States is going to try to eliminate these groups, it will need the help and co-operation of these regimes and therefore could give credence to those complaints."

Mr. Simon is among a growing group of Washington hawks who worry that the war on terrorism may indeed have become a little too much like World War Four -- or, worse, too much like the Cold War.

"Look at the similarities: Here we have a globalized organization that was competing for hearts and minds with the rest of the world -- like the Cold War, the battle is being fought all over the place. And one mistake of the Cold War was that the U.S. came to think that you have to fight the enemy everywhere. That's how we wound up in Vietnam, which was a terrible mistake in every sense. We seem to be having a very similar situation here, and making the same mistake, where you end up stuck in one place. I'm concerned that that's happened in Iraq, and that it could happen elsewhere."

The Cold War at least had a tangible enemy to negotiate with. "The difference is that here, the enemy cannot be deterred in the same way," Mr. Simon said. Unlike the spectre of a nuclear conflict, "there's no mutually assured destruction."

World War Four, if that is going to be its name, had a firm and definite beginning, when the jetliner attacks shocked the United States back into an international role two years ago. But there is no chance that it will have a firm and definite end. There will be no V-T day.

"Since al-Qaeda is not an army, but an ideological, transnational movement, there is no enemy military force physically to defeat," said Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based terrorism expert and military consultant. "In fact, our enemies have defined this conflict, from their perspective, as a war of attrition designed eventually to wear down our resolve and will to resist."

We have become used to a "war" being something that lasts a few months at most, possibly only days. This one could last a lifetime -- and there is no question, given the enormous shifts in manpower and geographic focus, that the United States is preparing for just that. "Our enemies see this conflict as an epic struggle that will last years, if not decades," Mr. Hoffman said. "The challenge therefore for the U.S. and other countries enmeshed in this conflict is to maintain focus, and not to become complacent about security or our prowess."

For the harried commanders in Washington, that will indeed be the challenge. For the rest of the world, the far more difficult challenge will be understanding what is really going on in this lifelong, worldwide conflict -- what is right and what is wrong in this morally and strategically fraught new world.

Doug Saunders writes on international affairs for The Globe and Mail.