Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 18, 2006

Book review: ‘Unconquerable Nation’

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on August 18, 2006

Brian Michael Jenkins from RAND, one of the foremost terrorism experts in the world who has been studying the subject since the 1970s, released a new book this week, entitled “Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves.” The full text of the book is available at this link in PDF format. It’s the first full-length book that Jenkins has written since 9/11, and well worth the wait; it’s one of the best analyses of how we’ve waged the war on terror over these last five years, and offers solid recommendations about the course we need to follow in the coming years.

Jenkins takes the title of the book from Sun Tzu: “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.” His overarching point in the book that America’s ability to prevail in the war on terror depends on a ethos of clear resolve and patient discipline, not fear and hasty reactive gestures. On that point, he writes:

This philosophy alters Americans’ mental model of today’s conflict. It elevates the necessity of knowing the enemy, something we have not made sufficient effort to do. It moves us from relying almost exclusively on the projection of military power and viewing homeland security as physical protection to mobilizing our spirit, courage, and commitment. While we strive to destroy our terrorist enemies by reducing their capabilities, thwarting their plans,
frustrating their strategy, and crushing their spirit, we must also rely on our own psychological strength to defeat the terror they would create. Instead of issuing constant warnings and alarms, we must project stoicism and resolve. Instead of surrendering our liberties in the name of security, we must embrace liberty as the source and sustenance of our security.

The section on “Basic Beliefs” from pages 14-16 distills his key observation about the war on terror over the last five years:

– The enemies we face have changed fundamentally.
– Patterns of armed conflict have also changed.
– Unrelenting pressure on the al Qaeda organization and its terrorist allies has forced the jihadists to operate at a lower, but still lethal, level. However, the United States has neglected the political war.
– Although President George W. Bush warns Americans that “the war on terrorism will take a while,” it is not clear that either those in the administration or average citizens at home fully comprehend what that means—or the great challenge it presents, especially to an impatient society.
– Americans must be ferociously pragmatic for the long term.
– The invasion of Iraq was a dangerous distraction.
– In the longer struggle against the jihadists and future terrorist foes, we will ultimately prevail.
– America’s courage is its ultimate source of security.
– Homeland security begins at home.
– Whatever we do, American values must be preserved.

These may be truisms, but if so, they’re important ones, and they aren’t discussed enough in the dialogue between our nation’s leaders and the American public today. As a result, too many people in the United States are unable to put threats to the nation in context, and become overly influenced by fear. Too many people expect perfect security, an unrealistic objective in a free society. Too many people believe that you can win the war on terror by taking moral or legal shortcuts, and don’t account for the long-run negative impact that these decisions have on our ability to build the foundations of support that we need at home and abroad to be successful. And too many people believe that it can be won without shared sacrifice and civic participation, something that our nation’s leaders have not asked the entire American people to make on the homefront.

Chapter Five of the book concerns homeland security. Before I summarize it, let me implore you to read the whole chapter, not just this overview. He begins the chapter by analyzing the millenial tensions and the changes in societal context – a globalized economy, dangerous new technologies – that created a kind of “fin de siècle apprehension” even before 9/11. The attacks of 9/11 made this national mood combustible, putting the country on edge, but in a “schizophrenic” way: “Dire warnings of imminent danger were accompanied by admonitions for Americans to go on about their business as usual.”

He then describes how post-9/11 uncertainties caused a shift in the nation’s risk analyses from “threat-based assessments” to “vulnerability based-assessments.” Because the threats were amorphous and often unknowable, officials were forced to look at vulnerabilities. But vulnerabilities are everywhere in a free society, causing a scramble for prioritization. Jenkins describes how this competition for resources leads to “threat advocacy,” which different stakeholders and interest groups competing to highlight their vulnerabilities, and officials and the media focusing attention on the latest attack or plot, rather than developing a consistent risk-based framework that prioritizes resources and can combat multiple threats simultaneously.

Jenkins then offers a series of principles and recommendations about how the United States can better “face the foe within,” as summarized in this paragraph:

We need to spend the next several years doing things very differently. We need to get more realistic about risk. We need to increase preparedness by educating and mobilizing all Americans to participate in homeland security. Amid the proliferating bollards and barriers and gates and guards, we need to understand security better and to accept its limitations—yet we must also take the opportunity to rebuild America’s decaying infrastructure. We need to improve local intelligence without succumbing to national paranoia about “sleeper cells” and fifth columns. We need to build a better legal framework for preventive interventions against terrorists, but we also need to ensure proper oversight to prevent the abuse of those preventive interventions. In all these areas of conduct, we need to remember our core national values and to uphold them as we move forward. Otherwise, the terrorists will truly have won, even without following through on any of their plans of attack. Their terror alone will have sufficed. We will have unilaterally surrendered.

Each of these excellent points is covered in more detail in the section that follows, from pages 153-176. The section entitled “Enlist the Public” is particularly good. Jenkins writes:

The best way to increase our ability as a nation to respond to disasters, natural or man-made, is to enlist all citizens through education and engagement, which also happens to be a very good way to reduce the persistent anxieties that afflict us. We have not done this.

The federal government’s decision to tell citizens to go on living their lives, offering only the vague admonition to be vigilant, has “encouraged dependency,” rather than “promoting self-reliance,” Jenkins says. He argues that there needs to be a much strong commitment to public education on homeland security, and that doesn’t mean websites and pamphlets. Instead, he says:

We need to aggressively educate the public through all media, in the classrooms, at town halls, in civic meetings, through professional organizations, and in volunteer groups. This means more than speeches in front of the American flag. The basic course should include how to deal with the spectrum of threats we face, from “dirty bombs” to natural epidemics, with the emphasis on sound, easy-to-understand science aimed at dispelling mythology and inoculating the community against alarming rumors and panic.

He goes on to talk about other elements of civic education and preparedness, one that resembles the concept of “total security” utilized in Scandinavian countries (see this book for more info).

I could go on with the review, but I’ll stop there, and finish by noting that the book contains an excellent bibliography, taken from Jenkins’ own library and broken into a number of categories. Overall, an excellent book – highly recommended.

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2 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 19, 2006 @ 11:48 am

The book’s analysis of “Enlisting the Public” is parallel by conclusions reached in a study completed in 2002 by CSIS entitled “CIVIL SECURITY” headed by Amanda Dory. The only real analysis of citizen involvement and preparedness since 9/11 the study documented the need to work hard on individual and family preparedness and reject the old civil defense paradigms that were rejected by the public largely because strategic doctrine had shifted to mutual assured destruction (MAD). Citizen Corps and CERT teams need better funding and organization but they are a good start.

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October 8, 2006 @ 8:30 pm

[...] HomeLand Security Watch: Book review: ‘Unconquerable Nation’: The federal government’s decision to tell citizens to go on living their lives, offering only the vague admonition to be vigilant, has “encouraged dependency,” rather than “promoting self-reliance,” Jenkins says. He argues that there needs to be a much strong commitment to public education on homeland security, and that doesn’t mean websites and pamphlets. Instead, he says: We need to aggressively educate the public through all media, in the classrooms, at town halls, in civic meetings, through professional organizations, and in volunteer groups. This means more than speeches in front of the American flag. The basic course should include how to deal with the spectrum of threats we face, from “dirty bombs” to natural epidemics, with the emphasis on sound, easy-to-understand science aimed at dispelling mythology and inoculating the community against alarming rumors and panic. [...]

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