Someone told me that the threat from terrorism was the greatest threat this country has faced in 70 years. When I questioned that and mentioned Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Communism, the response I got was that those dangers existed more than 70 years ago. So I asked what was the second greatest threat; ill-tempered Parisian waiters? I received no reply.
But in thinking on this more, I am convinced that there is a threat to the United States that is wrapped up in the so-called Global War On Terror. That threat is internal and it comes from the political Right in our own country. That may sound provocative to some, but bear with me here.
The first threat to Americans (and by that, I mean the dominant Judeo-Christian types) was that of being wiped out by the indigenous peoples (from here on out, I'm going to refer to them by the term we grew up with: Indians. Sue me.). That threat was greatly eliminated by a fact that the first Europeans probably did not appreciate at first, which was that because people from second millennium Eurasian stock had a degree of resistance to a large number of rather nasty diseases; diseases that had arisen over a few thousand years because Eurasians had been living in close proximity to a large number of species of domestic animals. Those animals were unknown to the Americas, so the Indians had no resistance at all to those diseases. Smallpox apparently spread like wildfire and wiped out communities that had not seen a European and did not first see a European for a very long time afterwards.
(By the way, if you are wondering why the "bird flu" is giving nightmares to the infectious disease specialists, this is one of the reasons why.)
So when the Europeans arrived in significant numbers, the Indian population had already been greatly reduced. The Europeans had better weapons, better numbers and massacred the Indians that put up any resistance, which was what conquerors traditionally did. The Indians indeed were a threat at times, the Norsemen in the 1000s were not able to establish a permanent settlement, but once the Europeans showed up with guns, the Indians were never able to push them back into the sea. There were small-scale wars for almost four hundred years, but the Indians lost on the battlefield.
The most significant threat to what was to become the USA came from the mother country, England. England could have crushed the American rebels, but they had other fish to fry in that both a few of the other European powers took the opportunity to make some trouble for England and the French provided critical support. The French supplied weapons, funds, training and the intervention of the fleet of Comte de Grasse, which prevented the Royal Navy from evacuating the British forces pinned down in Yorktown. The British threat returned during what we call the War of 1812, they did burn a good chunk of Washington, D.C., but the War of 1812 was still a bit of a sideshow for the British when compared to the ongoing Napoleonic Wars.
I'll skip over the Civil War, since that was basically a family fight.
What was the next external threat? Maybe Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, but probably not. The U-Boats were an issue for international trade, but it's hard to argue that Germany could have launched a trans-oceanic invasion. Without America's intervention in World War 1, the Germans might have been able to bring the U-Boat campaign to a successful conclusion and force Britain to sue for peace. Without the British in the war, France might have indeed fallen to Germany or at the very least been forced into an armistice under conditions far more favorable to Germany than the one that ended that war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empires may have survived a bit longer. But still, there was no serious threat to the Western Hemisphere.
World War 2 was different to some degree. Germany may have eventually developed the technical ability to launch direct attacks on American soil, but it's hard to see how Germany would have been able to conquer the US. They had their hands full dealing with Russia. Maybe they would have pushed deeper without Germany having to prepare for and defend against attack from the Anglophone nations, but Russia is a huge country. Could they have conquered Russia, occupied it and then gone on to invade and conquer North America? I doubt it. Even without direct entry into the war against Germany, the US would have still poured supplies into Russia. And let's not forget that the Russians themselves made over 50,000 tanks.
Japan had the capability to mount an invasion of the Hawaiian island chain and possibly a larger chunk of Alaska than the two islands they took. Xenophobic hysteria aside, however, Japan did not have the capacity to invade, much less occupy, the rest of North America. They were already occupying a large chunk of China, which required hundreds of thousands of troops, if not a million or more. They didn't have the troops to take and hold both China and North America.
Probably the most serious threat to the US since the War of 1812 was posed by the Soviet Union. If a war had begun, the Soviets likely had the forces to be able to occupy the same European footprint that Germany had held. Absent nuclear weapons, they might have been able to carry out a Red Army version of Operation Sealion and invaded Great Britain. But executing a transoceanic invasion without a large base of operations near the point of invasion is a huge undertaking, even if they tried coming through Alaska. Even crossing the English Channel against an enemy whose bulk of its military forces were unavailable was a tough endeavor. The threat to the US was not from invasion, but from massive destruction by nuclear attack. But that would have resulted in a similarly massive retaliatory strike against Russia and neither side was too thrilled at the prospect of being obliterated. So while proxy wars were waged and much propaganda exchanged, a rough peace lasted for decades.
China may pose a threat in the far future. And whether Vladimir Putin can succeed in his quest to stamp out what democracy currently exists in Russia and re-form the Soviet Union remains to be seen.
Which brings me to the present day.
Al Qaeda clearly has the capability of mounting attacks on US soil. They succeeded in 1993 and 2001. They tried at least once, maybe more often, between the successful attacks, but those attempt(s) were foiled. (By the way, don't hold your breath while you wait for the Right to give any smidgen of credit to the Clinton Administration.) What al Qaeda cannot do and cannot hope to do is invade the US. They pose a threat that is beyond a nuisance, but clearly is not a mortal threat.
Remember what bin Ladin saw in the 1980s: The Moslem Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, with material assistance from the US, tied down and bled the Red Army to the point that the Russians gave up. What I suspect that bin Laden hoped to achieve by 9/11 was to provoke the US into a massive invasion of Afghanistan, one that could be used to rally the Moslem world to his cause. The US did not oblige him, but not because the Bush Administration saw the trap and avoided it. No, the Bush Administration had another war in mind and in invading Iraq, managed to put our troops into the situation bin Laden likely envisioned for Afghanistan. It probably was a dream come true for bin Laden as it probably has been far easier for al Qaeda to get propaganda out of Iraq and jihadists into Iraq than it would have been for Afghanistan.
But that still isn't a serious threat to the US.
The Right seems to often be of the opinion that the sole arbiter and instrument of American power is the military. Military power is significant, but if they think that's the driving factor, they are delusional. America's influence throughout the world come as much, if not more, from our economy, our freedoms, our civil liberties and our popular culture. I don't know of anybody who tuned into Radio Moscow to catch the music concerts, but the jazz programs on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were popular throughout the nations of the Warsaw Pact. American cultural influence continues to this day. American music, clothes, and movies are to be found around the globe. Less tolerant nations try to stop these influences with no real success.
Where we lose our influence is in many of the actions or inactions of our government. It is not a real stretch to say that overseas, democracy is something that we inflict on our enemies. If a nation is our friend or is useful, we tolerate all sorts of less-than-democratic forms of government. Only a coked-out drunk would even think of Saudi Arabia as being anywhere close to a democratic nation. Egypt held a sham presidential election a few years ago with no more than a "tut-tut" from the Bush Administration. Pakistan, until very recently, was led by a military dictator who dabbled with democracy, but tried not to let it go too far (with the support of the Bush Administration). Algeria crushed its democracy without a peep from the West when a fundamentalist party won the last election well over a decade ago. The CIA's overthrow of the Iranian government and re-establishment of its monarchy over fifty years ago has had unpleasant reverberations to this day. Chile. Argentina. Greece. The Bush Administration was happy to have bases in Uzbekistan until the fact that its leader had a penchant for torturing people by boiling them alive came to light. Even so, a state that practiced brutal torture was useful to a nation that styles itself as a beacon of liberty.
As I understand it, one of bin Ladin's arguments is that American commitment to democracy ends as soon as there is anything in it for America. Bin Ladin may also hope to prove to the world that the US is just another thug state and that its true commitment to democracy and liberty within its borders is a tenuous as a soap bubble. In this, his unwitting ally was George W. Bush. By running secret prisons, by engaging in and outsourcing torture, Bush took an attitude that respect for human rights is something for lessor nations.
The Right is largely complicit in this. The Bush Administration defended its right to torture people, the Right applauded. The Bush Administration worked to gut the protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Right seconded with the cry of "only the guilty need fear anything", a line that could well have been mouthed by the Gestapo. The Bush Administration moved to limit free speech by making sure that Bush never heard a peep of dissent and the Right stayed silent. Massive datamining. Monitoring telephone conversations and e-mails. Engaging in domestic spying on dissidents by the Army and the FBI. Maintaining an enemies list that was far larger than Nixon’s. Trying to set up a "spy on your neighbor" program. Terror threat alerts that seemed to be suspiciously tied to the 2004 election cycle. The Right applauded all of this as the Bush Administration sought to live up to Ben Franklin's dictum concerning liberty and security.
To be fair, not all of the Right marched in lockstep with the Bush Administration. There have been true conservatives who became alarmed at the power grabs of the Bush Administration. But they were few and far between. We have a written Constitution because the Founding Fathers did not believe in the "we know what is best, trust us" form of government. But that is what Bush kept saying, in effect, that we should all shut up and trust him. And the Right went merrily along with that. Even now, Dick Cheney is publicly arguing, in essence, that the only way to keep the country safe is to have a system of elected tyrants, where the president is above the rule of law and can do whatever he wants.
Bin Ladin cannot destroy or even cripple the US. We, however, can do it to ourselves and what bin Ladin may be trying to do is create the conditions where that comes about. The far Right's call to "round up all them ragheads", if carried out, would be a propaganda gold mine for al Qaeda. But we do not have to go that far, sacrificing our rights and liberties is enough to prove the point. In the formerly designated Global War on Terror, the Right became the "useful idiots" of al Qaeda.
It goes further than that, of course. The Right’s view of what course this country should take took a major blow in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The response of the Right has been from holding “tea-bagging” protests (largely orchestrated by Fox News) to suggestions from some Southern politicians that succession is an option to dark mutterings about a second civil war. It is clear, at least to me, that the Right’s devotion to democracy only lasts as long as they win (or steal) the elections. For when they lose, they, like the intellectual brats they have proven to be, are all too willing to destroy this country.
The Right is indeed the most dangerous threat to this country that now exists.