Every once in a while, we wake up to discover that our world has changed overnight.
That was certainly true for many people on the West Coast on Sept. 11, 2001. The first aircraft involved in that day’s events struck the World Trade Center at 5:46 a.m. Pacific time. By the time most people in the Far West brushed their teeth that day, they knew that America had experienced an attack on the scale of Pearl Harbor.
Eleven years earlier, on an August morning in 1990, we woke up to the news that Saddam Hussein had sent his Iraqi army across the border into Kuwait. The Kuwaiti royal family had fled, Saddam’s thugs were shooting anything that moved and stealing anything that didn’t, and the Saudis were scrambling to make certain they were not the next stop on the Iraqi itinerary.
We can draw a direct historical line between the events of those two mornings and much that followed. The attack on Kuwait led to the first Gulf war, which ended with Saddam clinging to power and American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to keep him in check. This U.S. presence helped inspire radical Islamists to try to force out the American troops and the Saudi royals, which became part of the motivation for 9/11. This, in turn, helped inspire both of the wars currently involving American troops today.
By many accounts, Saddam Hussein thought he had a diplomatic green light from America before his Kuwait adventure. An ambiguous exchange between the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and top Iraqi officials left him convinced that Washington would not intervene. We can only wonder what the past 20 years would have been like if Saddam had been clearly warned that attacking Kuwait would mean Western intervention and the end of his regime.
Good diplomacy and good management can minimize overnight shocks, but we cannot eliminate them. History marches on. Life-changing events are going to happen, from seismic catastrophes like this year’s earthquakes, the 2004 tsunami and the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, to wars, revolutions and financial crises. Life is full of uncertainty and risk. The best we can do is be prepared to respond effectively and to live with the results.
Iran’s nuclear program and the political and military response to it is a case in point. Plenty of diplomatic energy is being spent to try to prevent Iran from surprising us one morning with news or proof that it possesses the atomic weapons it currently insists it has no intention to develop. We all hope diplomacy succeeds, but we need to be prepared in case it does not.
Israel intends to be prepared. The Israelis recently unveiled their newest and largest unmanned military aircraft, a pilotless drone the size of a Boeing 737 (if you have ever flown on Southwest Airlines, their passenger jets are the size we are talking about) that the Israelis pointedly noted has the range to reach Iran and to stay aloft for 20 hours at a time. Israel considers a nuclear-enabled Iran to be a mortal threat, and it has not ruled out a pre-emptive strike to try to eliminate Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities.
At a minimum, we can expect Iran to respond to such a strike by trying to close the Strait of Hormuz through which most Persian Gulf oil is shipped to global markets. Tehran’s response likely would also include firing missiles at Israel, and the Iranians would likely call on their Middle East affiliates, Hamas and Hezbollah, to launch attacks from Gaza and Lebanon, respectively. Syria could conceivably join the fray to try to recapture its lost Golan Heights. General war across the Middle East would be a distinct possibility.
All of this could greet us one random morning. Or we could confront some equally dire set of events someplace else — maybe the Korean peninsula, or the Taiwan straits, or the Indian subcontinent. Something big and bad is going to happen sooner or later.
But adversity can be overcome. The world will always have bad guys. With good planning and preparation we can raise the cost of bad acts enough to discourage some of the bad guys from acting out, and we can put ourselves in a position to effectively deal with the rest.
When we talk about the erosion of Western power, whether it is U.S. financial strength or European military capability and resolve, what we really are talking about is the degradation of our capacity to respond to those inevitable terrible mornings when we awake to find the world has changed. Those challenges are coming. The ultimate question is whether we will be prepared to meet them.