"The golden age of intelligence is before us"

Robert Kaplan says fighting terrorism will require new rules for spying, but he predicts that fighting an "almost comic book evil" will lead to a revival.

Published September 21, 2001 12:20AM (EDT)

"In a world in which borders are dissolving and bad guys conceal bombs in their pockets or steal millions by means of computers, the intelligence business is set for a golden age," wrote Robert Kaplan back in 1998 for the Atlantic Monthly. That golden age may have begun for real last week, when the terror attack on New York and Washington spurred our political leaders to pledge a war against terrorism that will largely be fought by expanded intelligence capabilities and small stealth squads of special forces.

The author of seven books, including "Balkan Ghosts" and "The Coming Anarchy," Kaplan has scanned the post-Cold War landscape from Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, to Ft. Bragg, N.C., which inspired his thinking about the future importance of intelligence and special forces. Known for his sober judgment and frequent pessimism, Kaplan was uncharacteristically optimistic about the U.S.'s capacity to recover from last week's terror and its aftermath. Salon interviewed Kaplan Wednesday by telephone at his home in western Massachusetts.

You have written about Islamic fundamentalism as a challenge to regimes in Egypt, in Pakistan. To people who say the U.S. got attacked because of its policies, particularly toward the Middle East, what do you say?

First of all, that's not why we got attacked. But that doesn't mean we're not going to have to make certain concessions in order to appease Arab moderates in order to help us in our struggle. We'll get help from a regime, and they'll ask us to put pressure on Israel over settlements, for instance.

The real cause of the attacks is that the terrorists have an existential hatred of the modern technological world, even though they use its toys. And that hatred exists because they see our world as the real challenge to Islam in a way that communism never was. Because communism was a failure, it was never seen as a challenge to them.

We really are a challenge. And also because the modern technological world is interpreted through an American prism. We've always represented the future. And our popular culture has the ability to suck up their new emerging middle classes -- in Egypt and other Islamic and developing countries -- because it's informal, it's not aristocratic -- it's jeans, computers, music. Because it's an informal culture, anyone can join it, and it becomes very enticing. And that's the threat. They hate us, but it's a type of respect.

You have traveled around the U.S. trying to understand where the country is headed. How do you think the attacks will change us as a country? What strengths and vulnerabilities have you observed?

Because we have had the dumb luck of geographical circumstance, until now we have been able to indulge ourselves in freedoms that other countries have not. We don't have to carry identity cards with us, like most Europeans. But we also tend to confuse convenience with liberty. And because of these freedoms, we tend to be that much more exposed. Historically, we have tended to denigrate the very parts of the bureaucracy like the intelligence services that have historically prevented these kinds of attacks.

The CIA functions badly because it's not been respected for decades. And when something's not respected, the best people are not attracted to join. What I see coming out of this is a kind of reform and resurgence of the CIA, like we saw in the U.S. military in the decade culminating in the Gulf War.

But there were umpteen television shows glorifying the CIA already set to air on the TV networks in the fall, before these attacks.

It's like pissing in an ocean. First of all, the Vietnam syndrome is over. The '60s are over. Assassinations will come back. Because there are no military targets. Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic had water and electricity grids to bomb. I mean, once we kept Belgrade out of running water and power for a week, Milosevic surrendered. We are dealing with an enemy now where there is nothing to bomb. You have to kill people.

As I said in the Atlantic, the next war is going to be all about intelligence. The great golden age of intelligence is before us, and the greatest spies are just being born now. Future wars are going to be based on the size and quality of the intelligence services. Because in a world of complex, variegated cultures, understanding intent is more important than satellite photos. We need people who can melt into societies.

But no one who has traveled a lot abroad and has a lot of foreign acquaintances can get a security clearance within American diplomatic and intelligence agencies. They have self-selected people who have very limited foreign experience.

That's all going to change. I got an e-mail the other day from a friend at the State Department. He said the change has been dramatic. Before, it was "You can't do this because of this rule and that rule." Now, he said, you do it and break the rule. And nobody will punish you. It turns out that this kind of bureaucratic web of restrictions -- that's going to be wiped away in a second.

Was there anything that surprised you as you watched the pictures on TV of New York after the attacks?

It turns out that we weren't weak as a society. For so many decades, we had nothing to struggle for. We became decadent and overly legalistic. But once threatened, that changed.

What's your prediction for the coming days? Are you optimistic?

I'm very optimistic. If you look historically at America, America was coming apart into partisanship and hatred in the '30s -- Huey Long, Father Coughlin, all that. And then Hitler and Tojo came along, and it saved us. After World War II, the U.S. has experienced 50 years of dynamism. Out of World War II came the GI Bill, civil rights, the erosion of anti-Semitism -- all of this came out of World War II.

Without it, America would have rolled into decadence. But we have been a very lucky country. Every few decades, we are faced with almost comic-book evil. You are going to see: A lot will change.

I was not surprised by the tremendous civil spirit in New York for two reasons. The little reason is because New York has happened to have a very good mayor for the last eight years, not just for the last eight days. Rudolph Giuliani has spent the previous eight years restoring a sense of civil spirit in New York.

But there's a bigger reason. America is a country built of small communities. America's greatness is not its central government, but its weak central government with hundreds of small communities. And those are the real roots of this country's vibrancy. The New York story is very much an American story.

Another thing to note is that the Red vs. Blue map of Bush vs. Gore -- the east and west coasts of the country versus the middle -- has been detonated. If Cheney's health doesn't hold up enough to run next term, I could see a Bush-[New York Gov. George Pataki] ticket, and New York going Republican.

You have written on everything from the rise of nationalism and the end of communism in Eastern Europe, to Egypt's fight with the Islamic brotherhood, to the U.S. intelligence services, to Pakistan as a potential Yugoslavia with nukes. What are your thoughts as you have watched events unfold here after the terrorist attacks?

The first thing no one has realized yet is that these attacks mean the end of Wilsonian idealism. Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda are all off the charts, assigned to the sepia-toned 1990s. We can only afford to do good works abroad when security at home can be taken for granted.

Absent that luxury, foreign policy goes back to what it has traditionally been: cold national security.

Back to Kissinger and realpolitik?

Right. The U.S. can only engage in good works abroad when it doesn't face threats to national security at home.

America's historical experience, our sense of security, was based on being surrounded by two oceans. Our national security was created not by a smart security policy, but by the dumb luck of geography.

Now technology has bridged oceanic distance. The result is that we are now more vulnerable than at any time since the British burnt down the White House in 1814.

We're back to the period of the first three or four U.S. presidents, from George Washington to James Madison to John Adams. All realists. They were reading Greek and Roman history, not the life of Jesus Christ. Realism tends to thrive when people feel insecure.

The 20th century did not end until last week. The Balkans, the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo -- all of that was a kind of low-level extension of the Cold War -- a coda.

How was the Bosnian war still a part of the Cold War?

In the Balkan wars what we were basically witnessing was the cleaning up of the business of communist rule in Eastern Europe. Really, when you think about it -- if you could give it one cause -- what we saw the last decade in the Balkans was the refuse of communism. When Belgium and everywhere else became middle class in the 1950s, the Balkans lagged behind. I mean, you don't see French Canadians smuggling AK-47s up New York's Hudson River.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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