AFA Policy Forum
R. James Woolsey
Former CIA Director
Conference Address on “The Global War on Terrorism”
Air & Space Conference 2004 – Washington, DC
September 15, 2004
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Mr. Woolsey: It was a real honor to be asked by the Air Force Association to be with you this morning,
but to tell you the truth, since I spent 22 years as a Washington lawyer and then some time out at the CIA in
the Clinton administration, I'm actually pretty well honored to be invited into any polite company for any
purposes whatsoever [laughter].
I thought I'd share some thoughts with you this morning about this war we're in. I tend to call it “The Long
War of the 21st Century.” I don't think “War on Terrorism” actually describes it very well, although that is a
manifestation in the United States in a way, so it's easy to see why people have fallen into that terminology.
I was calling it World War IV for a time because my friend Elliot Cohen at Johns Hopkins started calling it
that, designating the Cold War as World War III. Elliot's idea was that this war was going to have a lot of
similarity to the Cold War—being long, having fighting from time-to-time but not continually, having a heavy
ideological component and so forth. But people hear World War and they think of Normandy and Stalingrad and
Flanders Fields. This suggests to me that “The Long War of the 21st Century” might be a better description.
Why do I think it will be long? And by long I don't mean years, I mean decades, like the Cold War.
I think that a lot of this has to do with the nature of the enemy. The enemy I would say is not against
terrorism. World War II in the Pacific was not a war against kamikaze-ism. We are in a war against I would
say at least three totalitarian movements from the Middle East. Now for purposes of our current discussion,
I'm going to set aside North Korea—which is crazy enough to be part of the Middle East, but leave it for another
day—and potential conflict with China, which can't be completely discounted at all, to focus [solely] on the
Middle East. I'd say there are three totalitarian movements who have chosen to be at war with us from there.
One is the fascists—I don't think we should mince words about the Baathists and many of their colleagues.
The Baathist parties of Iraq and Syria were modeled after the fascist parties of the 1920s and '30s. They're
structured like them, they're anti-Semitic like them, and they’re fascists. So when we look at Fallujah today,
I don't think one should talk about insurgents. That's too neutral a term. Those who hold Fallujah are trying
to reestablish fascism in Iraq.
The second group is the Islamists from the Shi’ite side of Islam. Now, I use the term “Islamist” to denote a
totalitarian movement seeking to control a religion. I think that it's important not to grant to people like
Khamenei and Rafsanjani in Tehran and their instrumentalities, such as Hezbollah or Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq,
that they represent Islam, even the Shi’ite side of Islam. Torqamada in the late 15th and early 16th Century
said that he represented Christianity. In fact, he was a power behind the throne in Spain; he burned at the
stake Jews, Muslims and dissident Christians and stole their money. He was a totalitarian. We don't need to
grant to Torqamada the designation of Christian, and we don't need to grant to people like Khamenei the
designation of Muslim, even radical Muslim. So I tend to call them Islamists.
On the Sunni side of Islam, the Islamist movement, certainly the cutting edge that we have born the brunt of
attack from is al-Qaeda, but it is underpinned by a very strong totalitarian ideology that is anti-Christian,
anti-Jewish, anti-female, anti-modern, essentially the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia. Not all Wahhabis are or
become al-Qaeda members or terrorists, but that's the soil in which Islamism from the Sunni side of Islam has
grown for the last number of years. And somewhat the way angry German nationalism of the 1920s and early 1930s
was the soil in which Nazism grew. Not all angry German nationalists of the '20s and early '30s became Nazis,
much less concentration camp guards, and not all Saudi Wahhabis become Islamists or terrorists, but the link is
there and we need, I think, to understand it.
If that's who's at war with us, why? Why did they decide they wanted to take us on?
Well, they know. They know that we are their main enemy. They've decided to take us on for the same reason
that, after Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war against us. He knew that we are/were the principal barrier to the
establishment of the thousand-year Reich. Al-Qaeda knows that we are the principal barrier to their parallel,
extraordinarily broad ambitions. They're right. We are their principal enemy and they have decided for some
time, these different movements at different times, to move against us.
I'd say the Islamists from the Shi’ite side of Islam have been at war with us for a quarter of a century
since they seized our hostages in Tehran in 1979. And the Ba'athists have been at war with us since at least
1990-‘91, when Saddam moved into Kuwait. The Islamists from the Sunni side for at least a decade, perhaps more.
If that's who's at war with us, why? Why did they decide to come after us? I think there are two basic
reasons. One permanent and abiding, one temporal.
The abiding reason was best summed up for me at least two and a half years ago by a conversation I had with a
cab driver in the District of Columbia. Now, I hate reading articles about public opinion polls, I think they're
really boring. So since I spend a lot of times in cabs in the District, both practicing law and now as a
consultant, I talk to cab drivers. It's a lot more fun, they're interesting people, quite frequently, and I
think it's at least as good if not a better finger on the pulse of America.
About two and a half years ago, former President Clinton had given a speech at Georgetown University in which
he had implied, not exactly said, but implied that 9/11 was a payback for, in part, our treatment of the American
Indian and for American slavery. As I got into a taxi that morning I saw that the newspaper article was open in
the right front seat to that story. I also saw that the cab driver was one of my favorite substitutes for public
opinion polls. He was an older black guy about my age, had on his Redskins ball cap, a picture of his family on
the dashboard, clearly had been driving a cab in the District for a long time.
So I said, "I see your newspaper there. Did you read that story about the President's speech?" He said,
I said, "What did you think about it?" He said, "These people don't hate us for what we've done wrong, they
hate us for what we do right." You can't do better than that. You, we, are not just hated by all three of
these groups, we are cordially loathed for—fill in the blanks—freedom of speech, freedom of religions, freedom
of the press, open society, equal—almost equal—treatment of women, better than they do anyway. The best about
our society is what is hated, not the worst.
But why now? Why in the last 25 years? Why in increasing intensity? Why have they chosen now to come after
I think a short history of those years since 1979 would be suggestive. There is nothing more provocative,
particularly in this part of the world, than to communicate the message that we have, I think, unintentionally
communicated by a set of actions since 1979. Let me describe what I mean.
In 1979 in Tehran they seized our hostages. What did we do? We tied yellow ribbons around trees.
In 1982-'83 they blew up our Marine barracks and our embassy in Beirut. What did we do? We left.
In the 1980s, a number of terrorist attacks, Achille Lauro, a lot of others. What did we do? We sent the
lawyers. Right, we sent the prosecutors; we arrested a few small fry, dealt with it as a law enforcement problem
and prosecuted them. President Reagan did bomb Tripoli, once.
In 1991, we had half a million troops in Iraq as a result of a very well-organized coalition war to throw
Saddam out of Kuwait. We'd encouraged the Kurds and the Shia to rebel against Saddam. Then we signed a
ceasefire agreement which left the bridges intact, left the Republican Guard intact, let them fly armed
helicopters about, and we stood back with the Kurds and Shia succeeding in 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces, and
watched them be massacred by the tens of thousands.
It's hard to send a clearer message to the people of the Middle East than that—that once the oil of Saudi
Arabia and Kuwait is safe, we do not give a damn about you.
In 1993, Blackhawk Down in Mogadishu. What do we do? Same thing we did ten years before in Beirut—we left.
1993, Saddam tries to assassinate former President Bush with a bomb in Kuwait. What do we do? We fire a
couple of dozen cruise missiles in the middle of the night into an empty Iraqi intelligence headquarters in
Baghdad, thereby responding forcefully and decisively, I suppose, to Iraqi cleaning women and night watchmen.
But it wasn't Iraqi cleaning women and night watchmen who had tried to assassinate former President Bush.
In the rest of the '90s, with the Cole, with the East African bombings and other attacks, we did the same
thing we did in the '80s—we sent the lawyers. Right. Law enforcement problem. Prosecute them after it happens.
Put them in jail.
If you were Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or Khamenei around the turn of the millennium, and you were to
ask yourself, what are these Americans like? I think you would say to yourself, well basically they regard the
people of the Middle East as polite filling station attendants. They think we should be quiet and pump oil for
their SUVs. We think that the Americans don't like us or care about us very much, and we know that once they're
bloodied they run. No combination of messages to people like totalitarians, especially in that part of the
world, could be more provocative than that.
If that's whom we're at war with and why, how do we have to fight it? [Here are] two aspects to fighting it
here at home and one general principle about fighting it abroad.
Here at home we are going to be involved for decades with two sets of decisions to make and they'll affect
all our lives for a long time. One is that we are going to have to make some compromises and some choices
between liberty and security. We don't like that. We don't want to do that. We're Americans and we think we
ought to have all of all good things. Liberty and security are both wonderful things, we shouldn't have to
choose. That was our attitude during a large part of the Cold War and during the 1990s. Security's dealt with
overseas by people like the Air Force and NATO, the Navy and the CIA. Liberties are what we have here at home,
and they shouldn't ever conflict with one another. That was our view.
Then, by the afternoon of 9/11 three years ago, we knew that there had been people legally in the country
under our laws, most of them legally, studying as we like to have people come to do, but what they were studying
to do was how to fly aircraft into buildings. Not too long thereafter, we learned that there were terrorist
cells in places like Lackawanna, New York. And there were terrorist money-laundering operations of substantial
size in places like Herndon, Virginia, right across the river here. We began to realize that we were going to
have to do some things differently.
Now, as we look at these issues we have to realize that we are not a race, we are not a religion, we are not
a language. We are nothing in the world but a bunch of immigrants and descendants of immigrants operating under
Madison's Constitution and his Bill of Rights. We are children of Madison's Constitution and his Bill of Rights
and we can never forget that.
We also need to remember something Justice Jackson once said in a Supreme Court decision—“The Constitution is
not a suicide pact.”
The Constitution historically has given the President, and especially the President when operating with the
authority of the Congress, a good deal of latitude in wartime about how to deal with security in such a way even
if it means some compromises with liberties during the course of the war. We've gotten those liberties back as
we have compromised on them in the past. The most famous example was Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas
corpus during the Civil War. But those are tough calls and we're going to be making them as a society for a
The second area is that we live at the heart of not just dozens but hundreds of complex networks. This is
the most technologically sophisticated society the world has ever seen and we have to make work a lot of
networks, from the Internet to food processing and growth and delivery to the electricity grid to chemical
production and transportation, on and on. We have to make them work. And they were all designed for openness,
for ease of access, for ease of maintenance, and without a single thought being given to terrorism.
Some of these networks are designed in such a way that as they get more and more complex, they are subject to
accidental failure. People who operate in fields such as chaos theory and network theory sometimes call this
“The Butterfly Effect.” The butterfly flutters his wings on one side of the world. The ecosphere is a complex
system, so you could conceivably could have a tornado on the other side. It seems kind of fanciful and
theoretical until you realize that a year ago August, a tree branch fell in Ohio on some power lines and very
shortly thereafter, some 50 million electricity consumers in Canada and the Eastern United States lost
power—some of them up to a week.
Now I would call those not really butterfly effects but malignant effects. Unintentional disturbances of a
network through accident or otherwise that can have cascading effects as a result of the complexity of the
network. It's not the only thing; however, we have to deal with it as a result of the way these networks are
On 9/11, there was nothing accidental about what happened. A group of very evil people, I'll use the
President's word, got together some years ahead and said, “let's look at the civil air transport network of the
United States. The foolish Americans let short knives through baggage checks and that's very good because box
cutters can slit flight attendants' and pilots' throats just as easily as long knives.”
Then they have a policy of being polite to hijackers because they think they're just going to be flown to
Cuba and stay on the runway for a few hours. They haven't ever changed their policy. Polite to hijackers is
wonderful. That makes things much easier for us.
Third, if you can believe it, they have flimsy cockpit doors in their airliners. That's superb because that
means that instead of just killing the people on the planes we can take the planes over, fly them into buildings,
and kill thousands.
That's not a malignant effect, that's not an accidental disturbance of some sort that cascades—that’s war.
That's war here. We haven't had to think about that since 1865.
So we're not used to thinking about how these networks can be utilized in order to kill us intentionally, and
we have to deal with both malignant and malevolent problems. If we only fix one and don't think about the other
we can create serious difficulties for ourselves. For example, we transport toxic chemicals in this country by
rail. That's good. We put signs on cars that have the toxic chemicals in them in big letters—CHLORINE. That's
good. If there's an accident we can clean it up, know what it is. From the point of view of terrorism, it's
not such a great idea because railroads run through the middle of cities and they run along predicted paths. And
you don't need to know much English to look for that chlorine sign if you're sitting there with an RPG. So we
have to think about both malignant problems and malevolent problems on these networks.
If you are seriously overweight and a heavy smoker, you are creating risk, to some extent a malignancy, for
yourself. And if you're having a last cigarette of the day and you're looking out your bedroom window and you
see a guy in a ski mask carrying a .45 climbing into your basement window the sum total of your response should
not be, “you know, I really need to stop smoking.” You've got two problems, not one. You need to reduce the
risk of malignancy, but you also better either get the family shotgun or a baseball bat or call 911 or something,
to deal with the intruder.
Our European friends seem to want to think only about the malignant problems—fine, global warming. Fine. Fix
that. It's a good idea. We also need to deal with the malevolent.
A final point. War overseas. We have the most extraordinary military capability through the dedication of
our people and the sophistication of our systems, the use of intelligence in part, which I hope Congress doesn't
foul up, that the world has ever seen. But that won't be all we will have to use in this Long War of the 21st
Century. It will have much in common, I think, with the Cold War in the following sense.
Our military, by maintaining the deterrent, by maintaining our alliances, by drawing the line on Soviet
expansion, contained the Soviet Union, and saved South Korea in the early '50s by fighting there. Vietnam was
Vietnam. We had some fighting during the 45 or so years of the Cold War, but a lot of what we did was hold the
line while we won the war ideologically. In time, we convinced the Lech Walesas and the Vaclav Havels and the
Andrei Sakharovs and Solidarities that this was not a war of East against West. It was not the United States
against the Soviet Union. It was a war of freedom against tyranny and we and they were on the same side.
We are going to have to—in a very different way with different skills and different approaches—do the same
thing with the Muslim world. We're going to have to convince hundreds of millions of good and decent Muslims
around the world who don't want to live in dictatorships, who don't want to be terrorists, that they and we are
on the same side.
Now this is not hopeless. First of all, about half of the world's Muslims live in democracies. Over 700
million live in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, India, Mali, Senegal—democratic Muslim-predominant countries.
But there are no democracies in the Middle East, other than Israel and Turkey. The Arab Middle East is entirely
free of democracy for a whole history of cultural and historic reasons. It's going to be a tough slog, as the
Secretary of Defense says, “a long, hard slog.” I see no other alternative.
We can't beat something with nothing. Today, the something that is offered by Osama bin Laden is to tell
unemployed, ill-educated young men in the streets of Cairo and Riyadh and Baghdad, that their life can mean
something through Jihad. We cannot simply tell those same young men, “just stay quiet and be polite filling
station attendants. Pump our oil for us and leave us alone.” It won't work. It might have worked in some past
era, when the world was not nearly as integrated as it is now. Travel, communications, the Internet, and trade
mean that we have to undertake a fundamental change of particularly the Arab Middle East. This will not be
The one thing that makes it, to my mind, plausible is if you look at what we've already done.
In 1945, there were 20 democracies in the world. Today there are 117, nearly 100 more. Eighty-eight of
them operating under the rule of law; another nearly 30 operating with serious problems of corruption and so
forth like Indonesia, but nonetheless, regular elections in which people freely choose their leaders and have
basic rights such as freedom of speech and the rest.
That's an increase of nearly 100 democracies to over 60 percent of the world's population in the last 60
years—an amazing achievement. We did a bit of that by force of arms—South Korea, after a delay; Grenada;
Panama. But most of it, as I said, was done by our holding the line and changing the nature of the world in
all sorts of different ways with strong assists from our allies. In the case of Poland from the Pope; in the
case of Spain from a brave King; all sorts of people made contributions to this development of democracy.
It is in existence in a lot of places that people are continually surprised at. Mongolia and Mali, for
example, are perfectly fine, functioning democracies. The vast majority of Latin America. About half of
sub-Saharan African population; about a third of its states; large amounts of Asia. All along the way people
have said, “you know, the Germans, the Japanese, the Catholics, the Asians, the these, the those, they won't
understand democracy.” All along the way, the people who have said that have been wrong. Yes, there's been
backsliding as in Venezuela today, as in Belarus. You don't always bring it off. But the trend over the last
60 years has been extraordinary. We have to do the same thing in the Middle East, and it won't be easy.
But as we try it, I know we will get a lot of people like senior members of the Saudi Royal Family and the
President of Egypt, a lot of others saying, “you damned Americans. You just interfere a lot. You don't
understand our culture. Our culture is that I get to make the decisions. You come over here and interfere
with things, you worry us a great deal.”
I think our response should be, “well, we'd much prefer to have you on our side but if you're not, frankly,
you're right to be worried because let me tell you something about the 20th Century. There were five big
empires—the Kaisers, Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, Tojo’s, and Stalin’s. They're all gone and we're still here.”
Our poet Carl Sandberg said it best about the American people. "This old anvil laughs at many broken
Thank you [applause].
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