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World at Risk

March 22, 2007

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

A general, a journalist, a risk analyst and a professor consider the precarious state of the world, toppling terrorism and giving literature a chance.

War, starvation and disease. Rape, executions and suicide bombing. Millions of people around the globe live--and die--by these harsh realities. Complicated scourges plague the dawn of the 21st century--potential nuclear terrorism, economic deprivation and movement across national borders of criminals, refugees, illegal drugs and devastating maladies. Repressive regimes stifle communication, squelch art and suppress freedom of expression.

tulanianwinter07_world1_1Tulanian talks to four men with different takes on the same issue: Why is the world in such a state of unrest, and what can we do about it?


A four-star general with a 38-year military career, Wayne Downing knows terrorism and has combated it at the nation's highest level. When the Tulane MBA talks about terrorism, it is in tough, sober terms. "This struggle is not over," says Downing. "It is going to be like the Cold War. It's an ideological struggle that will go on for years and years."

Downing, who after 9/11 was appointed to serve in the White House as national director and deputy national security adviser on combating terrorism, has studied the mind-set of the Sunni Salafist jihadists behind al Qaida, the terrorist group that instigated the World Trade Center attack.

He says that al Qaida has grown mightily since 9/11 by using the power of the Internet to spread its message of purity and a better world through a return to a "true" and strict interpretation of Islam.

As al Qaida continues to attract recruits, Downing makes a prediction: "The United States will undergo another major attack like 9/11, maybe even a series of them. If al Qaida or its affiliates or franchises can bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States, they will use them. We may have casualties not on the order of 3,000 but 30,000 or 300,000."

Yet, Downing suggests that the tragedy of 9/11 could have been prevented. The United States had tracked Osama bin Laden, leader of al Qaida, since bin Laden emerged as a jihadist, or holy warrior, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As early as 1994, bin Laden vividly "started coming up on the screen as a major terrorist figure." What's so frustrating about what happened on 9/11 "is that we had all the indicators that things were going to happen," says Downing.

"All the signs were there, and bin Laden himself told us in a series of fatwahs or edicts beginning in 1996 directing attacks on the United States. Then there were the publicly acknowledged attacks on the East African embassies in the summer of 1997 and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden Harbor in 2000."

Downing, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1962 and is now chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, served two tours of duty in Vietnam before earning an MBA from Tulane in 1971. He studied operations research systems analysis at Tulane, and says his time at the university gave him an opportunity to reflect on his life and put it in perspective.

Prepared with a fresh outlook, Downing advanced through the military ranks to become commander-in-chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command. In that role, he commanded the nation's top-secret counterterrorist forces prepared to deploy anywhere in the world within hours to preempt or respond to terrorist acts directed against American citizens and U.S. allies.

During his military career, he headed the special operations of all services during the 1989 invasion of Panama and led a joint special operations task force operating deep behind the Iraqi lines during Operation Desert Storm. After Downing retired from active duty, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to assess the 1996 terrorist attack on the U.S. base at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. In 1999-2000, Downing was a member of the Congressionally mandated National Commission on Terrorism. Condoleezza Rice, former national security adviser and now U.S. Secretary of State, still calls on Downing for advice.

Downing also did a classified assessment of the war on terror for former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last year. In mid-December, President George W. Bush called on Downing and four others for advice on the struggle in Iraq. This was the second visit in 2006 by Downing to the White House on that conflict. Downing has been to Iraq seven times since the war began. He has covered the war for NBC News, and he's appeared on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert, most recently in November.

Despite his long and distinguished career in the U.S. Army, Downing says the nation's fight against terrorism can't be won by military means alone. Political, economic, financial, law enforcement and information tools have to be utilized to counter the terrorist threat. "It's not something that can be done by the United States unilaterally," says Downing. "We cannot fight this ourselves. We've got to fight it with other countries around the world because these Salafist jihadists are a threat to everyone."


On Sept. 11, 2001, Lawrence Wright, a 1969 graduate of Tulane University, watched the terrorist attacks against America in which the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York crumpled in a fiery heap, killing nearly 3,000 people. He thought, "This looks like a movie." Then, he says, he had a sickening realization: "This looks like my movie." Wright co-wrote the screenplay for The Siege, a 1998 film starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening and Bruce Willis.

tulanianwinter07_world2_1The Siege is about terrorists, suicide bombers and conflicts among members of the FBI, the CIA and the military as they target terrorist "cells" in New York City.

"That movie anticipated, in certain eerie ways, the attacks on America by Islamist terrorists and the damage that these attacks would cause to our country and our civil liberties," says Wright. In response to 9/11, Wright temporarily put aside his screenwriting career and stepped back into his role as a journalist.

A staff writer for The New Yorker and author of six books, Wright called his editor at the magazine that very Tuesday morning and said, "Put me to work." And so began Wright's five-year odyssey that included interviewing 600 people and traveling to 11 countries in order to write The Looming Tower: al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, published by Knopf in 2006 and nominated for the National Book Award. The New York Times Book Review named The Looming Tower among the top 10 best books of 2006. (Wright returned to Tulane's campus in February to speak about the book.)

When Wright began his research for the book, the Saudi Arabian government wouldn't let him enter the country as a reporter. "That was the best piece of bad luck I ever had," says Wright. After being stalled for a year and a half trying to get a visa, he landed a job for three months as a teacher mentoring young Saudi journalists in Jeddah--Osama bin Laden's hometown.

Instead of staying in hotels and making calls, he had an apartment in Jeddah and got more involved in Saudi society than he would have as a visiting reporter. Wright had taught English and lived in Egypt in the early 1970s and has a familiarity with the Arabic language. Through diligence and persistence, Wright has written an unprecedented, intimate narrative of bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, his al Qaida associates and the American FBI and CIA agents who pursued them.

As a terrorist organization al Qaida was unusual, writes Wright. "Death on a grand scale was a goal in itself. There was no attempt to save innocent lives." In The Looming Tower, Wright probes the Salafist branch of Islam and the underpinnings of al Qaida beliefs. Salafist Islam does not recognize any Islamic traditions after the time (570-632) of the Prophet Mohammed. The struggle of Salafist Islam is "against the world of unbelief that had existed before Islam, which was still corrupting and undermining the faithful with the lures of materialism, secularism and sexual equality," writes Wright.

Wright offers tantalizing details of bin Laden's everyday life. Bin Laden had four wives, the last one a 15-year-old girl he married in spring 2001 over the protests of his older sons. Wright describes how bin Laden's young sons, bored living in austerity in Afghanistan, played Nintendo "because there was not much else to entertain them. ..." Murder and destruction of America were bin Laden's ultimate goals. "Al Qaida's duty was to awaken the Islamic nation to the threat posed by the secular, modernizing West," writes Wright. "In order to do that, bin Laden told his men, al Qaida would drag the United States into a war with Islam--'a large-scale front which it cannot control.' "

Answering the charismatic bin Laden's call to kill depraved infidels and responding to the alluring prospect of martyrdom, men found their way to al Qaida training camps. "Wherever purity is paramount," explains Wright, "terror is close at hand."

As Wright observed the demeanor of the young Saudi reporters he taught, he found clues into how radicalism prospers in a constricted civil society where it's difficult to find a way to express oneself. "They had no movies, no plays, no theater, no nightclubs, no music, no political life, very few parks or museums," says Wright. And they were all depressed. "They would bite their nails down to the nubs, jiggle their legs and had sleeping problems."

One of Wright's reporters wrote a story about a study of depression done at King Abdullah Aziz University--bin Laden's old school. The study found that 67 percent of the boys and 72 percent of the girls showed symptoms of depression. Seven percent of the girls admitted they had considered suicide. A sense of cultural humiliation pervades the Arab world, says Wright.
Arab countries haven't experienced the economic prosperity that other parts of the world have. "They've been left behind," says Wright. The Arab world stretching from Morocco to the Persian Gulf is larger than the United States and has about the same number of people--300 million. Even with oil fueling Arab economies, their gross national product is still less than half the state of California, says Wright. These are "barren" economies.

"There's a sense of constantly slipping behind. And that is frustrating. It promotes a feeling of hopelessness and futility." Post-9/11 and into the Iraq war, "the behavior of al Qaida is even more depraved than it was in the past," says Wright.

He cites "The Management of Savagery" by Abu Bakr Naji, an al Qaida strategist who talks about barbaric methods to terrorize a population in order to then seize control with the promise to restore order. (Find a complete translation of "The Management of Savagery" at the Combating Terrorism Center website, "When terror reigns, people long for order," says Wright. As Downing does, Wright foresees a lengthy struggle ahead. "Al Qaida is an engine that runs on the despair that comes out of the Arab and Muslim world," says Wright. "The only way to counter it is with hope."

Hope in the form of jobs, education and more thorough integration with the rest of the world--"those kinds of things will defeat al Qaida," says Wright. "But it's going to take a long time." It's also going to take better intelligence. In The Looming Tower, Wright tells the story of the FBI's and CIA's flawed pursuit of bin Laden before 9/11. He bemoans the paucity--to this day--of Arabic speakers in these agencies. "Our intelligence agencies have systematically excluded Arabs and Muslims because they fear they are security risks," says Wright. As a result, "They don't understand the nature of the enemy."


Ian Bremmer grew up playing "Risk," the game of world domination. Nowadays, he plays the game for real. Bremmer graduated from Tulane University in 1989. Within a decade of completing his undergraduate education and shortly after earning his PhD from Stanford University, he founded the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting firm that offers advice to businesses worldwide.

tulanianwinter07_world3_1Bremmer is the president of the company, which has almost 300 clients globally and 85 full-time staff members in offices in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and London. The firm employs 480 local people in 65 countries.

Wall Street companies, banks, institutional investors and multinational corporations regularly hire economists and strategists to provide financial counsel, but it's less common for them to turn to political scientists for guidance. That's the Eurasia Group's niche: Bremmer and his company focus on where and how politics can affect markets.

"When I left academe, my view was that I wanted to be relevant," says Bremmer. "I wanted to be out there in the real world but I still wanted to be a political scientist because that's what I love--focusing on international affairs."

Bremmer took his first trip outside the United States on a 1986 Study Abroad program with Ray Taras, a political science professor at Tulane. They went to the Soviet Union, touring Moscow, Leningrad and the Caucuses mountain region. Taras and Bremmer later co-edited two scholarly books about politics in post-Soviet states. Today, Bremmer relentlessly travels the world--he estimates that one-third of his working time is spent on global trips. In December, he set off on a typical business trip with stops in Dubai, Tokyo, Vienna and London. He has friends in Turkey, Russia and Indonesia.

Life in the fast lane landed Bremmer on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" last year, and he addressed the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in November. He's written for the online publication Slate, and he's in demand as a speaker through the Washington Speakers Bureau. What has made Bremmer a hot commodity on the talk-show circuit is his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, published by Simon & Schuster in 2006.

In The J Curve Bremmer presents a new model for understanding political crisis and the processes that destroy tyrannies and nourish open governance. Every country can be placed somewhere on Bremmer's J curve. Imagine a graph that plots two variables--stability/instability on the vertical axis and political and economic openness on the horizontal axis. (See illustration, page 25.) Nations can move between stability and instability and can become more or less open or closed. According to Bremmer, a closed society is inherently limited in its stability and is positioned on the left side of the J curve.

A stable and open nation, on the other hand, has the potential to become even more stable and more open and move way up the right side of the J. Dangerous situations arise as nations descend into instability and dip down to the bottom of the J curve. Bremmer places the United States high up the right side of the J curve because of its highly developed economic, social and political stability and its openness to new ideas, communication and the forces of globalization. He positions a closed and stable nation such as Cuba on the left side of the J curve.

Nations move along the J curve as their fortunes and the political winds change. Iraq was closed and stable during Saddam Hussein's rule but has moved toward instability--and openness--since the Iraq war began. Bremmer measures openness by calculating foreign direct investment, migrations of people in and out of the country and participation in the global communications revolution. Freedom of media and ability of citizens to organize and to talk to one another within the country are other characteristics of openness. "Openness can be stabilizing or destabilizing," says Bremmer.

And openness is not the same as democracy. Bremmer observes that outsiders have limited power to stop a country's slide down the J curve toward instability. But he says, "American policy should be predicated on finding ways to open a closed society to the world." "Openness enables change," he writes. "Change is an essential ingredient in growth and prosperity. Only the free exchange of information, values, ideas and people can build a sustainable global stability that enriches all who take part in it."

Bremmer's premise is that imposing economic sanctions on already-isolated countries such as Iran and North Korea is counter-productive. "Isolation doesn't work," says Bremmer. "It shores up closed authority." In isolation, leaders of closed, authoritarian societies circle the wagons, focusing on the perceived international threats, and thereby avoid facing internal problems.

Transitioning to openness from a closed and stable position on the left side of the J curve can be a treacherous path. Some countries such as South Africa have made the journey and stayed intact. Others such as Yugoslavia have not. China's swing on the J curve bears watching in the next decade. China is a closed society that suppresses individual freedom but it's being pried open by a huge economic boom. Its leaders have harshly subdued hundreds of protest demonstrations in the past few years, says Bremmer.

Yet, China already has the third-largest gross domestic product in the world. As the Communist police state that governs China collides with Chinese citizens' rising expectations for wealth, the reverberations will be resounding. Rising expectations bogged down by declining opportunities is a classic political science formula for unrest. And, as Bremmer and Wright note, that's the situation now in the Arab world, providing fertile ground for terrorists. Isolating Arab countries is not the answer to combating terrorism, says Bremmer. In isolation, "the two sides of the divide will understand each other less than they do now."


Curiosity brings understanding between groups, says Ray Taras, Tulane political science professor. "You need to be curious about the Other," he says. Taras' own curiosity about other cultures and politics began early as he was growing up in Montreal. The apocryphal story he tells is that his first babysitter was Zbigniew Brzezinski, who went on to become National Security Adviser to U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski's parents and Taras's parents would go out at night attending Polish balls together, leaving teenage "Zbig" to care for young Taras. Taras' father was active in emigre politics.


Clockwise from top left: the general, Wayne Downing; the journalist, Lawrence Wright; the risk analyst, Ian Bremmer; and the professor, Ray Taras.

"That got me interested in politics, but not the activism," says Taras. "I try to stay away from activism. There's so many disappointments that it's hard to live with."

Taras prefers to take the long view. He has written extensively on the former Soviet Union and its dissolution, and he follows Latin American politics, too, serving as an associate at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane.

Taras has reservations about economic globalization's benefits for poorer countries and people but sees the positive benefits of cultural globalization. When he first introduced his student Ian Bremmer to travel in the Soviet Union in the days before perestroika and glasnost, Americans were restricted to only a few cities.

Now, he says, his students travel in Russia to small towns of which he's never heard. Taras is director of Tulane's World Literature Program--at first glance, an odd hat for a political science professor to wear.

But, Taras says, "World literature is a way of adding to our understanding of why there may be conflict and misunderstanding." By reading novels, memoirs and good literary prose from other societies, people gain insights into others' "phobias, preferences, likes and dislikes, their knee-jerk reaction to various types of events, their problems with their families--what is really important to them to become happy," says Taras.

The study of world literature at Tulane is intended to make students curious about other societies, says Taras, who is always looking for novels, short stories and films to provide cultural hooks. Reading such literature and viewing these films, he says, "can create empathy on the part of a student with that victim of a difficult life in another country." Taras is halfway serious as he makes suggestions for Osama bin Laden's reading list.

"Have him read Toni Morrison [author of Beloved] and Maureen Dowd [New York Times political columnist]. I honestly think he would change his view about America."

Taras expects that the Shi'a crescent, extending from Iran through Iraq and down to Saudi Arabia, will be a hot spot of political instability for the next five to 10 years. Rivalry between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects--along with strife over the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--will continue to trigger violence.

"Violence breeds violence," he says. Taras, however, makes another prediction about the Middle East: "Every war comes to an end. The killing is not going to go on forever."

Mary Ann Travis is editor of Tulanian and a senior editor in the Office of University Publications.


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