An expert in U.S. counter terrorism, Colonel Paul Melshen '72 sees growing dangers facing U.S. citizens from foreign and domestic terrorism.
"Making the World Safe for Democracy."
That Cold War motto justified foreign policy decisions from the wars in Korea and Vietnam to a nuclear build-up that put the world only moments away from self-annihilation. It was a dangerous time. Now the United States and its allies have won the Cold War and the world is certainly safer for democracy. Yet following bombings in New York, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta, the world seems more dangerous than ever for U.S. citizens.
U.S. Marine Colonel Paul Melshen '72 returned to Wabash during the Political Science Department's 50th anniversary celebration to speak to students, faculty, and the community about this "Changing Face of Conflict in the Post-Cold War World." Presently a professor in the department of strategy and operational art at the National Defense University in Norfolk, Virginia, Col. Melshen is an expert in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.
Wabash Magazine asked Col. Melshen for his perspective on the various threats to the United States and its citizens and the likelihood that the recent bombings are harbingers of life in America in the 21st Century:
WM: With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military had to shift its focus from a single, powerful enemy to a more fragmented threat. Has the military and it's civilian leaders adjusted effectively to this new reality?
Col. Melshen: The strategic threat has greatly changed and the multiplicity of threats greatly exceeds our capabilities. The threats to which we must be ready to respond may include two major regional conflicts (Southwest Asia and the Korean Peninsula), Islamic fundamentalism, border disputes and expansionism, civil wars, humanitarian operations, arms proliferation, drug control, military assistance to civil disturbances (as in the Los Angeles riots), and others. At the same time, budgets and manpower have been reduced. Despite the comments of some politicians and senior officials that we "are doing more and better with less," the reality is that you end up doing less with less.
For instance, we'd be very hard-pressed to execute a campaign like Desert Shield today. We simply don't have the capability.
WM: The World Trade Center bombing shattered the illusion that Americans were somehow immune from large-scale attacks from foreign terrorists
Col. Melshen: For the better part of three decades, the United States went virtually untouched by international terrorism. Such good fortune should not be taken for granted as we enter the 21st Century. Terrorist organizations will find the U.S. a more lucrative target than in the past. As Gerard Chaliand, a noted writer on the subject of terrorism and insurgency warfare, said: "If guerilla warfare is a weapon of the weak, then terrorism is a weapon of the weaker still." Much of the terrorism that will be imported into the United States will come from nations or political movements that cannot achieve their political goals via normal diplomatic relations.
WM: Yet in 1996, attacks of terrorism actually decreased, both internationally and in the U.S.. Are we getting better at detecting terrorist acts before they occur, or were we just lucky?
Col. Melshen: With the Soviet Union no longer in existence and therefore no longer funding many of these operations, the ops tempo [frequency of attacks] has decreased. When you factor out that involvement alone, you're going to find a dynamic impact on terrorist acts.
We have gotten better at detecting terrorist attacks before they occur, but the potency of the weapons terrorists have has so increased that you only need one to go off. We can't afford a make a mistake.
WM: During your lecture you cited the bombing of the World Trade Center as an instance in which we made a mistake.
Col. Melshen: We allowed Sheik Abd al-Rahman to enter the country. We were going to monitor his activities and we didn't do a good job of that. Because of "slippage" between various agencies regarding who was doing what, he was able to carry out the bombing attack on the World Trade Center. And it could have been worse. Had it been a nuke, the damage would have been catastrophic. We cannot have any kind of slippage.
WM: I assume this "slippage" was, in this instance, miscommunication between governmental agencies. Does having multiple agencies dealing with the threat of terrorism make us less effective?
Col. Melshen: There are 20 agencies dealing with terrorism in the U.S. Everyone has a little piece of the pie. Scholars have referred to this sort of bureaucratic competition as polychratic chaos. It prevents any unity of effort in the fight against terrorism. I would argue that to ensure unity of effort, one agency should assume responsibility for the counter-terrorist fight in America. We need a congressional mandate to take a careful look at how we're organized for the type of missions we need to counter the threat of terrorism.
WM: If we aren't effectively organized to fight terrorism, what else needs to be done?
Col. Melshen: Certainly interstate coordination needs to be increased. We need to look at funding, as well. All of this can't be done on the cheap. I'm not advocating simply more money for defense. What I am advocating is that, given this threat, we have to look at how we're organized to fight it and whether we're funded sufficiently to meet that threat.
WM: It seems that the type of intelligence information we need for this threat is another change from Cold War days.
Col. Melshen: One of the things we did even before the end of the Cold War in almost all the intelligence agencies was to reduce our human capabilities. The problem with that and the reliance on technology is that while satellites can show you equipment, placement, and numbers of troops, they can't show you the intent of the leaders. We experienced this in the early stages of Desert Shield. What was Saddam Hussein's intent? We didn't have the human intelligence information to give us that answer. That sort of intelligence is essential in counter-terrorism.
Getting the best human intelligence agents for this effort is a long-term process. You don't just put some people out on the street and find out what's going on. These people have to be trained and in their environment for a long period of time to get results. You can't just say "tomorrow we're going to put 2,000 more people in the human intelligence business" and have that information the next day. So we need to start training these people now.
WM: In your talk you described three classifications of domestic terrorists: the anti-government groups, including the militias and individuals such as Timothy McVeigh; single-cause threats such as the Unabomber; and a group you called the "super predator" class
Col. Melshen: The most disturbing category is this "super predator class" that John DeJulio has written about. This will be a very difficult threat to come to terms with and defeat. These are individuals with no ethical norms, no respect for the sanctity of human life-not for the sanctity of others' lives, not for the sanctity of their own.
We see these people first at a young age, when they commit a crime, such as killing someone for a coat or a pair of shoes-a senseless act of violence. By the year 2000 many of these individuals will come of age, and we'll end up with two generations of people like this-people without an ethical or religious base.
These people are not politically- or cause-motivated. They achieve a sense of liberation and power through violent acts. Predator class terrorism will resemble acts of crime, but the uncontrollability of their actions will be more similar to terrorist acts. The number of acts will be limited, yet they will occur nationwide, broadening the scope of the problem.
WM: We always hear about it when terrorists succeed in attacks, but are there numerous unsuccessful attempts that we don't hear about?
Col. Melshen: The FBI carries out between 12-20 major domestic terrorism investigations a year. A lot of these investigations will stay low-profile, though I don't think there is any effort on the FBI's part to keep things from the public. But there's a delicate balance, finding out how many of these individuals are just sounding off and how many are actually ready to perform terrorist acts.
There's also a delicate balance between the need to know the intent of these individuals while not infringing on their individual rights as Americans.
WM: Proposed methods for screening airline passengers before boarding as a precaution against terrorism have recently drawn fire from those who fear individuals of Middle Eastern origin may have their rights violated. What's your take on that controversy?
Col. Melshen: In this case, I'd prefer to err on the side of safety, provided the questions are asked within the framework of U.S. law. I tell my students, even those in Special Operations, that regardless of the threat you have to act under the laws of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the laws of the Geneva Convention, and the laws of the United States and state governments.
WM: Is the threat of terrorism likely to change the daily lives of the average American, and how is are individuals supposed to defend themselves against these threats?
Col. Melshen: First, I think we have to come to terms with the fact that the threat exists. The idyllic days of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver are over. We live in a much more violent America where terrorist acts are increasing. In contrast to many European countries, especially Great Britain, we are still largely unaccustomed to acts of terrorism in this country. But we have to come to terms with this. We will have to become more aware of our environment and be on guard for something out of the ordinary. Main Street is no longer some safe refuge where we can simply wile away our time.
At the same time, we are not yet in a castle-keep situation. Some of these groups will wish that we were, and if we become afraid to leave our houses, apartments, or suburban homes, then these terrorist groups will have achieved a tactical victory. Instead, we should be attuned to our surroundings and be willing to assist the police and government agencies. Even small amounts of information could save hundreds of lives.
WM: So what do you view as the greatest obstacle to our overcoming the terrorist threat?
Col. Melshen: The United States still finds itself in a denial period. Because we live in a civilized, affluent society, we tend to deny that the threat actually exists. Many liberal democracies go through this denial period. They complacently and sometimes naively believe these terroristss to be nothing more than hooligans or petty criminials who will eventually disappear or be apprehended quickly by local police.
What I have read and seen in my studies and research on a number counter-terrorism efforts is that the longer you deny this problem, the harder it is to get to a solution.
The all-too-common conventional wisdom is that time is on the terrorists' side. This is false. Time is neutral. The key to defeating terrorism is the proper utilization of time. Now is the time the United States should begin taking this threat seriously.