So obviously, the main issue (other than “what’s for lunch”) that I thought about while riding on my trip was the war. In my mind, it is centrally the broader “war” between an aggressive sect of Islamic radicals and the governments that have a symbiotic relationship with them. The battlefield in Israel and environs, Iraq and Afghanistan is the most visible front in the war – today.
What I want to do it set out in a fast pass the issues that I’ve been chewing over, and then try and return to the key ones in greater depth to talk about them – hopefully with my thinking and questions amplified by yours. It’s obvious that this is a time that requires more than a bit of serious thinking for people on all sides of the issue, and none more than folks like me – those who supported the invasion of Iraq and must now step back and look at the situation – which is neither as good as we’d hoped nor, I still believe, as awful as it is painted in some corners – and think hard about where we stand today.
So I want to start with questions and sketches of answers. Note that the answers may well be contradictory – it’s definitely true that I am conflicted and that I hope in my blogging in the next little while to dig into those contradictions.1. Why does the war matter? Does Islamist terrorism deserve the high level of attention and concern that many people are showing?
Contra Glenn Reynolds, who says at Instapundit:
To read some blogs today, you’d think that this was the 9th century, with camel-riding Jihadis ready to descend on helpless American towns, swinging unstoppable scimitars. It’s not that way; it’s more like the Ghost Dance or similar movements borne of frustration at losing, movements that do their damage all right, but that are doomed to fail. I don’t mean to understate the threat, which is real enough. But it’s not on the order of the Cold War, you know, and we won that one.
Not so much, Glenn. I believe that state-facilitated terrorism does potentially present a serious enough risk to the health of the US – to our global primacy politically and economically – that it fully justifies the level of concern. This isn’t just a symbolic war – it’s one with real material risks that we must confront.
Let me divert for a moment to talk about what I mean when I say “state-facilitated terrorism,” above.
To me, it is the difference between Oklahoma City and 9/11 – a difference of scale so profound that it becomes a difference in kind. As I’ve written before, the psychological/philosophical reaction to modernity that I call “Bad Philosophy” is certainly present in the West, and we will certainly feel flashes (maybe literally) of pain from it. But the scale of attack that is likely to be mounted by a domestic terrorist group is substantially smaller than the one that could be mounted by a terrorist group with state support – which implies larger amounts of money, easier access to weapons, a place where they can be housed or train without fear of arrest or attack, and the ability to manage or forge identity.
The next post will set out some scenarios which I believe could be plausibly carried out by a cadre of 10 committed terrorists with 20 – 50 ‘helpers’ and a reasonable amount of cash. From my point of view, the risks they impose are strong enough that they deserve to be treated as far more than a nuisance.
2. If Islamist terrorists are such a big risk, why not just go to war and conquer or kill them?
Well, first and foremost because it would be flatly wrong (to launch a full-scale war with the Islamic world) at this stage of the conflict. There are too many paths that lead to a less-violent (note that I don’t say nonviolent) solution, and we have the moral and practical imperative to use the lowest level of violence that we can. The risks I outline in 1) above are just that – risks, not prophecy.
We have to live in the world, and like it or not, as I tell my sons, that means you have to accept that you are sharing the table with people you may or may not like or be happy with.
That doesn’t imply that they can stab you with their dinner knives with impunity. But it does suggest a more-tolerant vision than I think many of the “bomb Iran now” advocates may have of our role and place in the world. That tolerance is our strongest weapon, and we should be using it to wage ‘soft’ war to go with the ‘hard’ one our troops are fighting today.
The basic principle is well-set out by Abu Aardvark:
A smart campaign against al-Qaeda and the jihadist fringe should drive a wedge between them and mainstream Muslims. It should demonstrate the absurdity of al-Qaeda’s claims about a Crusader war against Islam. Even today, the vast majority of Muslims reject al-Qaeda’s theology, tactics, and goals. We should be trying to keep it that way instead of trying to do al-Qaeda’s work for it.
This is a good variant on my favorite Clint Smith quote…
“You better learn to communicate real well, because when you’re out there on the street, you’ll have to talk to a lot more people than you’ll have to shoot, or at least that’s the way I think it’s supposed to work.”
The post after the scenario one will set out what I think are the shortcomings of what we’ve done to date in this sphere.
3. If you want to “talk” with the Islamists, doesn’t that undermine point 1., above? Aren’t you denying the real risk we face?
No, I don’t think so. Look, the goal of war is the bend the enemy to our will – not necessarily to kill him or enslave him. We want the Islamic world to behave well – to pursue national, racial, cultural, and religious goals in the time honored way that the gentle nations of the West have done so for – decades – since World War II. Seriously, we want to change the behavior of a variety of states and change the direction of a large number of people in several societies.
And winning – bending them to our will – implies a mixture of seduction and threat. The threat is simple, and present always – we could if we chose, follow Duncan Black’s prescription in which
…it’s you fuck with us a little bit and YOU NO LONGER LIVE BITCHES!
The problem is that until we decide we’re willing to kill “them” all – or kill enough of them to cow the rest into submission, we’re left needing to convince them that making peace with us – on terms acceptable to us – is worth their while. That something is in it for people on the other side.
Wouldn’t we rather sell people on rights, laws, freedom, and prosperity – on ‘democracy, sexy, whiskey!’ then fight them?
We’ve done a truly crap job of that selling, and to me that more than anything else is the core and abject failure of the Bush Administration.
Why aren’t we trying to seduce them with what the West has to offer? What are we doing to win the average person in Egypt over to our side? Hell, what are we doing to keep the average person in Des Moines on our side?
Doesn’t it seem – when we have the weapons at hand to confidently state that we can demolish their societies and reduce the survivors to sustenance in a weekend – that we have the responsibility to try and talk them out of committing ‘suicide by war’??
4. So how’s that Iraq thing working out for you, then?
Obviously badly. Worse strategically, I think than tactically – in that I remain convinced (admittedly with little evidence except my own perception of how we are being told what is going on and a sparse overlay of demographic facts) that things are brutally tough in Iraq right now – but not horrible.
The numbers of deaths don’t approach the levels of the Lebanon civil war, and aren’t vastly (they are 3 – 4X) above the peak murder rates we saw in California in the 1990’s. Again – that’s not good news – but neither is it a scene of ongoing pitched street battles with massive casualties.
But even as I’m somewhat optimistic tactically, I am a total pessimist strategically. My justification – and I believe, under all the layers, the justification of the Administration – was to shock the other governments and actors in the Middle East, primarily the Iranians and Saudis, into modifying their behavior and support for the Islamist movement. We hoped that Iran would act like Libya did.
Didn’t happen, unfortunately. There are a lot of reasons that are no one’s fault, and a lot of blame to parcel around for the reasons that are. It was clearly not a risk-free move. By threatening, we risked hardening the positions of those who weren’t afraid of us.
By squabbling – by overtly acting out within our political class and our public intellectuals – we make it transparently clear to the enemy – who does read our media – that we’re not so sure about this fighting thing.
And so those who oppose us are made stronger both because we aren’t doing as Abu Aardvark suggests and driving wedges within the Muslim world (meaning we aren’t seducing people away to join our side), and because while our soldiers are steadfast and resolute, our polity isn’t (which gives our enemies the clear impression that we can be defeated).
So the “undecided” Muslim populace and leaders see a brutal enough West to be repellent – but one insecurely questioning it’s own brutality enough not to be terribly frightening.
5. Why bother? Why not just sit down and work something out that makes the other side happy?
Because I don’t see that as being very easy, for good reasons and bad ones.
The alternative to changing their behavior is that we change ours – by tolerating their primacy in a number of areas. Thucydides talked about that a bit:
Again, your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honours. You should remember also that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamoured of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. And men of these retiring views, making converts of others, would quickly ruin a state; indeed the result would be the same if they could live independent by themselves; for the retiring and unambitious are never secure without vigorous protectors at their side; in fine, such qualities are useless to an imperial city, though they may help a dependency to an unmolested servitude.
I would rather bend the Islamic world to our will then bend to theirs, for the simple reason that I like ours better. They fly use our hospitals, not vice versa. The life of the poor here – or even of the stained middle class – is far better than the life enjoyed there. We don’t – as a state – execute gays, teenaged girls who are raped, or force women into servitude.
People here can question authority – rather vigorously – and don’t get thrown in jail. We can worship – or not worship – as we please.
It isn’t just because I am an American or a Westerner that I support one side in this conflict, and don’t see myself as impartial. It is because I genuinely believe that the values of the West are better, and worth defending.
I don’t delude myself enough not to believe that many people see our Western power as tyranny – and in some ways it has been and it is.
But the choices offered are not between the tyranny of Western values and institutions and an idealized freedom, but between the tyranny of MTV and Citibank that of the burqua, public stoning, and the Ministry For The Protection Of Virtue.
Our side – and yes, there is an ‘our side’ – is more than worth defending. The question is, as always, how.
I’ll close with two more Clint Smith quotes:
“You know the last words most [killed on duty] street cops ever say? ‘I’m gonna go in there and kick his ass!’ The word for that is suicidal aggressiveness.”
“If you carry a gun, people call you paranoid. That’s ridiculous. If I have a gun, what in the hell do I have to be paranoid about?”
The point, to hammer it home, is that right now we are equally at risk from suicidal aggressiveness and passivity. And that we are carrying guns (lots of them) and so what the hell do we have to be paranoid about? Calm assessment of the threats and the appropriate reaction to them makes a whole lot more sense.