Monday, August 21, 2006

On Being Overly Categorical, and Making Category Mistakes

In the middle of what was an otherwise decent enough op-ed published last week, George Will snuck in this canard, quoting an anonymous senior Bush administration official [emph. added]:

"The idea that the jihadists would all be peaceful, warm, lovable, God-fearing people if it weren't for U.S. policies strikes me as not a valid idea...." [...]

The official is correct that it is wrong "to think that somehow we are responsible -- that the actions of the jihadists are justified by U.S. policies." But few outside the fog of paranoia that is the blogosphere think like that.
Note the use of the word "justified." As Gene Callahan explained five years ago, with a commendably cool head amidst the passion, paranoia and jingoism rampant in the days following the attacks on 9/11: this is fundamentally a category mistake. The question is not whether or not the actions of terrorists are morally justified in light of US foreign policy, but whether one can explain how certain of our actions can create a dynamic within which terrorism might become an attractive option and otherwise flourish. Said Callahan:

The mode of historical discourse is that of just such explanations. The historian qua historian is not concerned with the morality of a course of action. He is concerned with explaining why that course of action, and not some other, actually was chosen. The result of his efforts is a coherent narrative that describes how historical events arose from various actors' understanding of their circumstances.

Moral justification does not concern itself with such explanations, but, instead, with whether or not some action conformed to a tradition of moral practice.
Through the same basic category mistake, Will and his Bush administration accomplice erect a useful strawman with which to criticize and belittle the work of political opponents, historians and commenters, professional and amateur alike, who seek to probe explanations of the terrorist phenomenon that consider cause and effect relationships and thus, hopefully, support and help craft policies designed to minimize their deleterious consequences. While many commenters and Democratic officials have explored the root causes of terrorism, there are only nominal numbers on the fringe that seek to morally justify those actions by referring to our foreign policy.

The other frequent error encountered when discussing the concept that US foreign policy can, in some circumstances, give rise to or create underlying support for, terrorism is that of being overly categorical. Most often, this manifests itself in a series of all or nothing propositions.

First, is the counter-argument that there is no set of US foreign policy choices that could on their own satisfy every Islamist terrorist everywhere. Some terrorists would still want to attack us no matter what. Second, and related to the first, is the claim that there are no policies that we could adopt that would eradicate anti-Americanism and the hostility that terrorists must exploit in order to secure for themselves the recruits needed to carry out operations, the financing to conduct their affairs and the relative anonymity needed to avoid detection that a friendly population can provide.

Those that use these categorical frames are usually doing so in support of a position that seeks to shield unwise and faulty American foreign policies from criticism based on the logical consequences of those policies. "Why change our foreign policy," they ask, "when nothing is going to completely extinguish all terrorism committed against US interests everywhere?" This fallacy was eloquently asserted by Irshad Manji in an op-ed in the New York Times also last week:
Last week, the luminaries of the British Muslim mainstream — lobbyists, lords and members of Parliament — published an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, telling him that the "debacle" of both Iraq and Lebanon provides "ammunition to extremists who threaten us all." In increasingly antiwar America, a similar argument is gaining traction: The United States brutalizes Muslims, which in turn foments Islamist terror.

But violent jihadists have rarely needed foreign policy grievances to justify their hot heads. There was no equivalent to the Iraq debacle in 1993, when Islamists first tried to blow up the World Trade Center, or in 2000, when they attacked the American destroyer Cole.
While I generally applaud Manji's call for a greater sense of individual and group responsibility within her community, and the notion that US foreign policy does not and should not justify terrorism, I found her historical analysis of explanations to be lacking.

First of all, in rebuttal to her counterpoints, it should be noted that there was a certain Iraq-related incident of concern around the time of the 1993 World Trade Center attack - even if not nearly as radicalizing an event as the current catastrophe. Further, it was in partial reaction to events surrounding the first Iraq war that bin Laden developed attitudes that led, in part, to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole (and subsequent attacks on the US) - the rejection by the Saudi royals of his offer to provide a cadre of troops comprised of mujahadeen from Afghanistan to secure the Saudi border with Iraq in favor of a sizable US force. The prolonged presence of those US forces was viewed as an assault on Islam by bin Laden, a sign of the Saudi regime's subservience to US interests and as a blow to his own outsized ego.

Further, Manji artfully dodges the 500lb gorilla in the room that is the United States' foreign policy in relation to Israel and the Palestinians - again, cited by bin Laden and Zawahiri at various times as giving rise to portions of their perverted jihadist worldview. Not to mention the net effect of a century's worth of strategic thinking designed to maintain an affordable and stable supply of oil, and counter Soviet attempts to do the same, that led to the adoption of many unsavory policies including a coup that toppled a democratically elected president in Iran as well as the coddling and support of many related and unrelated despots (including Saddam himself under Reagan). Billmon does a pretty good job of sketching out this chapter in our history.

But more important than refuting the specific historical examples cited by Manji, or engaging the meta-historical analysis of Billmon et al, is to challenge the premise that we must only consider options in this "all or nothing" framework. While Manji is correct that some Islamist terrorists are going to exist regardless of our foreign policy decisions (or at least those that we could undertake within reason), and that, relatedly, some degree of anti-Americanism is going to persist anyway (always a useful tool for leaders and populations alike to deflect responsibility and blame), those unfortunate facts don't mean that there is nothing to be gained by being conscious of, and accounting for, the impact of our foreign policy on the region. Quite the opposite.

For terrorists to be successful, they must have a certain level of cooperation and support from the underlying population. While we might not be able to adopt policies that are going to ingratiate ourselves to everyone everywhere, or completely eliminate anti-Americanism, that doesn't mean that we have nothing to gain by employing best practices in this regard. Even incremental shifts in the intensity of the anti-American feelings espoused by our detractors, and the size of that very detractor pool, can have a significant impact on the ability of terrorists to act - and the levels of anti-terrorist support that we receive from foreign goverments and populations alike.

Along the lines of assessing the importance of influencing local populations, tilting the scales in our favor can: (a) limit the size and scope of potential terrorist attacks by turning those populations against such missions, even if small scale operations remain a regrettable possibility; (b) increase the latitude of foreign governments to assist us in light of the attitudes of their own underlying constituencies; and (c) increase the number of potential informants and human intelligence candidates by presenting a sympathetic and attractive world view. James Fallows touches on this last factor in his most recent article:

The final destructive response helping al-Qaeda has been America’s estrangement from its allies and diminution of its traditionally vast "soft power." "America’s cause is doomed unless it regains the moral high ground," Sir Richard Dearlove, the former director of Britain’s secret intelligence agency, MI-6, told me. He pointed out that by the end of the Cold War there was no dispute worldwide about which side held the moral high ground—and that this made his work as a spymaster far easier. "Potential recruits would come to us because they believed in the cause," he said. A senior army officer from a country whose forces are fighting alongside America's in Iraq similarly told me that America "simply has to recapture its moral authority."
Likewise, a foreign policy that acknowledges and accounts for how terrorism thrives within, and in reaction to, certain dynamics - those that foster feelings of humiliation and powerlessness, and the general radicalizing effects of war and armed conflict - is one that will better combat (though possibly not completely purge) terrorism from drying up sources of funding and recruitment, to potentially dwindling the number of self-starters.

Contending with consequences is the wisdom gleaned from classic counter-insurgency doctrine - as well as any other model of human interaction. With respect to this doctrine, as in most arenas, it is better not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, nor confuse an explanation with a justification. As those speaking categorically all too often do.

(h/t Jim Henley)

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