Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The War on Terror Is Over! (if you want it)

"No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear ... To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye."

- Edmund Burke, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful."

Jamie Kirchik needs to read him some Eddie Burke. Perhaps a bit more Burke would help to illuminate for Kirchik some of the ways in which the "War on Terror" is such a misconceived rhetorical frame - a frame that, tragically, continues to inform actual policies. Read this James Fallows piece for a point by point explanation of how badly we are mismanaging and misconstruing the current challenges posed by radical al-Qaeda-ist terrorism.

With Fallows as a backdrop, consider these passages from Kirchik who writes in response to an essay by Hilzoy on the nature of "grit" and the like:

In other words, one can oppose the incompetent managing of the Iraq War and still believe that the West lacks "grit" in terms of the greater war against Islamic extremism.

What, exactly, are the parameters of the "greater war against Islamic extremism"? Should we be fighting a war that is defined in such a way? Is it necessary? Do our adversaries in this "greater war" extend beyond al-Qaeda? One would assume so (hence the "greater war"), but why?

Back to Kirchik:

Also, keep in mind that Hilzoy wrote her essay two years ago, before a leading Democratic presidential candidate declared that the War on Terror is just a "bumper sticker" slogan, a line he repeats to rapturous applause at rallies. I fear that this sort of sentiment--that the war against Islamic militancy is not really a war at all, and not nearly as potentially lethal as we've been made to believe--is gaining currency in America and certainly already has in Britain. Downplaying the threat that the enemy poses is, yes, a loss of grit.

But Edwards was right. The "war" part of the "War on Terror" does not apply in almost every setting of this struggle - which renders it a flawed and imprecise guiding principle. Most of our successes against the radical terrorist forces that threaten us have come via traditional law enforcement and other non-military means (better and more focused intelligence operations, hardening of targets, etc). When dealing with transnational, non-state actors like al-Qaeda, waging war - in almost every setting - is enormously inefficient at best, but more likely counterproductive and, quite simply, a terrible vehicle to win over the hearts and minds of the target population (the non-extremists that we must sway in order to prevail in the larger - and more crucial - ideological battle).

Afghanistan was the exception, not the rule, due to the truly unique circumstances. For example, invading Iraq on the basis of countering al-Qaeda/radicalism was beyond folly. It was an enormous boon for our stated adversaries. However, one gets the impression that Kirchik doesn't agree about the wisdom of the "war" itself judging by his carve out for those opposed to the "incompetent managing of the Iraq War" - a familiar dodge.

Attacking Iran and/or Syria would be equally, if not more, counterproductive. Yet, again, one gets the impression that this is what Kirchik has in mind when he calls for a "greater" war, and when he bristles at the suggestion that "war" is the wrong strategic framework to be using when addressing the problem of al-Qaeda-ist radicalism.

If Kirchik is worried that Americans lack the appetite to wage war against a broad range of Muslim nations with different ideologies, outlooks, aspirations, objectives, tactics and threat levels, I am worried of exactly the opposite. We must, instead, adopt smart policies tailored to each particular scenario. All forms of Islamist ideologies/organizations are not the same. Some are very dangerous, others moderately pernicious, and still others (the Muslim Brotherhood), non-violent and potentially constructive.

Grouping all under a unified, undistinguishing "Islamofascist" heading and opting for a one-size-fits-all war footing is not conducive to developing the flexibility needed - nor is it a formula for success in the context of our current struggle. I leave you with some excerpts from the Fallows article cited above that speak directly to this controversy. As usual, though, you should read the whole thing.

“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents....

“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. "Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

Since 9/11, this equation has worked in al-Qaeda’s favor. That can be reversed. [...]

The United States is immeasurably stronger than al-Qaeda, but against jujitsu forms of attack its strength has been its disadvantage. The predictability of the U.S. response has allowed opponents to turn our bulk and momentum against us. Al-Qaeda can do more harm to the United States than to, say, Italy because the self-damaging potential of an uncontrolled American reaction is so vast.

How can the United States escape this trap? Very simply: by declaring that the “global war on terror” is over, and that we have won. “The wartime approach made sense for a while,” Dearlove says. “But as time passes and the situation changes, so must the strategy.”

As a general principle, a standing state of war can be justified for several reasons. It might be the only way to concentrate the nation’s resources where they are needed. It might explain why people are being inconvenienced or asked to sacrifice. It might symbolize that the entire nation’s effort is directed toward one goal.

But none of those applies to modern America in its effort to defend itself against terrorist attack. The federal budget reveals no discipline at all about resources: the spending for antiterrorism activities has gone up, but so has the spending for nearly everything else. There is no expectation that Americans in general will share the inconveniences and sacrifice of the 1 percent of the population in uniform (going through airport screening lines does not count). Occasional speeches about the transcendent importance of the “long war” can’t conceal the many other goals that day by day take political precedence.

And while a standing state of war no longer offers any advantages for the United States, it creates several problems. It cheapens the concept of war, making the word a synonym for effort or goal. It predisposes us toward overreactions, of the kind that have already proved so harmful. The detentions at Guantánamo Bay were justified as a wartime emergency. But unlike Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of martial law, they have no natural end point.

A state of war also predisposes the United States to think about using its assets in a strictly warlike way—and to give short shrift to the vast range of their other possibilities. The U.S. military has been responsible for the most dramatic recent improvement in American standing in the Islamic world. Immediately after the invasion of Iraq, the proportion of Indonesians with a favorable view of the United States had fallen to 15 percent, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. After American troops brought ships, cargo planes, and helicopters loaded with supplies for tsunami victims, the overall Indonesian attitude toward the United States was still negative, but some 79 percent of Indonesians said that their opinion of America had improved because of the relief effort. There was a similar turnaround in Pakistan after U.S. troops helped feed and rescue villagers affected by a major earthquake. But in most of the Muslim world, the image of American troops is that of soldiers or marines manning counterinsurgency patrols, not delivering food and water. “The diplomatic component of the war on terror has been neglected so long, it’s practically vestigial,” a Marine officer told me. “It needs to be regrown.” But in time of war, the balance is harder to correct.

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