Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Why Is It Imperative To Be So Categorical?

Scott Liemieux-tip flags a column by Anne Applebaum that counts as one in a chorus of vacuous, tautological musings passed off as insight that have diminished the level of discourse around issues of terrorism, foreign policy and diplomacy.

Applebaum's shocking revelation is that there was a certain level of anti-Americanism that existed in the world prior to the invasion of Iraq. Ya don't say Anne. Thus, she argues, it would be wrong to blame surging levels of hostility to the United States on the Bush administration or any of its specific policy choicese like, say, the decision to invade Iraq.

This is the fallacy of being overly categorical that I discussed at greater length in this post - which quoted Isran Manji's argument that a certain number of anti-American jihadists would continue to exist regardless of our controversial foreign policy choices. This pose is more like defeatism than strategic thinking. Simply because a certain level of anti-Americanism has existed, and will persist, in the world regardless of our policy choices does not mean that the numbers are fixed. Nor does it mean that we don't stand to gain significantly from adopting policies that are not abhorrent to more of the world's population.

Even if we are not able to reach some nirvana-like stage of foreign/domestic policy whereby every single person in the world breaks into spontaneous chants of USA!, USA!, USA! or every would-be Mohammed Atta or Timothy McVeigh reconsiders their violent urges and repents, that does not mean we should ignore the value of world opinion and a counterterrorism strategy that aligns with counterinsurgency doctrine in the hearts and mind category. It is not all or nothing, so the lack of a magic bullet should not end the discussion.

Jonathan Rauch points out the obvious costs in a recent piece in The Atlantic:

The Iraq adventure fueled a precipitous decline in America’s image abroad, and Bush’s pugnacious style during his first term and his tin ear for foreign opinion made a bad situation worse. This is more than just a public-relations problem. National prestige is diplomatic capital; the more unpopular America becomes, the higher the price of foreign support. Mark Malloch Brown, the UN’s deputy secretary-general, recently said that suspicion of the United States has grown to the point where “many otherwise quite moderate countries” are inclined to oppose anything we favor.

This is how I put it in my previous post:

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?"

But more 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.

Bush didn't invent anti-Americanism, but he sure didn't do us any favors in this regard. The same goes for terrorism (well, he's done us some favors here, but in a one step forward, two steps back kind of way). Some of our policy choices are going to be unpopular with certain groups no matter what, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to find the optimal balance of costs and benefits on a case by case basis. Nothing Bush did was going to completely extinguish the threat of terrorism, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't grade his efforts or critique the strategy.

Now is that so hard to grasp?

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