Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Three Card Monger

Jamie Kirchick inserts himself in the middle of a Greg Djerejian-Max Boot skirmish and...well, makes a rather nonsensical point (reminiscent of his faux gotcha moment whereby Kirchick slammed Max Blumenthal for the latter's claim that The Nation and the Huffington Post weren't liberal outlets. Which would have been a good point, except Max said the opposite!).

This time, Kirchik applies the same dubious interpretation to Djerejian's piece on Syria-related warmongering:

Greg then notes that Syria is providing aid to "non al-Qaeda groups." But since when was supporting non al-Qaeda terrorist groups mutually exclusive from supporting al-Qaeda?
The simple answer: When it is!

See, Greg never suggested that it would be impossible for Syria to, in some conceivable universe, support al-Qaeda. He just said that Syria isn't doing so at this time - and presented some historical background as to why such a move would be risky and costly for Syria, making such support unlikely in the future. Thus, such support is not "mutually exclusive" but the absence of evidence of actual support for al-Qaeda is not evidence that such support exists (even if it is a technical possibility). As a rebuttal to Djerejian's description of the current state of play, Kirchick goes for a familiar - if tendentious - refrain:

Syria has had no problems providing aid to both Hamas (Sunni) and Hizbollah (Shi'a).
So therefore...Syria is aiding al-Qaeda? Or will in the near future?

The focus on sect (Sunni/Shiite) is misleading. The key difference between Syria and al-Qaeda is not simply the Shiite/Sunni split (Syria's leadership is Shiite - though the population is overwhelmingly Sunni). The crucial difference lies in strategic objectives. In simplified terms: Syria and Israel are regional rivals, with the Israelis currently occupying a portion of Syrian territory - the Golan Heights. Syria, in turn, aids anti-Israeli groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But supporting Palestinian nationalist groups and Lebanese political/paramilitary organizations that target Israel is not akin to supporting al-Qaeda (a Salafist group that wants to overthrow apostate regimes such as Syria's and bring about a pan-Muslim Caliphate run by strict Sharia law).

This is true even if those anti-Israeli groups employ terrorism as a tactic in pursuit of their objectives. al-Qaeda has no monopoly on the use of terrorism, which is why the "War on Terror" is such a recklessly imprecise term. It's not as if we're going to wage war on the groups that support the Tamil Tigers or ETA in Spain because those groups use terrorism - and, further, because support for these terrorist groups is not "mutually exclusive" of supporting al-Qaeda.

Yet in the run-up to the Iraq war, the same vague charge of "ties to terrorism" was leveled against Saddam Hussein in order to suggest that he was then-currently, or would be in the near future, working with al-Qaeda. This sleight of hand played an enormous role in the selling of the war to the American people by weaving "terrorist" and "al-Qaeda" in a convoluted narrative that left most Americans confused about Saddam's participation in 9/11 and his relationship with Osama bin Laden. Vice President Cheney himself was particularly fond of recalling fictitious meetings between Iraqi intelligence and Mohammed Atta - though he was not alone.

Like Syria, though, Saddam supported Palestinian groups, and viewed al-Qaeda as a potential threat and destabilizing element. al-Qaeda, for its part, viewed Saddam as but one of the many apostate, secularized leaders that would need to be toppled in order to form the true, Salafist Caliphate. So while it was technically correct to say that Saddam supported terrorists, it did not mean that Saddam was supporting the perpetrators of 9/11, or other groups targeting the US. But that didn't deter those clamoring for war from blurring distinctions between Saddam's support for groups that were concerned with local, regional conflicts (Palestine/Israel) with support for our enemies (al-Qaeda).

Again, this doesn't mean that it was impossible for Saddam to ever, under any circumstances, work with al-Qaeda. It's just that such cooperation wasn't actually, you know, happening. Nor was it particularly likely considering the risks involved. Citing Saddam's support for Palestinian groups did not make it any more likely - even if it provided for a useful opening to inject the word "terrorism" into the conversation, thus evoking the fear and emotionalism surrounding the attacks of 9/11. This was done to great effect, and so you see a return to the same playbook.

Max Boot, in response to Djerejian, performs an advanced form of this three card monger:

Djerejian naively imagines that the Damascus regime would have nothing to do with such Islamic radicals, since in 1982 Bashar’s father crushed an Islamist uprising in the Syrian city of Hama.
No. Djerejian states that Damascus is not currently working with al-Qaeda. Also, that working with al-Qaeda would be extremely problematic for Syria, because in forming such a relationship, Syria would likely incur the wrath of the US military. Further, giving succor to al-Qaeda could lead to pernicious blowback and increase the size and strength of destabilizing elements at home.

Boot goes on:

This is, of course, the same mistake made by those who imagine that, evidence to the contrary, Saddam Hussein would never have made common cause with Islamic radicals. In fact, both the Baathist regime in Baghdad in its later years, and now the Baathist regime in Damascus increasingly rely on Islamic imagery to cement their authority. [emphasis added]

This is really an amazing statement. According to Boot, the mistake made in the run-up to the Iraq war (and still) was not the hyping of the non-existent relationship between Saddam and al-Qaeda but - get this - the refusal to see that Saddam had actually forged a relationship that he hadn't yet forged, or that he was likely to do so even though he showed no indication of establishing such ties. The first piece of evidence marshaled by Boot to support this contention: that Saddam and Assad have both relied, opportunistically, on Islamist "imagery" to bolster their religious credentials and popularity at home. He confuses a willingness to employ self-serving propaganda for an actual indication of intent to pursue dangerous policies, an interpretation that cuts against far more persuasive evidence (including that trusty old empiricism).

Predictably, Boot goes back to the same quarry mined by Kirchik for more "evidence":

For all Assad’s claims that he doesn’t want to allow an Islamic takeover of Syria, the evidence is overwhelming that he is deeply complicit with Islamic radicals operating against neighboring states. Damascus, after all, is the headquarters of Hamas, led by Sunni radical Khalid Meshal. Damascus has also established a very close alliance with the Shiite radical regime in Tehran. Syria, in fact, acts as principal middleman between Iran and the Shiite radicals of Hizballah in Lebanon. Imagine that—a supposedly secular Baathist regime led by Alawites (a Shiite sect) making common cause with both Sunni and Shiite radicals. Since all of this is common knowledge, the only surprise here is that Djerejian is surprised.
Once again, support for proxy groups targeting Israel (Syria's regional rival and current occupier of portions of Syrian territory) does not equal support for al-Qaeda or make support for al-Qaeda more likely. This is a specious argument that relies on the emotionally charged terms "radicals" and "terrorists" to bridge the considerable gaps in the logic. Sound familiar?

Back to Kirchick one last time:

And, more importantly, if Syria is supporting groups undermining American efforts in Iraq, why should it matter if those groups are formally al-Qaeda affiliated?
Well, for one, the United States' current strategy is to support the non al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents. Should we bomb ourselves for undermining our efforts? Saudi Arabia, too, is backing those same groups, and we're not talking about bombing them (haven't they, however, declared war on us according to the Boot/Kirchick doctrine?). Further, there is an easy way to avoid being targeted by non al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents: leave Iraq. They don't want to follow us home, they just want us to end the military occupation of their country (or Muslim lands for the foreign elements). al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is more committed to striking the US for a host of other reasons that would be more difficult to resolve, and would certainly not end with the end of the occupation.

That's kind of a big difference that should "matter." But then, I'm not surprised that someone who fails to distinguish between support for Hezbollah and al-Qaeda doesn't appreciate the distinction.

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