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June 21, 2006

 Who's winning the Great War on Terror?

The operative part of House Resolution 861 - the one that just passed on a strict party split - was the refusal to set a withdrawal date from Iraq. I found the half-baked rhetoric of the preamble at least as interesting, for it shows the depths of confusion into which US policy has fallen; and, by the same token, the extent of Osama bin Laden's strategic victory.

He started from a very difficult position. Most jihadi Muslims, including the Taliban, Chechen autonomists, Hamas, and al-Zarqawi follow the fairly realistic "near enemy" strategy aimed at "liberating" Muslim majority populations into the delights of fundamentalist rule. He leads a small minority group of jihadis espousing an apparently insane "far enemy" strategy directed at the United States as the ultimate guarantor of the vile régimes all jihadis want to overthrow: secular, corrupt rulers of Muslim countries and of course Israel.

Consider his objectives.

As I understand them, these are:
1. To provoke the USA into a crusade against Muslims in general, a conflict of civilisations.
2. To provoke the USA into revealing the shallowness of its pretended values, in contrast to the authentic ones of Islam; and to show its true colours of exploitative greed, imperial power-lust and Zionist colonialism.
3. Aided by 1 and 2, to persuade the umma of Muslims to rally to a global jihad led by himself.

On 1, it is true that the USA has not declared Islam as its enemy, so the success is incomplete. But HR 861 fails to name the enemy, which is hypostasised as a shadowy, demonic "Terror". Al-Qaeda is named as a mere example; so is its ally of convenience al-Zarqawi, a brilliant leader in the rival "near enemy" school (as well as a repellent psychopath), who died like Nelson in the moment of his victory; and, so, absurdly, is the Taliban, a backwoods Afghan faction with essentially local ambitions. Since many Muslims have a sneaking admiration for near-abroad terrorists in Palestine, Chechnya and Iraq, the vagueness contributes to Bin Laden's objective. So, much more, has the invasion of Iraq on false pretexts and an occupation involving continuing military operations against Arabs, which can be plausibly portrayed as part of an anti-Muslim crusade. Score 5 out of 10.

On 2, the success is breathtaking. HR 861 claims the adversary "is driven by hatred of American values". Where are these left in the day-to-day routine of the GWT: in the lives of its prisoners, in the lies and insults of its spokespersons? Cronyism and incompetence turned the Iraq "reconstruction" into something very close to looting, and the reflexive, disengaged rubber-stamping of Israel's hapless policies credits the widely-held legend of a Zionist grip on the American state. US support for human rights and democracy in other parts of the world - China, Russia, Africa - has become mere tokenism. (The values of the American people have changed only a little for the worse; but for world perceptions, what counts is the actions of the government.) I would give bin Laden 8 out of 10 here.

So the USA has cooperated rather well with its parts of the script.

Bin Laden has largely failed so far on 3 because most Muslims have too much sense for his agenda. America is much less trusted than before, but this is largely attributed to Bush's leadership rather than to Americans in general. (See the Pew 2005 world survey: "Bush's low standing emerges in country after country as the leading link to anti-Americanism.") Distrust is a very long way from warfare; though it has become much easier to recruit handfuls of young jihadis for terrorism. Score 2 out of 10.

Now let's dream of an American policy aimed at actually winning in a reasonable time frame, say 10 years. Here are my suggestions.

The first two objectives are just the reverse of bin Laden's:
1. Counterattack as narrowly as possible. Isolate bin Laden and his followers from other Muslims, even other jihadis; cut the links of sympathy from the mass of Muslims.
2. Return to the best values of American tradition: integrity, steadfastness, due process, magnanimity, and "a decent regard to the opinions of mankind". This is essential to the first objective.
Consequently the third becomes:
3. When his movement is weakened and isolated, destroy it.

The style of the conflict should be inspired by the half-century of containment of Soviet communism. Global jihadism as an ideology is worthless fantasy and cannot survive more than a few decades. US policy should be principled; Fabian; patient; calculating; multilateral and multi-level; and political ahead of military. A few ingredients:

* Recognise and name your enemy. It is Al-Qaeda, a small jihadi faction, and its emulators. It isn't even all jihadis. Near-enemy jihadis have a lot of different enemies, Russia, Israel, Mubarak's Egypt, Musharraf's Pakistan, etc. America's first problem is the few jihadis that kill Americans as such.
* Refuse bin Laden's vainglorious gambit of defining the conflict as a war. Insist you fight criminals: outlaws, pirates, enemies of humanity. When they are captured, try them as such. Take the direction of the conflict away from the Pentagon.
* "Speak softly and carry a big stick". Avoid the hysterical and alienating rhetoric that HR 861 exemplifies, advertising fear and weakness. This is a great power aganst a couple of hundred fanatics; a threat, but not an existential one.
* Divide and conquer. Don't fall into bin Laden's trap of defining the conflict as one. Set jihadis against each other; split jihadis from peaceful Muslim fundamentalists, fundamentalists from modernisers.
* Cooperate with allies but don't let them set your priorities. Hamas is Israel's enemy, not America's. The alliance with Israel may lead America to boycott Hamas; or an interest in splitting jihadism may point to a dialogue. Don't pretend there is no tradeoff or that interests are identical.
* Show a determination to moralise the conflict with trials of American war criminals and compensation to their victims. Close GITMO and other extralegal camps. Bring all detainees into the ordinary criminal justice system, or release them.
* Accept civilian casualties stoically. This is the only area where the metaphor of war is useful. There's no reason to think that al-Qaeda is capable of inflicting 9/11 casualties on a regular basis, but make it clear that the USA could stand them indefinitely without changing its core foreign policies.
* Accept failure in Iraq and get out.

PS: HR 861 says that

The terrorists have declared Iraq to be the central
front in their war against all who oppose their ideology.
The Bush administration has used the "central front" trope ad nauseam. Which terrorist leader said this and when?

Update: Link added under "Fabian" to the Wikipedia entry on the steely Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (c. 275 BC-203 BC), called Cunctator, the saviour of Rome after the disaster at Cannae.

Posted at 04:12 PM | TrackBack (0) | |


The Bush administration, being at arrogant, self-righteous, and very naive, would never be able to do more than stay the course.

Once Bush is out of Office conflict (as John McCain calls it), weary Americans will make sure the soldiers come back hastily.

Then Iraq shall clamp down very harshly on the rebels, create an Islamic Republic, and become allies with Iran.

Osama will have won because another Islamic theocracy has risen, and also, the Taliban will gain more strength in Afghanistan as well, because we do not fight these fundamentalist psychologically and economically as we tend to do with the communist.

Posted by: Ole Blue at June 21, 2006 06:14 PM

Also, I need to check Word's grammer and spell check to make sure it did not screw up my comments. Sheesh

Posted by: Ole Blue at June 21, 2006 06:18 PM

The desire to make this a grand War on * was certain to lead us to messes all along. I've always maintained this is policing, not military conflict (even if carried out under means that are orthogonal to domestic understandings of those words). If only, some day, Wars on Whatever would disappear from political dialogue, we'll all be better off.

Posted by: fishbane at June 21, 2006 06:25 PM

That last line you highlighted in blue really bowled me over. It's pretty clear what the Republicans are up to this year. More war on terror - no matter how disconnected from reality it is.

I also totally agree with your first bullet point. The enemy is al-Qaeda, a small group in the hills of Afghanistan. But from Bush's perspective, they were a great excuse to do all manner of stupid things. Like start a war.

Posted by: Quiddity at June 21, 2006 08:58 PM

The problem is that we are all stuck in Fort Apache, the neocons are Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda) and rational people like you are Capt. York (John Wayne). Maybe the townspeople are beginning to recognize that Thursday’s certainty is based on arrogance, not knowledge or competence, but the editor of the town paper is dazzled by rank and afraid he won't be invited to the Company dance if the dares to criticize the Colonel.


Posted by: Tom at June 21, 2006 10:21 PM
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