Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Terrorism and foreign policy

Über-Realist Stephan Walt calls for a more realistic, and far less militarized, approach to the threat of Muslim terrorism in On our terrorism problem Foreign Policy 11/08/10:

What's missing from Obama's list of new initiatives is any sense that U.S. foreign policy might need some rethinking too. There are several dimensions to the terrorism problem, only one of which are the various measures we take to "harden the target" here at home. Why? Because bombing airliners and other acts of terrorism are just tactics; they aren't al Qaeda's real raison d'être. Their goal, as veteran foreign affairs correspondent William Pfaff recently reminded us, is trying to topple various Arab governments that al Qaeda regards as corrupt and beholden to us and establish some unified Islamic caliphate. As Pfaff notes, this is a fanciful objective, but still one that can cause us a certain amount of trouble and grief. And if they can get us to act in ways that undermine those governments (even when we think we are trying to help them), then their objectives are advanced and ours are hindered.

So one key dimension of the problem is to not act in ways that inspire more people to want to undertake such actions, or at the very least to be aware that some of our policies might have that effect and that we should not continue them unless we are damn sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. And what's troubling is the extent to which the Obama administration appears to be continuing many of the same activities that have inspired anti-American extremism and undermined the governments that do seem to like us, without much consideration about the balance of costs and benefits that this may involve. [my emphasis in bold]

The William Pfaff article to which he refers is Playing al Qaeda's Game 01/05/10.

It is not widely understood that the policy objective of al Qaeda is not to attack the western countries, which in itself accomplishes nothing. Bringing down a western airliner or blowing up a building in the United States or Britain is of no interest in itself, since the Islamic radical does no good by simply killing unbelievers. The ultimate purpose of al Qaeda is to bring about an upheaval in the Islamic world in which Islam can be rescued from corrupted governments and degenerate practices.

For Gordon Brown or Barack Obama to say that western soldiers have to fight terrorists abroad so that they will not have to fight them in their own hometowns is silly, as such sophisticated men ought to know.

Why should al Qaida or the Taliban wish to fight in Peoria, Illinois, or a garden suburb of London? There are no recruits to be made there, and nothing to be gained in the real battle which the Muslim extremists are waging: which is to radicalize the Muslim world, and to rescue their co-religionists from heretical beliefs and Western practices.

The real reason for attacking Westerners in the West, or in airplanes on the way there, is to provoke the Western governments to send more Western soldiers to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Muslim world to attack Muslim jihadists on the Islamists’ own ground, where the latter have tactical and human advantages that Western soldiers can never overcome. [my emphasis]
One reservation I have with both these articles is that they seem to be using "Al Qa'ida" in a very expansive way to refer to Islamic extremists. Not every group that calls itself "Al Qa'ida" is under the direction of Osama bin Laden. It's likely that very few are. But part of what needs to happen to de-mystify the real existing threat of Muslim terrorism is to stop talking about The Terrorists or "Al Qa'ida" as though they are some massive shadow army of super-spies and assassins.

Defending himself against Cheney's criticisms recently Obama pointed back to his Inaugural Address and said, "On that day I also made it very clear our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred, and that we will do whatever it takes to defeat them and defend our country." (my emphasis) That kind of bombastic characterization may have the virtue of not being as melodramatic and brainless of those by Bush and Cheney. But it attributes a fearsome potentency to this "far-reaching network of violence and hatred" that sounds pretty much like stock Cold War rhetoric against World Communism. From what we know of the kind of terrorism that has been directed against the United States, we're facing some small groups that are pursuing a hihg-risk program of trying to make terrorist strikes against American targets.

Domestic terrorism from homegrown rightwingers took notably more lives in the US in 2009 e.g., the Pittsburgh shooter who killed three policeman; the abortion-doctor assassin; the Holocaust Museum shooter, who passed away a few days ago. Terrorism is one of the risks of modern life. The United States needs to be realistic and smart about it. And that means among other things getting out of the wars in which we are currently involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, and (to a lesser but significant extent) Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The faith that our political, military and media elites put in the ability of American military power to solve problems, and particularly their faith in the power of air war, is a major problem in itself.

As Stephan Walt points out, the far more serious security failure than the Christmas Underpants Terrorist-Wannabe was the suicide bombing that killed a number of CIA agents and two or three Xe/Blackwater mercenaries (I've seen different numbers on the latter):

... the underpants bomber ultimately failed, but al Qaeda did conduct a successful suicide bomb attack in Khost that killed eight people, including several of the CIA's top al Qaeda experts. The perpetrator of that attack was a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had been recruited by the CIA (via Jordanian intelligence) to infiltrate al Qaeda. After providing us with some useful information (as any double-agent must to gain credibility), he was allowed to meet with a large number of CIA analysts, leading to the fateful attack on December 30.
Part of this complacency comes from the shameless idolatry that Republicans and also many Democrats show about the military in general, which goes way beyond honoring the service of ordinary soldiers. The military and the intelligence agencies are human institutions and public services like any other. Not subjecting them to appropriate questioning, skepticism and oversight leads to trouble and failures. That idolatry also makes it easier for many people to cheer thoughtlessly for wars and foolish policies, because they think of our military and security personnel as comic-book heroes, not real people who should never be asked to kill and die in wars without extremely good reasons.

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