Getting It And Not Getting It

Bob Herbert demonstrates his fundamental ignorance of this war in his latest predictable screen in The New York Times, arguing with the same old tired arguments that the war in Iraq has made us less safe. Meanwhile, in Newsweek the much more astute Fareed Zakaria notes that Islamic radicalism is much bigger than al-Qaeda. It’s quite clear which one understands this war on a fundamental level and which one does not. Herbert goes through the usual litany of lefty straw men, arguing that:

As for the fight against terror, the news runs the gamut from bad to horrible. The Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik in Egypt was traumatized by a series of early-morning terrorist blasts on Saturday. London is trembling from the terror attacks on its public transportation system that have claimed dozens of lives.

Here in New York, where the police have begun random searches of the backpacks and packages of subway riders, there is an odd feeling of resignation mixed with periodic bouts of dread, as transit riders struggle with the belief that some kind of attack is bound to happen here.

Interviews over the past few days have shown that subway riders in New York almost instinctively understand what the president does not – that the war in Iraq is not making us safer here at home.

If Herbert wants to argue that the war in Iraq has made us less safe, how does that square with the fact that Egypt was attacked? Last I checked Egypt was not involved in the war in Iraq. Last I checked, there has not been a single successful terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001. There have been attempts, but none here. There are reasons for that, one of which is the fact that the United States has been far more proactive in dealing with radical Islamic groups in the US than the British have with their own home-grown terrorist problem.

Furthermore, Zakaria puts to rest the notion that the war in Iraq is the primary animating factor behind radical Islam:

Nor can foreign policy really explain such rage. The invasion of Iraq clearly has greatly enraged many Muslims, radicalizing some deeply. But can a disagreement over foreign policy really make a Briton like Germaine Lindsay, who had never even visited Iraq, kiss his pregnant wife and child goodbye and go out and blow himself and others up? There is something deeper at work here. Last week Egypt, which sent no troops to Iraq and condemned the invasion, was targeted. Turkey and Indonesia—which are both opponents of the war—have also been attacked. (Besides, the demands keep changing. Osama bin Laden’s primary one was that American troops leave Saudi Arabia, which they have done. Bin Laden seems not to have noticed.)

Furthermore, Herbert ignores the fact that the Iraqi people aren’t being radicalized – the Iraqis are now the primary victims of terrorism. The recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey shows a decrease in radicalism among Muslims, largely due to the fact that Muslims are now far more likely to be the victims of terrorism than Westerners or even Israelis. If Iraq were really such a great boon to al-Qaeda recruiting, why would al-Qaeda be resorting to intimidating and killing fellow Muslims? Al-Qaeda’s appeal was that it was some great force that was standing for the worldwide Islamic community – the ummah against the Great Satans of America and Israel. Now al-Qaeda is killing more members of the ummah than anyone else? What group in history has prospered by randomly blowing up its best recruits?

The argument that Iraq is the primary cause of terrorism is prima facie ridiculous. The invasion of Afghanistan also greatly angered many radical Muslims. The existence of US troops in Saudi Arabia did as well. The independence of East Timor put Australia in al-Qaeda’s crosshairs. Educating women, allowing homosexuals to live, and not submitting the shari’a law also greatly anger radical Muslims. Would Herbert care to argue that we should abandon those practices as well in order to avoid raising the ire of radical Islamists? If the goal of the game is to keep ourselves from offending radical Islamists, then we might as well throw in the towel now – our very existence as a free society is an affront to their radical worldview.

Herbert then makes the seemingly-sensible but ultimately destructive argument that we should Just Get Al-Qaeda™:

There is still no indication that the Bush administration recognizes the utter folly of its war in Iraq, which has been like a constant spray of gasoline on the fire of global terrorism. What was required in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was an intense, laserlike focus by America and its allies on Al Qaeda-type terrorism.

The problem with that argument is that it makes no assertions as to how we should have a “laserlike focus” on groups like al-Qaeda. They derive their logistical and financial support from state actors like Syria and Iran. Would Herbert prefer we invade one of those countries? Under what pretext? With what allies?

The problem with that line of logic is that it’s like swatting mosquitoes. You can keep up a solid defense forever, but some are just going to get through. And when the stakes involve the very real potential of a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack against millions of innocent civilians, the idea that we can sit around and play defense rapidly becomes unworkable.

The only way to defeat terrorism over the long term is to alter the circumstances and the conditions which spawn it. We can’t just overthrow the governments of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, etc. We have to change the culture of autocracy and religious fanaticism that has made the Middle East a petri dish for terrorism. Iraq is the geographic center of the Middle East. It is the most fertile ground for a native Arab democracy. Already it has had a profound effect on pro-democracy movements from Kuwait to Lebanon to Egypt. In the years following the fall of the Hussein regime, the idea of a democratic Middle East has gone from a complete and utter pipe dream to a work in progress. All of that is quite intentional.

Furthermore, Herbert ignores the very blatant fact that al-Qaeda is in Iraq. The operational head of al-Qaeda right now is Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. He is in Iraq. Leaving Iraq leaves him free to plot more terrorist attacks and gives him another Afghanistan – a place where new training centers can be created. If the goal is to fight al-Qaeda it may have been questionable whether Iraq was a central front in 2003. It is no longer questionable that it is the central front now.

I don’t always agree with Mr. Zakaria, but he fundamentally understands this war in a way that Herbert does not:

The good news is that in the heart of the Muslim world, this ideology is not doing so well. The bombings, increasingly of civilians, are showing Al Qaeda and its ilk in their true light. Arabs are finally denouncing terrorism and also the ideologies that feed it. They need to do much more, and far more forcefully. It’s a cliché, but true, that ultimately only Muslims can win this fight.

But Western countries can do more as well. We’re fighting a military battle against a phenomenon that is largely nonmilitary. In a battle of ideas, no one bullet will win. We must present a positive vision for Muslim societies, be seen as a friendly and progressive force by them and thus strengthen the moderates and liberals.

Iraq is that vision. A strong, tolerant, and democratic Iraq will provide the model for the future of the Arab world – a future in which states fight rather than aid terrorism. The United States is actively helping rebuild and strengthen Iraq, but ultimately the elections in Iraq provided the ultimate turning point in this battle. Right now the Iraqi government is once again working on crafting a new vision of civil society in Iraq. The Iraqi people have a long way to go before Iraq can live up to its full potential, but it is absolutely imperative we provide as much support as we can to see that they achieve those goals.

The only way we can end the cycle of terrorism is to provide an alternative, to expose al-Qaeda as the murderous scum they are, and the show the people of the Arab and Muslim worlds that democracy and Islam are compatible. Iraq is key to those efforts. Zakaria understands this, Herbert clearly does not.

UPDATE: And it looks like John Derbyshire doesn’t get it either, coming from the paleocon right:

My opinion is that, from the point of view of killing jihadis — a thing I strongly favor — Iraq is not that important. It is not even the most jihadi-ridden nation — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia easily outrank it on that scale. The “flypaper” theory — that all the jihadis in the world are going to flock to Iraq so we can kill ’em — is just silly. Ask a Londoner.

There are more ways to kill a cat than by choking it with cream, and there are more ways to fight the War on Terror than with massive conventional-force assaults and Wilsonian nation-bulding efforts. We really ought to be devising and practicing those ways, instead of wasting our substance on Iraq.

This “kill ’em strategy” is idiotic for several reasons. The first being that if as few as 1% of the Muslim world is potential al-Qaeda material, we’ll have to kill 1.2 million people. Short of engaging in total warfare against every state sponsor of terrorism, that plan of action is impossible. Secondly, as much as I would love to see the House of Saud crumble and Pakistan no longer become a petri dish for terrorism, would Mr. Derbyshire really wish to argue that we should take actions that have a nearly 100% chance of destabilizing the world oil supply and creating a nuclear showdown in Asia? Furthermore, exactly how are we going to “kill all the jihadis” without either overthrowing regimes like Syria’s and Saudi Arabia’s? And assuming we do that, if we’re not going to maintain any kind of presence in those countries, exactly how would Mr. Derbyshire propose we keep them from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda and becoming another Afghanistan?

Derbyshire should stick to the Riemann Hypothesis. It seems quite clear that his line of reasoning on Iraq is hopelessly, hopelessly muddled, and he hasn’t given much thought to the repercussions of his plans in the real world. If anything, Derbyshire’s “kill em all” plan would ensure that we play the same futile game of “whack-a-mole” with terrorism that we have for decades now. It’s like curing cancer with painkillers – you ease the symptoms without hitting the underlying disease. Terrorism is fueled by a potent mixture of Islamic radicalism and the cultural failure of the Arab world. The only long-term solution is to stop allowing those conditions to exist, and that’s why nation-building is crucial to the success of this war.

It’s not just the left that doesn’t get the underlying causes of this war, it’s certain segments of the paleocon right as well.

One thought on “Getting It And Not Getting It

  1. Jay: Great post and full treatment of the issue. The kind of indepth analysis I’ve come to expect from your site.

    I have contended for a long time that much of the left is not serious about defeating terrorism. And their likely response to what you have posted will be further evidence of their lack of seriousness. First, they’ll take your argument about how spreading democracy will address the root causes of terrorism and complain that wasn’t the proferred reason for the war back in 2002-03 but that WMD was. They’ll ignore Administration statements at the time about spreading liberty. (See here and the comments thereto)

    They will then complain that you have questioned their patriotism, strongly protest about being told they are with the terrorism merely because of their dissent, and then proceed to complain about this abridgement of civil rights or alleged ties between Saddam and 9/11. And of course, they’ll say you created a strawman. Their tried and true meme.

    Throughout all of their complaints, they will never, not once, offer any arguments or strategy for how to actually win the war on terror. Only complaints. Just like John Kerry.

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