Asymmetric Threats

Stephen Greene has a very good takedown of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s piece on Islamic extremism in Sunday’s WaPo (the original article can be found here). Brzezinski argues that the rhetoric surrounding bin Laden has made him something more than he really is and elevated his status in the world. Greene counters with this very important argument:

When Brzezinski says that bin Laden doesn’t have the “potential for dominating the minds and hearts of hundreds of millions,” he’s absolutely right. Problem is, bin Laden doesn’t have to do any of that. He only needs a hundred million dollars and a hundred thousand followers.

The Soviets didn’t nuke us, because they knew we’d nuke them right back. Bin Laden would love to nuke us, because… well, who would we nuke in return?

Brzezinski isn’t the only old-fashioned realist to fail to grasp the basis of the Global War on Terror. Realism is focused almost solely on nation-states as the primary actors in international relations. That level of analysis worked just fine throughout the Cold War, and it’s still somewhat useful today. Even non-state actors like al-Qaeda need to have some tacit support of a traditional nation-state to operate – even if its merely exploiting the power vacuum and disorder of a failed state like the Sudan or Afghanistan. However, the realist outlook ignores the power of groups like al-Qaeda that can use the techniques of asymmetrical warfare to attack the West.

Groups like al-Qaeda are a greater threat to us than Soviet Communism was because we could contain Soviet Communism. A Soviet leader like Khrushchev could be considered as a rational actor – as Greene notes, the Soviets knew that a nuclear exchange would be unthinkable for both sides. However, bin Laden is not that kind of rational actor. If given the opportunity, al-Qaeda would gladly nuke a major American city knowing full well that we might not be able to respond in kind. The whole doctrine of asymmetrical warfare means that the policies and methodologies of the Cold War – containment, détente, and MAD all go out the window. They simply no longer apply.

We can’t assume that defense is sufficient. It isn’t. In order to play defense, we’d have to guarantee that we would stop 100% of the attacks 100% of the time. That simply isn’t realistic. Even if we became an absolute police state, it wouldn’t be realistic, and that simply isn’t an option. One nuke, one vial of weaponized anthrax or smallpox, and the economic and social effects would be nearly unthinkable.

We’ll win this war the same way we beat malaria in Cuba a century ago – by draining the swamps. It’s a slow effort, with a steady trickle of casualties to no immediate effect. But the stakes are no different than they were in WWII or the Cold War.

And that’s why the left doesn’t understand the nature of this conflict. The argument that we should have remained in Afghanistan makes no sense. Afghanistan isn’t the source of al-Qaeda’s power. It was their flophouse, a convenient place to base their operations without the worry of other groups interfering. If tomorrow we captured Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the war wouldn’t be over. Without eliminating the source of Islamist terror – which is the autocracy of the Arab Middle East – we’d just end up with another group taking their place.

That’s what realists like Brzezinski don’t understand about this conflict. Brzezinski quotes the Pape study that finds that suicide terrorism is usually directed against an “occupying” force. But that analysis is flawed at best – the overwhelming majority of attacks in Iraq are against Iraqi targets and not Americans – and those attacks are specifically targeted against the infrastructure of Iraq. If anything, recent events in the region has shown that the Jihadi ideology has absolutely no compunction about killing Muslims as well as outsiders. Brzezinski is right that terrorism is a tactic of weakness rather than strength, but that doesn’t mean that there is an ideological component to this conflict as well.

Brzezinski also notes:

Bush’s recent speeches also stand in sharp contrast to his mid-September address to the United Nations, in which he not only refrained entirely from labeling terrorism in any religious terms but also spoke thoughtfully of social “anger and despair” as contributing to the rise of terrorism. He stressed that the war against terrorism “will not be won by force alone. . . . We must change the conditions that allow terrorists to flourish and recruit.” By contrast, Bush recently has dismissed altogether the notion that there could be any “set of grievances that can be soothed and addressed” in order to eliminate the sources of terrorism.

Except that isn’t the contradiction that it appears to be. The autocracy of the Middle East helps create a climate that breeds terrorism. The vast majority of terrorists in groups like al-Qaeda are not poor, but middle to upper class – people who are the most impacted by the undemocratic and often arbitrary nature of the Middle East’s dysfunctional politics. However, there is a line between understanding one of the causes of terrorism and the argument that terrorism is somehow legitimate. The conditions which feed terrorism do not justify it – and the terrorists are demanding a continuance of those conditions, not an end to them. The real “freedom fighters” in the Middle East aren’t among the ranks of al-Qaeda, but those like Ayman Nour in Egypt who are fighting for democratization and basic human rights. They are the ones we should support, and we should not give into the demands of autocrats and fanatics as those demands would only make the situation worse.

The reason I support the current operation in Iraq is because the only way to conclusively defeat terrorism is to have a strong and stable Arab democracy that can lead the others towards peace and stability. Iraq was and is the best place to begin that critical experiment. Now that we are engaged in Iraq, we have the absolute and certain obligation to finish the job and help stabilize the process of democratic transformation. Iraq won’t be a full democracy for some time, perhaps a generation or more, but just having a society in which multiple parties, the open expression of ideas, and equal rights have a foothold would have a major transformative effect on the region. We’re already seeing this already as the topic of democracy is on the table in the Middle East in a way that it has never been before.

This isn’t a realist conflict, this is a postmodern conflict. Brzezinski’s line of analysis is based on a framework which no longer applies to the post-September 11 age. We cannot use the frameworks of yesterday in fighting the conflicts of today – the price for failing to understand this conflict in its proper context is simply too high to allow that to happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.