September 04, 2007

Random Musings....Put Up Over at BD

(Thought I'd put up my last post from my guest-blogging stint at Andrew Sullivan's place here for anyone wishing to comment).

I’ve been following some of the recent back and forth on Andrew’s site regarding whether al Qaeda is a totalitarian organization or not. Putting such classifications aside, and forgive me for stating the obvious, al Qaeda is simply a transnational terrorist organization that enjoyed a spectacular success on 9/11, on the heels of prior terror operations mostly centered in East Africa and the Gulf Region. In hindsight, we know that by declaring something of a global crusade against them and their supposed fellow-travelers (the so-called “GWOT”) we played directly into the hands of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, in effect putting him and his organization on equal par with the President of the United States (‘wanted, dead or alive’), as well as the greatest superpower on earth. This was something of a propaganda coup for bin Laden, and ended up facilitating him turning his organization into a massive franchise operation whereby myriad committed jihadists could adopt the al-Qaeda banner in de-centralized manner, complicating the threat environment for the U.S. and its allies.

We then embarked on a legitimate invasion of Afghanistan given that the Taliban refused our entreaties to hand over bin Laden and other ‘Arab Afghans’. This mission supposedly achieved, we misguidedly launched a war on Iraq. This last conflict has proven an epic blunder, one we risk exacerbating even more--despite the hard lessons learned and great blood and treasure spent--by conflating Syrian and Iranian regional objectives into one simplistic, overarching categorization of radical Islam that has us seemingly marking our foe as anyone from the southern suburbs of Hezbollah controlled Beirut to the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Beyond this generally accepted narrative, let us ask ourselves: is it the remote villagers of southeastern Afghanistan that pose a grave security threat to those of us living in the West? Is the perennial weaning away of Pashtun tribes from neo-Taliban influences a vital national security interest of Washington’s? Or getting Sunni tribes in Anbar Province to work with the central Shi’a led government in Iraq? Or propping up Dawa or SCIRI in Iraq, against Sadr’s men? Put differently, how did the attack on downtown Manhattan lead us to become involved in ostensibly decades long nation building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps to come, a bombing campaign that would likely lead to a full-blown conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran?

In my view, the greatest threat we face in the post 9/11 era are radicalized Islamists of mostly lower to middle class background who have grown up or emigrated to cities like Madrid, London, Paris, Hamburg, Milan. Don’t get me wrong. The comical shrieking about “Eurabia” and such is but thinly veiled Islam-bashing by primitives in the U.S. know-nothing media. But this moronic hyperbole aside, the radical Islamists who threaten us the most are those who have become technologically sophisticated, who perhaps speak our language, who can more easily appear ‘Westernized’, and meantime have become highly alienated by the West, basically the Mohammed Atta type. Which is to say, not rural peasants in the environs of Kandahar or impoverished Shi'a slum-dwellers south of Baghdad (nation-building efforts are not required to destroy any potential al-Qaeda sanctuaries, rather targeted military and intelligence efforts, and regardless the biggest such sanctuary is currently located within our ally Pakistan's territory).

If we think of the GWOT (which is indeed an empty slogan, ultimately, as the struggle we face is more by way of a complex counter-insurgency campaign for the hearts and minds of young Islamic youth, one where by declaring “war” we are immediately ensuring alienating a large number of them) as mostly geared towards de-radicalizing Muslims to better ensure the demographic boomlet of hundreds of millions of young in the Middle East pursue a moderate, non-violent politics, how exactly does occupying Islamic nations or regions help in this goal? We’ve seen the hate engendered among Chechens of the Russians, or Pakistanis at India over the Kashmir dispute. We’ve seen how Israel has been bogged down in multiple wars since its founding in 1948. We see how Hezbollah significantly gained in popularity in Lebanon because of fall-out from Israel’s disastrous 1982 invasion. We are all familiar with the French experience in Algeria. Is it not the images of ‘collateral damage’ in Gaza, or a razed Grozny, or increasingly now Shi’a civilians being killed by U.S. air-strikes in places like Sadr City, is this not what poses a greater threat? These are the images that future Mohamed Atta’s might pass around the Internet cafes of the Parisian banlieu, or neglected corners of East London, helping precipitate further 9/11s.

These fundamental misconceptions regarding how best to prosecute a complex campaign against international terrorists are part of the reason why I believe there is a strong yearning in the United States for fresh thinking on foreign policy. This too, in turn, is why more ‘iconoclastic’ foreign policy experts are supporting Barack Obama, I suspect. Putting aside the unbridled militarism that many of the Republican Presidential candidates are offering up, one senses discomfort that Hillary Clinton will be something akin to a ‘neo-con lite’ in terms of her foreign policy orientation (for instance, see this Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan effort, Daalder ostensibly a potential Clintonite, where they hanker for something called a “Concert of Democracies”--apparently because people are unhappy about the reality that Moscow and Beijing, for example, view the world differently than Washington, and that hard work is required to consensus-build given such starkly different world-views. Another example of this 'neo-con' lite group-think is Pollack and O’Hanlon breezily assuming we’ll need 100,000 or so troops in Iraq even into 2011).

With Obama there is a sense of an unscripted candidate who will go beyond 'focus group' think. Yes, this has led to some errors in judgment. For instance, the notion of attacking Pakistan without coordinating with whatever Government is in power there is reckless. Hard-core Islamists in Pakistan probably only represent about 10-12% of the population, but U.S. bombing raids on Pakistani sovereign territory without coordination with whatever government sits in Islamabad would all but guarantee radicalizing a significantly greater percentage. Meantime, while Obama is right we should be prepared to dialogue directly with our enemies at the highest levels, he might have answered the question with at least a gating caveat or two. Ditto the issue with use of nuclear weapons, where a more ambiguous statement regarding our nuclear deterrent capabilities and intentions might have been more appropriate. And yet the foreign policy missteps committed these past years have been so egregious, one senses a real hunger for a dramatic change of course. While foreign policy thinkers like Zbigniew Brzezinski or Tony Lake might have their limitations, they will at least better be able to grasp the critical need for a massive course correction than many in Clinton’s circle (though one feels compelled to note her husband could make a very energetic Middle East envoy, and Richard Holbrooke has proven to be very talented in the art of conflict resolution).

Still, given the moral calamities of legalized torture, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and so much more, having a man whose last name rhymes with our collective, demonic arch-villain, and a middle name the same as the surname of the Saddamite monster dethroned--not to mention the paradigm-shifting nature of having a first African-American President--all of this would certainly force the world to stand up and take notice that a significant change had taken place, and that a dramatic course correction was imminent. That said, pragmatism cautions not dismissing Hillary, whose foreign policy views are, as I indicated above, at least far superior to the craven militarism on tap by all the leading Republican candidates, and who’ll have a deep bench of foreign policy advisors on her team. Nonetheless, there is a sense of hope and possibility and freshness with Obama, and above all authenticity, that has me rooting for him somehow, despite whatever 'rookie' foot-faults (as the Beltway CW has it) and the rest of it. It’s almost as if he’s too honest and compelling for his own good, however, that something about how the American political system stacks up leads one to strongly suspect he won’t ultimately be able to prevail.

UPDATE: A reader points out Ivo Daalder is actually with the Obama campaign! My bad, with apologies.

Posted by Gregory at September 4, 2007 01:48 PM

Who would go to "the hill" and lobby for the type of policy you advocate? Nobody! Nobody makes a buck from defence or oil contracts. Nobody gets to feel good about some ethno/religious chest pounding with your recommendations.

Policies however great and wise must have a constituency, yours does not have any. The unwise path we are on have a few powerful ones promoting them.

I hope the last five years have just made me cynical... and I'm proven wrong!

Posted by: centrist at September 4, 2007 07:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thank you for an insightful analysis of the threat from terrorism. However, I am not as sanguine as you are regarding Obama. His saber rattling with respect to Iran, which started some time ago and now seems to be a major theme of his foreign policy statements, makes me very uncomfortable.

Here is Obama talking up his bill to encourage divestment from Iran:

The decision to wage a misguided war in Iraq has substantially strengthened Iran, which now poses the greatest strategic challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East in a generation. Iran supports violent groups and sectarian politics in Iraq, fuels terror and extremism across the Middle East and continues to make progress on its nuclear program in defiance of the international community. Meanwhile, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has declared that Israel must be "wiped off the map."

ht A Tiny Revolution

1. The greatest threat to US interest are US policies. This administration has done more to weaken us than Iran could ever do.

2. Repeating that "wiped of the map" canard is slimy.

I am afraid this does not sound like an "unscripted candidate who will go beyond 'focus group' think." I see gloomy days ahead.

Posted by: empty at September 4, 2007 10:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Al Qaeda wants to make half it's population wear hot stuffy uniforms, and will kill any gay in sight.

Nope, not totalitarian at all, folks, just move along.

Posted by: Tioedong at September 5, 2007 04:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't give a damn whether it's technically "totalitarian" or not -- it is unquestionably vile and dangerous. The question is what the best military strategy is to deal with it and with the whole problem of authoritarian Islam, goddamn it. And the fact that what we're faced with is a dictatorial RELIGIOUS worldview -- rather than a dictatorial ideology devoted to the support of any particular government -- unquestionably means that radically different techniques have to be used to resist it.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at September 5, 2007 05:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

regarding whether al Qaeda is a totalitarian organization or not

... and whether "islamofascism" makes any kind of sense at all?

Bring back the days when the US was isolationist, subject to a few exceptions, occasionally justified. There's your 'new' orthodoxy. Make hay, not war.

Of course, there's that thing that Ike warned us about, and that every subsequent leader has nurtured. Now, only a root and branch job begins to approach sanity.

Posted by: AlanDownunder at September 5, 2007 03:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Arguing that al Qaeda is a "totalitarian organization" and that therefore the US should overthrow the major enemies of al Qaeda (Iraq and Iran) doesn't seem to have any sense?

Posted by: Joe Frazier at September 6, 2007 11:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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