July 26, 2004

The Perils of Appeasement

Remember how depressed we all were by the electoral results after the Madrid bombings of 3/11?

And, more recently, by news of the Philippino pull-out from Iraq?

Reading this depressing article, I'm reminded again of Churchill's famous aphorism: "an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."

The day of the bombings [in Madrid], analysts at the Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, a Norwegian think tank near Oslo, retrieved a document that they had noticed on an Islamist Web site the previous December. At the time, the document had not made a big impression, but now, in light of the events in Madrid, it read like a terrorist road map. Titled “Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers,” it had been prepared by a previously unknown entity called the Media Committee for the Victory of the Iraqi People (Mujahideen Services Center).

Here's a synopsis of the al-Qaeda document "Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers" mentioned in the New Yorker article.

Key portions:

The main thesis proposed in the document is that America cannot be coerced to leave Iraq by military-political means alone, but the Islamist resistance can succeed if it makes the occupation of Iraq as costly as possible - in economic terms - for the United States.

The document therefore offers a number of specific "policy recommendations" in order to increase the economic impact of the insurgency and the jihadi campaign in Iraq. The most important of these recommendations consists of trying to limit the number of American allies present in Iraq, because America must not be allowed to share the cost of occupation with a wide coalition of countries. If the mujahidin can force US allies to withdraw from Iraq then America will be left to cover the expenses on her own, which she cannot sustain for very long. The intermediary strategic goal is therefore to make one or two of the US allies leave the coalition, because this will cause others to follow suit and the dominos will start falling.

The document then analyses three countries (Britain, Spain and Poland) in depth, with a view to identifying the weakest link or the domino piece most likely to fall first. The author provides a surprisingly informed and nuanced analysis of the domestic political map in each country. He argues that each country will react differently to violent attacks against its forces because of domestic political factors:

Poland, for example, is unlikely to withdraw from the coalition because there is political consensus on foreign policy, and the country has a very high tolerance for human casualties.

Britain is easier to force out of Iraq, because the popular opposition to the war and the occupation is so high. However, the author estimates that Britain will only withdraw from Iraq in one of two cases: either if Britain suffers significant human casualties in Iraq or if Spain and Italy withdraws first.

Spain on the other hand is very vulnerable to attacks on its forces, primarily because public opposition to the war is almost total, and the government is virtually on its own on this issue. The author therefore identifies Spain as the weakest link in the coalition.

These are smart people we are combatting. As the report I link showcases, their knowledge and instincts for the Spanish political scene are pretty impressive.

Here's another excerpt:

We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows [ed. note: recall Spanish targets in Iraq were targeted pre-3/11], after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure. If its troops still remain in Iraq after these blows, then the victory of the Socialist Party is almost secured, and the withdrawal of the Spanish forces will be on its electoral programme.

Lastly, we are emphasise that a withdrawal of the Spanish or Italian forces from Iraq would put huge pressure on the British presence (in Iraq), a pressure that Tony Blair might not be able to withstand, and hence the domino tiles would fall quickly. Yet, the basic problem of making the first tile fall still remains." [emphasis in original]

The domino theory--as seen from al-Q.

Of course, Madrid (and now the Philippines) further embolden them:

Four days later, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a group claiming affiliation with Al Qaeda, sent a bombastic message to the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, avowing responsibility for the train bombings. “Whose turn will it be next?” the authors taunt. “Is it Japan, America, Italy, Britain, Saudi Arabia, or Australia?” The message also addressed the speculation that the terrorists would try to replicate their political success in Spain by disrupting the November U.S. elections. “We are very keen that Bush does not lose the upcoming elections,” the authors write. Bush’s “idiocy and religious fanaticism” are useful, the authors contend, for they stir the Islamic world to action.

(A very brief digression, but I blogged about the al-Q wants Bush to win theme--and why al-Q are wrong too-- here).

When I read something like this--I am reminded of how lucky we were and are to have had a leader like Tony Blair in power in London. He is widely denigrated as a Dubya poodle, of course, over here. But his courage and conviction in the face of major domestic opposition has been truly inspiring. And remember, unlike Aznar and Berloscuni, he was a leader of a center-left party--making his support of the U.S. all the more impressive.

What does Blair get that the Socialists in Spain don't?


Were these the true goals of Al Qaeda....simply struggling to get Spain out of Iraq, or were they also battling to regain the lost colonies of Islam? In other words, were these terrorists who might respond to negotiation or appeasement, or were they soldiers in a religious fight to the finish that had merely been paused for five hundred years?

They are the latter, in my view, and I think Blair gets that (does Kerry?).

Although many Spanish historians have painted Moorish Spain as something other than paradise for Jews and Christians, for Muslims it remains not only a symbol of vanished greatness but a kind of alternative vision of Islam—one in which all the ills of present-day Islamic societies are reversed. Muslim tourists, including many heads of state, come to Spain to imagine a time when Islam was at the center of art and learning, not on the fringes. “The Alhambra is the No. 1 Islamic monument,” Malik A. Ruíz Callejas, the emir of the Islamic community in Spain and the president of Granada’s new mosque, told me recently. “Back when in Paris and London people were being eaten alive by rats, in Córdoba everyone could read and write. The civilization of Al Andalus was probably the most just, most unified, and most tolerant in history, providing the greatest level of security and the highest standard of living.”

Many Islamic radicals that are either bonafide al-Q, affiliates thereof, or copycats have as their goal restoration of such a perceived Islamic paradise--even if there weren't a single Christian soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq. Recall, after all, that Western civilian targets have been attacked in Saudi Arabia after the U.S. withdrew all its troops from the country.

Regardless, back to al-Q and affiliates going forward strategy. My best guess is that they are very keen to hit Rome and London next--so as to put more pressure on the U.S. in Iraq--and punish Blair and Berloscuni. Others, much better informed than me, agree:

On a splendid April day in Paris, I went to lunch with Gilles Kepel, the Arabist scholar, and Jean-Louis BruguiŹre, the doughty French counter-terrorism judge. Despite the beautiful weather, the men were in a gloomy frame of mind. “I am seriously concerned about the future,” BruguiŹre said, as we sat at a corner table under an arbor of lilacs that shed blossoms onto his jacket. His armor-plated Peugeot was parked on the street and his bodyguards were discreetly arrayed in the restaurant. “I began work on this in 1991, against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria. These groups were well known and each had an understandable structure. The majority were sponsored by states—Syria, Libya, Iraq. Now we have to face a new and largely unknown organization, with a loose system and hidden connections, so it is not easy to understand its internal functioning. It appears to be composed of cells and networks that are scattered all over the world and changing shape constantly.”

BruguiŹre pointed to the Istanbul bombings in November, 2003, and the March 11th bombings in Madrid as being the opening salvos in a new attack on Europe. “They have struck in the east and in the south,” he said. “I think the next stop will be in the north.”

“London or Paris,” Kepel suggested.

“The principal target is London,” BruguiŹre declared.

A couple final points.

We need to get beyond the 'axis of evil' with its emphasis on rogue states and state sponsors of terrorism.

Don't get me wrong. It will remain critical to oppose states that support terror. But our successes against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan (no safe state haven to serve as home base) and Iraq (states will be more reticent to be too openly affiliated with transnational terror groups) points to a trend of increasing atomization of terror movements.

Call it the proliferation of terror groups--all following al-Qs lead--but not asking for permission slips to mount operations from the Sheikh hunkered down in southeast Wazirstan. Incidentally, these varied groups are now increasingly using the Internet as a key tool to mount operations and train terrorists:

Gabriel Weimann, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, has been monitoring terrorist Web sites for seven years. “When we started, there were only twelve sites,” he told me. “Now there are more than four thousand.” Every known terrorist group maintains more than one Web site, and often the sites are in different languages. “You can download music, videos, donate money, receive training,” Weimann said. “It’s a virtual training camp.”

This conflict is just getting started, sadly--and it's likely going to get much more complex and perilous. We need leaders who not only get the stakes (Bush does; I'm not as sure about Kerry) but also have the requisite capabilities to pursue sophisticated and adept geopolitical strategies that marshall the full spectrum of American power--both hard and soft (not sure either Bush or Kerry have such a strategy at this juncture--think, for instance, of real public diplomacy throughout the Islamic world rather than piped in J-Lo and such).

More on what needs to be done from the B.D. archives last January.

Posted by Gregory at July 26, 2004 09:33 PM

I guess it may be too obvious to point out that the dominoes haven't been falling. Spain had exactly no impact on the rest of the coalition. Ironically, the Phillipines' feckless behavior may even strengthen the coalition since Abu Sayaf is already playing Arroyo for a fool, thus exposing her an extremely poor example for those who would stuff their heads in the sand.

Al Qaeda may be smart and have some nuanced understanding of the West, but they really have no clue how deeply Americans were affected by September 11. Like Bush said, Bring 'em on!

Posted by: Fresh Air at July 27, 2004 01:20 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This strategy was in the works for a while. Remember that Bin Laden issued a warning in December, and then acted on it. He's like Babe Ruth pointing to centerfield. His confidence is scary. Before that, you had the Zarkawi front group claim credit (falsely, it turned out) for the Midwest power blackout and then promise a surprise. And later the UN was bombed horrifically. These people don't mess around.

Right now they're trying to isolate both the United States and the new Iraqi government. What's scary to me is that Egypt caved so easily. They must feel like they need to accomodate the Islamists or be toppled. Jordan and Pakistan are being warned right now. Are they hedging their bets? I think so. AQ's intelligence must be good, because there were only rumors floating around that Pakistan was going to send 4,000 troops to guard the UN election monitors. No longer. The Italians and Bulgarians are targets, too.

Rocky shoals ahead.

Posted by: praktike at July 27, 2004 02:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think the economic strategy really amounts to that much, as the U.S. is already bearing about 90% of the load. However the process of widowing out each group will make the U.S. isolation seem stronger and stronger. This will have two effects. First, it will create panic amoung the chattering classes. Second, it will show that freedom is something that most of the world talks about and feels is a right, but they won't defend it unless directly attacked, then only slowly.

Posted by: J_Crater at July 27, 2004 03:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mr. Belgravia, can I just call you Mr. Biden from now on? Because you're now endorsing chunks of the viewpoint Joe trial-ballooned to Josh Marshall a few weeks ago.

Posted by: djangone at July 27, 2004 04:27 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As usual, I'm right.

Jordan's next.

Posted by: praktike at July 27, 2004 04:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

How, exactly, does Bush "get" the stakes? I haven't seen much evidence.

Posted by: TT at July 27, 2004 09:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I hope you're right, but there are an awful lot of honorary Spaniards in America

Posted by: jeff at July 28, 2004 12:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Can i go off topic? No? Too bad ....

Did anyone else hear that Berger-gate (gone, but not forgotten) may be Bush's hidden card to play in case any Plame indictments come down?

Just in case anyone is indicted in the WH for Plame-gate, Bush can pardon BOTH Berger and the Plame outer and then say, "Hey, I am being bi-partisan, just like the9-11 commission. Why can't we move on and talk about protecting America?" Bush would probably have to get rid of the Plame outer but it would help quash the story quickly ....

Posted by: sarha at July 28, 2004 12:52 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

AQ's intelligence on Pakistan would be good, seeing that AQ is largely a creation of the ISI (Paki's CIA), and it wouldn't be a stretch to assume the ISI is peppered with AQ sympathizers, if not outright agents.

The previous point about bin Laden's confidence was well-made. The error the Western intel agencies made prior to 9/11, and in assessing Iraq's WMD posture (or lack thereof), was in focusing on capabilities instead of intentions. We knew what bin Laden's intentions were, because he enumerated them in his 1996 fatwa against the United States. We simply did not assign those threats the gravity they rated because beyond, oh, blowing up a few embassies or a naval frigate or ambushing Rangers in Mogadishu, what was he besides another crazy Arab making empty threats?

Approaching it the other way, we were well aware of Japan's capabilities prior to Pearl Harbor (blue water navy, carrier air arm, modern aircraft), we even knew that a carrier task force had sortied from home waters in November 1941, we just didn't know where they were headed, and why.

Going forward, we have to assume that if the intentions are there, the capabilities will follow. Especially given the death-cult implacability of our enemy. How's that for a glib rationalization of pre-emption?


Posted by: furious_a at July 28, 2004 02:54 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The coalition has no physical significance except for britain. The rest just provide psychological soothing for americans.

If australia pulls out their 60 air traffic controllers and their 12 light armored vehicles it won't matter much except for public perception.

When you get down to it, the americans haven't really given any other coalition members much sayso in anything. It's really a fight that involves mostly the USA and iraq and iran and saudi arabia and whoever secretly slips weapons to the insurgents.

If the insurgents start seriously shooting down our helicopters and hitting our armor, maybe we'll tell the russians they'd better stop sending those supplies or else. And at that point I guess we can do to them just about exactly what they could do to us back when we were supplying the insurgents in afghanistan against the russian occupation.

I don't think that al qaeda can do much to us to increase the economic cost more than we've done to ourselves.

And it doesn't take brilliant strategy on their part, not after we done already punched out that there tarbaby. After things go bad maybe our best chance is to persuade our enemies to throw us in the briarpatch.

Posted by: J Thomas at July 28, 2004 02:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Furious, it's easy for people to lie about their intentions, easier than their capabilities. Easy to misjudge intentions.

We spent more than 70 years in utter paranoia about international communism. Then *we* decided that the collapse of the USSR meant that international communism was dead. Were our fears ever justified? I don't know how to tell at this point, too late to see how it might have worked if we'd been otherwise.

I can't tell whether this document was important. Look at what bloggers were saying six month ago on any topic and one of them will come out looking like a genius, but that doesn't say anybody was paying attention back then.

This looks disjointed but I don't feel like writing smooth bridges or more separate posts, I'll just leave it.

Posted by: J Thomas at July 28, 2004 03:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

J Thomas

Australia's pull-out--were that to happen--would matter a lot. Sure, we've only a few air-traffic controllers, some trainers, guards for the embassy--and patrols off-shore. So why does it matter? Australia is part of the Anglo-sphere, a western nation, and we 'get' it (or at least this government does, partly--see FM Downer's comments about the Phillipines being 'marshmallows' and both Spain and the Philippines endangering the coalition, including Australians http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200407/s1163806.htm). Your 'psychological' benefits matter a lot in this; because of the globalised nature of the threat and its intertwining in our own societies, indifference, or stepping down, is essentially aiding and abetting the enemy. From Australia's perspective, all this matters--as westerners, and as 'crusaders' (viz East Timor, for example), as far as the jihadists are concerned we're indistinguishable from the US; we cannot counter al-Q etc alone; we need the United States. And the US needs us.

Posted by: Bellatora at July 28, 2004 05:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Did anyone else hear that Berger-gate (gone, but not forgotten) may be Bush's hidden card to play in case any Plame indictments come down?"

Medication, remember, it takes time to work and you have to build up the dose.

Posted by: moptop at July 28, 2004 06:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

All this talk of where the terrorists will CHOOSE to target next is wrong I think. They will hit any country sympathetic to America when they can as hard as they can as the opportunity presents itself.

I don't want to appear complacent, but I don't think Britain will be an easy target, as it has so much experience in anti-terrorism, and I don't think it will react as cravenly as many in Spain appeared to if it is hit. 30 years of IRA terrorism including some large bombs in London did nothing whatsoever to get the Brits out of Northern Ireland. In fact, it probably retarded the Catholic cause there. And the German Blitz, which killed 60,000 civilians, did not force Britain to the peace table. Any large terrorist attack on Britain (heaven forbid) is likely to align the population behind the war on terror, as 9/11 did in the United States, rather than causing them to pull troops out of Iraq. Rhetoric even in the Guardian will change from "understanding" terrorists to catching or killing them.

Posted by: PJ at July 28, 2004 08:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Bellatora, yes, psychological things have an important psychological effect.

If australia were to pull out from iraq but continue the other obligations in east timor etc, and aid the antiterrorist effort by careful police work, the actual physical reality would be about the same both in iraq and for the antiterrorism effort. New zealand has helped the antiterrorism thing recently by catching spies from a nation that aids terrorism who were stealing new zealand passports.

But without the australian symbolic presence in iraq the psychology would be different.

Posted by: J Thomas at July 28, 2004 09:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

PJ, I agree, al qaeda would be wiser not to stage terrorist attacks in britain or australia, where they would strengthen the public resolve. It might however make sense for them to do another attack in the USA to make sure we stay stuck to the tarbaby.

Of course, they likely aren't thinking the way I do. And if they really do have a decentralised structure then maybe whoever is in a position to make an attack on britain will be the ones who decide whether to do it.

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