Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Friday, August 11th, 2006.

Fighting Smart, Fighting Stupid

Bush Administration, Iraq War, War on Terror

[T]he deeper and more discouraging prospect—that the United States is doomed to spend decades cowering defensively—need not come true. How can the United States regain the initiative against terrorists, as opposed to living in a permanent crouch? By recognizing the point that I heard from so many military strategists: that terrorists, through their own efforts, can damage but not destroy us. Their real destructive power, again, lies in what they can provoke us to do. While the United States can never completely control what violent groups intend and sometimes achieve, it can determine its own response. That we have this power should come as good and important news, because it switches the strategic advantage to our side. — James Fallows, “Declaring Victory,” The Atlantic, September 2006

Chief among the reactions Osama bin Laden hoped to provoke was the invasion and occupation of a Muslim country. Fallows continues,

Documents captured after 9/11 showed that bin Laden hoped to provoke the United States into an invasion and occupation that would entail all the complications that have arisen in Iraq. His only error was to think that the place where Americans would get stuck would be Afghanistan.

Richard Clarke wrote in his book Against All Enemies that something like the Iraq War was bin Laden’s plan all along. At least a decade before 9/11, according to Clarke, Osama was hanging out in the Sudan dreaming up an Iraq scenario–

The ingredients al Qaeda dreamed of for propagating its movement were a Christian government attacking a weaker Muslim region, allowing the new terrorist group to rally jihadists from many countries to come to the aid of the religious brethren. After the success of the jihad, the Muslim region would become a radical Islamic state, a breeding ground for more terrorists, a part of the eventual network of Islamic states that would make up the great new Caliphate, or Muslim empire. [p. 136]

Time and time again, the Bush Administration’s fear and hubris and ignorance become puppet strings in jihadists’ hands. We might as well invite al Qaeda into the Pentagon and let them plan our security policies.

Rightie blogger Allahpundit wrote yesterday,

There are bits from Reid and Kerry too, but as usual it’s Teddy who provides the pull-quote for the day’s events:

    “Five years after 9-11, it is clear that our misguided policies are making America more hated in the world and making the war on terrorism harder to win,” Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said.

We’ve reached the point where either you see instantly what’s wrong with that statement or you don’t, and if you don’t, nothing I’m going to say will change your mind. So I won’t try; maybe Ace or Goldstein will muster the energy later.

Of course Allahpundit can’t explain “what’s wrong” with Senator Kennedy’s statement, because coherently explaining something in words requires logic and dispassion. If one’s motivations are, in fact, a sludge of unprocessed fear and bigotry slopping around one’s psyche like raw sewage, then rendering those motivations into clear, dispassionate, and logical rhetoric is, um, futile. So righties do not explain; they package. We are at war with enemies who hate our freedoms. We must fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here. Victory. Resolve. We can’t cut and run.

Then Allahpundit embraces one of the Right’s favorite conceits, which is that we lefties are opposed to Bush’s policies because we don’t understand the threat posed by terrorism. The fact that we oppose Bush policies because most of them amount to fighting a fire by pouring kerosene on it flies right over their terrorized little heads. But in a “nutroots terror-reaction round-up” he finds no prominent leftie bloggers to feed his fantasies; instead, he sites a commenter at Democratic Underground, a diarist at Daily Kos, and “some moron looking for attention at Goldstein’s site.” We’ve seen this before, too. They’re desperately trying to reassure themselves that we’re the crazy ones, and they’ll take any proof they can get.

The Bush Administration’s habit of dangling terrorism alerts to distract us and manipulate public opinion is too well established to ignore. This timeline, which unfortunately stops in January 2005, provides some good examples. But of course, just because some child cries “wolf” as a prank doesn’t mean there are no wolves. It may be only a matter of time before a plot like the one stopped in London actually succeeds. Lord knows plenty of jihadists would love to hurt us on our own soil, and more such jihadists are being created every day by George Bush’s misbegotten policies.

The next argument is, of course, that the U.S. wasn’t in Iraq on September 11. No, but we were in Saudi Arabia. It’s well known that bin Laden’s grudge against the U.S. dates from August 1990, when the Saudi government allowed U.S. troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. In this case I don’t blame America, because those troops were there at the behest of the Saudi government. Twisted people like Osama bin Laden can be set off by just about anything, and it’s probably not possible to devise a foreign policy that won’t offend some whackjob’s inflammable sensibilities.

On the other hand, when our policies utterly ignore the sensibilities of a majority of Muslims; when our policies are creating enemies faster than we can shoot them; when our policies help the war effort of our enemies but weaken us; there’s a problem. And I’ve yet to see evidence that anti-American terrorists give a hoohaw about our freedoms, one way or another.

I’ve written myriad blog posts explaining why the war in Iraq is hindering, not helping, our antiterrorism efforts. I’m not going to repeat all those arguments now; just click on “Iraq War” after “Filed under” at the top of this post, and start reading. The James Fallows article linked at the top of this page also explains why our war in Iraq is hurting us. If you can access the article (you may not be able to if you aren’t a subscriber), click here and scroll down to “What Has Gone Right for al-Qaeda,” and start reading. Because I believe there is a subscription firewall, I’ve added an excerpt to the end of this post.

It seems obvious to me that, after September 11, our focus should have been on destroying al Qaeda and increasing basic security at home. The “destroying al Qaeda” part certainly included military action (against al Qaeda and groups with a similar agenda, not action diffused over every terrorist cell on the planet whether it is likely to strike the U.S. or not), but it also should have included leading democratic nations in a cooperative global intelligence-and-police effort and addressing those “root causes,” which are still imperfectly understood, in order to deprive terrorists of popular support in the Muslim world.

The “basic security at home” part is a mess; the “security” policies exemplified by the Department of Homeland Security are described in Fallows’s article as “haphazard, wasteful, and sometimes self-defeating.” That other nations are aiding our intelligence and police efforts is mostly because it’s in their own self-interest to do so; they are are terrorism targets, too. We’ve pissed off enough people that I wonder how much they’d help us otherwise. But as for depriving terrorists of popular support, we’ve done just the opposite.

Righties will continue to lie to themselves and each other that we lefties oppose Bush’s policies because lefties don’t want to fight terrorism, and there’s not much point in trying to reason with them. Our efforts, IMO, must be to reach out to those Americans (and voters) whose brains are not pickled in extremist rightwing ideology and explain to them that the Bush White House is aiding terrorism, and foreign policy power must be taken away from the Bushies as quickly as possible.

Since Bush’s “approval” numbers are hovering at around 40 percent these days, that should leave us with plenty of people who are reachable. Of course, an important part of this effort is to keep watch on media and speak up when reporters and “pundits” repeat rightie talking points as gospel, which is most of the time. It’s an uphill fight. But we’ve got to fight as if our lives depend on it, because they probably do.

Here’s the James Fallows slice I promised:

In the modern brand of terrorist warfare, what an enemy can do directly is limited. The most dangerous thing it can do is to provoke you into hurting yourself.

This is what David Kilcullen meant in saying that the response to terrorism was potentially far more destructive than the deed itself. And it is why most people I spoke with said that three kinds of American reaction—the war in Iraq, the economic consequences of willy-nilly spending on security, and the erosion of America’s moral authority—were responsible for such strength as al-Qaeda now maintained.

“You only have to look at the Iraq War to see how much damage you can do to yourself by your response,” Kilcullen told me. He is another of those who supported the war and consider it important to fight toward some kind of victory, but who recognize the ways in which this conflict has helped al-Qaeda. So far the war in Iraq has advanced the jihadist cause because it generates a steady supply of Islamic victims, or martyrs; because it seems to prove Osama bin Laden’s contention that America lusts to occupy Islam’s sacred sites, abuse Muslim people, and steal Muslim resources; and because it raises the tantalizing possibility that humble Muslim insurgents, with cheap, primitive weapons, can once more hobble and ultimately destroy a superpower, as they believe they did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan twenty years ago. The United States also played a large role in thwarting the Soviets, but that doesn’t matter. For mythic purposes, mujahideen brought down one anti-Islamic army and can bring down another. …

… Because the general point is familiar, I’ll let one more anecdote about the consequences of invading Iraq stand for many that I heard. When Americans think of satellite surveillance and the National Security Agency, they are likely to imagine something out of the TV show 24: a limitless set of eyes in the sky that can watch everything, all the time. In fact, even today’s amply funded NSA can watch only a limited number of sites. “Our overhead imagery is dedicated to force protection in Iraq and Afghanistan,” I was told by a former intelligence official who would not let me use his name. He meant that the satellites are tied up following U.S. troops on patrol and in firefights to let them know who might be waiting in ambush. “There are still ammo dumps in Iraq that are open to insurgents,” he said, “but we lack the imagery to cover them—let alone what people might be dreaming up in Thailand or Bangladesh.” Because so many spy satellites are trained on the countries we have invaded, they tell us less than they used to about the rest of the world.

Documents captured after 9/11 showed that bin Laden hoped to provoke the United States into an invasion and occupation that would entail all the complications that have arisen in Iraq. His only error was to think that the place where Americans would get stuck would be Afghanistan.

Bin Laden also hoped that such an entrapment would drain the United States financially. Many al-Qaeda documents refer to the importance of sapping American economic strength as a step toward reducing America’s ability to throw its weight around in the Middle East. Bin Laden imagined this would happen largely through attacks on America’s oil supply. This is still a goal. For instance, a 2004 fatwa from the imprisoned head of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia declared that targeting oil pipelines and refineries was a legitimate form of economic jihad—and that economic jihad “is one of the most powerful ways in which we can take revenge on the infidels during this present stage.” The fatwa went on to offer an analysis many economists would be proud of, laying out all the steps that would lead from a less-secure oil supply to a less-productive American economy and ultimately to a run on the dollar. (It also emphasized that oil wells themselves should be attacked only as a last resort, because news coverage of the smoke and fires would hurt al-Qaeda’s image.)

Higher-priced oil has hurt America, but what has hurt more is the economic reaction bin Laden didn’t fully foresee. This is the systematic drag on public and private resources created by the undifferentiated need to be “secure.”

The effect is most obvious on the public level. “The economy as a whole took six months or so to recover from the effects of 9/11,” Richard Clarke told me. “The federal budget never recovered. The federal budget is in a permanent mess, to a large degree because of 9/11.” At the start of 2001, the federal budget was $125 billion in surplus. Now it is $300 billion in deficit.

A total of five people died from anthrax spores sent through the mail shortly after 9/11. In Devils and Duct Tape, his forthcoming book, John Mueller points out that the U.S. Postal Service will eventually spend about $5 billion on protective screening equipment and other measures in response to the anthrax threat, or about $1 billion per fatality. Each new security guard, each extra checkpoint or biometric measure, is both a direct cost and an indirect drag on economic flexibility.

If bin Laden hadn’t fully anticipated this effect, he certainly recognized it after it occurred. In his statement just before the 2004 election, he quoted the finding of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (!) to the effect that the total cost, direct and indirect, to America of the 9/11 attacks was at least $500 billion. Bin Laden gleefully pointed out that the attacks had cost al-Qaeda about $500,000, for a million-to-one payoff ratio. America’s deficit spending for Iraq and homeland security was, he said, “evidence of the success of the bleed-until-bankruptcy plan, with Allah’s permission.”

And they say some guys in caves in Afghanistan couldn’t have pulled off 9/11. Hah. Bottom line, they’ve been fighting us smart, and we’ve been fighting them stupid.

Update: Finally a serious anti-terror policy.

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