Good New, Bad News, Part I

From James Fallows’s new article in the current issue of Atlantic Online (emphasis added):

No modern nation is immune to politically inspired violence, and even the best-executed antiterrorism strategy will not be airtight.

But the overall prospect looks better than many Americans believe, and better than nearly all political rhetoric asserts. The essence of the change is this: because of al-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.

“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents. Kilcullen, who as an Australian army officer commanded counter-insurgency units in East Timor, recently served as an adviser in the Pentagon and is now a senior adviser on counterterrorism at the State Department. He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).

“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. “Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

That’s a point I attempted to make on C-SPAN last February. There’s aren’t enough jihadists in the world to invade and occupy the United States and destroy our government and our military. Only we can do that.

And I say we’re doing a heck of a job.

Fallows interviewed a number of experts — some from military intelligence, some from academia — to understand exactly where we are now, antiterrorism-wise. The essential point of Fallows article is that, although the threat of terrorist attacks in the U.S. remains, there is reason for optimism. In some ways America is safer, he says.

However, as I read the article it struck me that, in just about every area where problems remain, the Bush Administration is heading in the wrong direction.

The good news: The experts that Fallows interviewed say that the old al Qaeda, the one that existed on September 11, no longer has operational ability. Among jihadists Osama bin Laden is not much more than a “Che Guevara–like” symbol. What we have now is “a global proliferation of ‘self-starter’ terrorist groups.” These groups certainly can inflict damage — the London and Madrid bombings, for example — but they lack the resources and organizational ability to pull off another September 11. This, some speculate, is the primary reason there hasn’t been another terrorist attack in the U.S. since.

At the moment about the only way a terrorist group could equal or top September 11 is with a nuclear weapon. And “if nuclear weapons constitute the one true existential threat,” the experts say, “then countering the proliferation of those weapons themselves is what American policy should address, more than fighting terrorism in general.”

Naturally, the Bush Administration has taken a different approach.

The Department of Homeland Security, on the other hand, is, um, probably not the reason there hasn’t been another terrorist attack in the U.S. since. “Indeed, nearly all emphasized the haphazard, wasteful, and sometimes self-defeating nature of the DHS’s approach,” Fallows writes.

Muslim Americans are another reason we’ve been terrorist-attack free for almost five years.

“The patriotism of the American Muslim community has been grossly underreported,” says Marc Sageman, who has studied the process by which people decide to join or leave terrorist networks. According to Daniel Benjamin, a former official on the National Security Council and coauthor of The Next Attack, Muslims in America “have been our first line of defense.” Even though many have been “unnerved by a law-enforcement approach that might have been inevitable but was still disturbing,” the community has been “pretty much immune to the jihadist virus.”

Something about the Arab and Muslim immigrants who have come to America, or about their absorption here, has made them basically similar to other well-assimilated American ethnic groups—and basically different from the estranged Muslim underclass of much of Europe. … most measures of Muslim disaffection or upheaval in Europe—arrests, riots, violence based on religion—show it to be ten to fifty times worse than here.

Muslims in Europe are not always economically disadvantaged. They just don’t assimilate:

The difference between the European and American assimilation of Muslims becomes most apparent in the second generation, when American Muslims are culturally and economically Americanized and many European Muslims often develop a sharper sense of alienation. “If you ask a second-generation American Muslim,” says Robert Leiken, author of Bearers of Global Jihad: Immigration and National Security After 9/11, “he will say, ‘I’m an American and a Muslim.’ A second-generation Turk in Germany is a Turk, and a French Moroccan doesn’t know what he is.”

We have a lot more experience with assimilating people here, of course. Yet we cannot be complacent. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. is up (thanks loads, Ms. Malkin) and extreme views can be found among American Muslims. Seeing to it that the rightie hatemongers don’t screw up one of our few advantages ought to be a priority.

There’s another gain against terrorism that we’re in the process of losing. In most Muslim countries support for jihadist violence among “civilian” populations has eroded —

“Like Tourette’s syndrome, they keep killing Muslim civilians,” says Peter Bergen. “That is their Achilles’ heel. Every time the bombs go off and kill civilians, it works in our favor. It’s a double whammy when the civilians they kill are Muslims.” Last November, groups directed by al-Zarqawi set off bombs in three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Some sixty civilians were killed, including thirty-eight at a wedding. The result was to turn Jordanian public opinion against al-Qaeda and al-Zarqawi, and to make the Jordanian government more openly cooperative with the United States.

Israel’s attacks on Lebanon blew that one out of the water, I’m afraid. We had already blown it in Iraq —

There, insurgents have slaughtered civilians daily, before and after the death this spring of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But since American troops are also assumed to be killing civilians, the anti-insurgent backlash is muddied.

In fact, according to Caleb Carr, the only thing that keeps al Qaeda alive at all is Iraq.

Back to the original point:

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. …

… “Many believe that the United States, bloodied and exhausted by the insurgency, stripped of its allies, will eventually withdraw,” Brian Jenkins writes of the jihadist view. From that perspective, “this defeat alone could bring about the collapse of the United States, just as collapse followed the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.”

The rest of the article catalogues the many ways the war in Iraq is hurting the United States and helping jihadists. And time and time again, the Bush Administration follows Osama bin Laden’s original game plan. We fell into bin Laden’s trap, in other words. And even though bin Laden himself is not reaping the benefits, other jihadists certainly are. Staying in Iraq will continue to drain the United States and strengthen jihad. There are serious perils to leaving, also. There’s no happy remedy to the mess Bush made.

But the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. The Associated Press reports:

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” marched through the streets of Baghdad’s biggest Shiite district today in a show of support for Hezbollah militants battling Israeli troops in Lebanon. …

…Al-Sadr followers painted U.S. and Israeli flags on the main road leading to the rally site, and demonstrators stepped on them — a gesture of contempt in Iraq. Alongside the painted flags was written: “These are the terrorists.”

Protesters set fire to American and Israeli flags, as well as effigies of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, showing the men with Dracula teeth. “Saddam and Bush, Two Faces of One Coin” was scrawled on Bush’s effigy.

The Shiites were the people we “liberated,” remember.

I’ve got more to say about Iraq and the James Fallows article, but I’ll say it this afternoon.

11 thoughts on “Good New, Bad News, Part I

  1. Well, it looks like the Shiites are standing up(Jumping up and down, screaming, burning stuff, chanting “death to the infidels”, and generally pretty pissed-off.)
    Is it time for our soldiers to stand down yet? Or perhaps they just need a vote re -count……
    As for the terrorist threat and the war on Terra, ( I can say this because it was in the bleeping Miami Tribune yesterday) port everglades just ended a security contract which was designed to counter a USS Cole type attack on oil tankers.
    Someone PLEASE help me understand how “we” are safer now that Iraq is in full freefall, Afghanistan is flaring up, Muslims world wide are pissed over Bush and Condi allowing Israel to pulverize Lebanon, and rumors of expanding the conflict to include Syria and Iran are wide spread? Anyone? Anyone?
    Time to revisit Voltaire, he knew the deal.

  2. Well, the bad news continues to trump any good news.

    One bright spot, Sen. Clinton put Rummy on the hot seat at the hearings yesterday. Still, it’s too little too late.

  3. I concur..we’re doing a heck of a job!

    And freedom is on the march! Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!

  4. I just started the Fallows article this morning, and it’s fascinating. Fallows is one of the finest long-form journalists in the business–not an expose type guy like Hersh, but a master at synthesizing a clear picture from a whole host of conflicting sources.

  5. I was heartened by Fallows’ comments on the differences between Muslims in Europe and in the USA. It is good to know that this country continues to be special in that way and that so many American Muslims are capable of seeing past the bullshit which they must endure.

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