Call Me Ishmael…


Strategic threat or law enforcement problem?

In John McCain’s final scramble for votes last week, there was a revealing moment in Tampa Bay, when he seemed to dismiss the economic crisis that will probably take a decade to fix, and urge undecided voters to instead focus on what he considers to be the “real” challenge facing America’s next leader. Of his opponent, McCain asked, “Can this man defend America from Osama bin Laden?”

As I wrote this weekend,

The suggestion that al Qa’eda poses more danger to the well-being of ordinary Americans than a tanking economy that threatens the jobs and homes of millions seems preposterous to any sober observer: al Qa’eda is a small conspiratorial organisation that once, seven years ago, managed to pull off a spectacular attack on US soil, and has over the same period pulled off a few more such grisly stunts in London, Madrid, Casablanca and Bali. It controls no territory and is incapable of disrupting the defences of even the weakest states on the planet, much less the most powerful. To suggest it poses a greater risk than the most profound slump in three generations made a good Halloween story, nothing more.

But if McCain was simply trying to scare people into voting for him, he was inadvertently laying bare the fallacy at the heart of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”, which made the organising principle of US foreign policy a campaign against a handful of extreme jihadists.

McCain regularly repeats the preposterous mantra that the struggle against Islamist radicalism is the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century,” but make no mistake, Barack Obama falls victim to the same flawed logic when he proclaims Afghanistan “the right war” and promises to get out of Iraq in order to free up more troops to send to “stamp out the Taliban”, as he put it one of the presidential debates. The war on Afghanistan is no more winnable than the war in Iraq. Both are products of a mindset that responded to the spectacular provocation of a tiny band of jihadists on 9/11 by launching massive military campaigns to remake whole societies in a more U.S.-friendly image, and as a result ended up inflicting far more damage on American life, treasure and strategic position than al-Qaea ever could have.

The war on terror is a profound conceptual error, not simply because the problem with making war on a common noun (drugs, poverty, terror) is that a common noun cannot surrender; but also because it treats a small band of extremists with no means of transforming the balance of power as if they represent a genuine strategic threat rather than what John Kerry quite correctly in 2004 labeled a “nuisance.” Kerry told the New York Times, ”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

(Yes, yes, I know Kerry lost, but he was right about the strategic signficance of terrorism.)

Instead, like Captain Ahab in his obsessive pursuit the whale, President Bush has perverted the U.S. constitution and its protections of liberty, and “set the East ablaze” in a manner that has burnt U.S. interests from the Mediterannean to Pakistan. If the next President has time for much beyond rebuilding the economy, a good starting point would be rethinking U.S. foreign policy in a way that puts terrorism in perspective, ending the policy of repeatedly destroying the village in order to save it.

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10 Responses to Call Me Ishmael…

  1. Pingback: The Mistake of the GWOT « I’m Not Going to Do This Every Day

  2. Y. Ben-David says:

    “Small bands of extremists” seem to having a major effect on many countries. We see, for example, a major terrorist onslaught in Pakistan which contributed to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, in addition to frequent terrorist attacks in various parts of the country. In the “Somaliland” part of Somalia, which was the quietest part of the country until recently, there were several murderous terrorist attacks. We see ongoing terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lebanon is in a very tense situation with an extremist Shi’ite Islamic movement (HIZBULLAH) actively destablizing the country, even dragging it into a war with Israel in 2006. Certainly 9/11 and 7/7 in Britain and the big attack in Madrid were not minor events that can be dismissed as “minor nuisances”. There are also frequent terror attacks in Algeria and other places in North-west Africa. Security services all over the world are on alert against Islamic terror attacks (do we really know how many potential attacks were thwarted or deterred by ongoing security operations around the world?).
    The fact that no single country is behind them and the fact that various extremist groups may hate each other (Sunni al-Qaida vs Shi’ite groups, for example) doesn’t mean that they aren’t potent. We know that many state sponers are supporting at least some of these groups. So I don’t think it is possible to dismiss these things as merely “nuisances”.

  3. charles molesworth says:

    You don’t have to be cynical to think that Obama (or any future president) will not be easily convinced by this argument. Nor is it cynical to think that he or she will never even hear such an argument in a free and open discussion. So, what to do? Yes, we can continue to make these sound and thoughtful arguments and hope enough people hear and accept them to bring some sort of effective pressure on those who make the decisions and set the policy. Meanwhile relentlessly militarized thinking dominates the foreign policy of the USA. Sorry to sound like a counsel of despair.
    A reductive alternative: the only way to change the current benighted policy is either through talking to (highly placed, influential) people, or by finding a way to change the systematic interests who control the organizational and institutional structures that perpetuate the military mind-set. People OR institutions: maybe we cannot change one without changing the other.
    Meanwhile, let’s do everything we can to stop the coming wider war in Afghanistan.

  4. Rupa Shah says:

    The “War on Terror” has been an OBSESSION with the current administration and continues to do so with Sen McCain, a way to divert attention from more immediate and pressing concerns of the citizenry. When, at am American airport, a seventy year old with grey hair is strip searched for a “suicide belt” or an eighty year old with white hair with artificial knee ( and with his MD’s certificate to prove it) is strip searched, one knows that that obssesion has gone beserk. It would be funny except too much money, time, energy and resources are wasted.

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  6. Harvey says:

    The real question is not whether the war on terrorism is more or less of a challenge to American than the economic problems… we have about 20 fundamental changes we NEED to make. In 1973 or 74 we were on rationing tickets to get 2 tanks of gasoline for cars per week. When the OPEC nations put our economy in a strangle-hold we should have paid them back by not importing any foreign oil starting withing a few years. Instead we imported so much oil that average Saudi citizens do not do household chores like basic cleaning. They import workers for that. That is one of the 20 fundamental changes we need… no more foreign energy.

  7. badiu says:

    For years, we in America have supported Israel both financially and militarily because we perceived they were the innocent victims of hostile and violent neighbors. The US media has, for years, provided extensive coverage of every incident involving Arab-against-Israeli violence. From shootings, to car bombs to suicide bombers, we in America have seen it all. Or have we?

    Why would rational human beings, given a choice, choose to attack their neighbors rather than live together in peace? More pertinent, why would a rational human being choose to blow him up rather than live? The Israelis, the US media and our politicians would have us believe that the Arabs are simply not rational. They routinely tell us that Arabs are “religious fanatics” who “hate freedom” or “hate our way of life” to quote George W. Bush. These arguments are fallacious and intellectually bankrupt.

    The reason for Arab against Israeli violence is simple: The Israelis have been systematically repressing and brutalizing hundreds of thousands of Arabs on a scale unparalleled since World War 2.

  8. Yes, we can continue to make these sound and thoughtful arguments and hope enough people hear and accept them to bring some sort of effective pressure on those who make the decisions and set the policy. Meanwhile relentlessly militarized thinking dominates the foreign policy of the USA.

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