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Global counterterrorism strategy

Posted October 24th, 2008 in Politics. Tags: .

I’m often confused by other peoples’ political positions. For example, I’ve quoted a position that confuses me below. I believe that this statement wasn’t made in jest and may in fact be a widespread opinion- at least in the United States. If you agree with the quote below, please help me to become less dumb by explaining the reasoning that would lead someone to hold this position.

After 9/11, Gore would have made some big talk in front of the U.N. about terrorist groups. But the U.N. would have done exactly what it did do: nothing. The terrorists would have seen us as unwilling to defend ourselves and would have made subsequent attacks on us. This cues more rhetoric from Gore and eventually he and the U.N. would try to negotiate a truce with the terrorists, which would have given them “legitimate” status and guaranteed more attacks in the future.

I can’t confidently say what Gore would’ve done after 9/11. Frankly, I’m not even sure that Gore himself could accurately say what his response would’ve been. I can say that the man who holds this position is displaying a black-and-white mentality that seems to be depressingly popular in American politics: “You’re either with us or against us. You either support the President or you’re spitting on the troops like some kind of treasonous coward.” In my experience, real life just isn’t this simple; I’ve found nuances in nearly every subject I’ve explored. The false dilemma I see in his position is that “the President is either willing to start wars at the drop of a hat, or he’s a cowardly eunuch who doesn’t understand the basic principle of ‘don’t give in to terrorism.’ ”

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that his black-and-white view of the situation is right- that Gore wouldn’t have invaded Afghanistan in response to 9/11. What would’ve happened on a global scale after such a non-reaction? Would it have been a disaster of subsequent attacks as he claims? I don’t think so, and my reasons for saying so are based on my current (imperfect) understanding of how terrorism works. If I’ve made any mistakes in my analysis, please point them out so I can improve my understanding of the current geopolitical situation.

First of all, I think that Islamist terrorists are made up of two basic groups. There’s a very small group of fanatics who are fundamentally evil, and are willing to kill as many innocent people as possible in order to further whatever their agenda might be. This includes things like:

  • Establishing a global Islamic state.
  • Destroying Israel.
  • Removing U.S. bases from the Middle East.
  • Getting revenge for actions the U.S. has taken such as the 1953 coup that installed the puppet dictator known as the Shah of Iran, imposing trade sanctions on Iraq, supplying Israel with weapons for decades, imprisoning people without trials in Guantanamo Bay, torturing people in Abu Ghraib and the CIA’s secret prisons, etc.

Now, this very small group of people may be crazy and evil, but they’re not (as a rule) stupid. They know that they can’t win a real war because modern warfare requires large armies and advanced technology (neither of which they have), so their only option is to use desperate tactics like suicide bombings. But they can’t be suicide bombers themselves (because otherwise the movement would end very quickly), so they have to recruit dupes to do that for them. I think that the vast majority of suicide bombers and “Al Qaeda fighters” we hear about so often fall into this second category. They’re impressionable young men who may not have been initially evil or psychotic; they’re just morons who grew up in a world steeped in hatred, and probably nurse anger towards the U.S. and our allies because, say, a U.S. bomb fell on their house and killed their family. Or any number of different tragedies, really, not all of them directly related to the U.S.

I’m led to conclude that terrorists are dependent on the discontent of the wider population in which they’re operating and recruiting. If the common people see them as saviors against a Great Satan, then their only real resource- bitter, gullible young men- is plentiful. People want to shelter them, to further their efforts as “freedom fighters”. On the other hand, if they’re seen as bloodthirsty killers of women and children then their recruiting efforts dry up- effectively removing their only weapon. People turn them in because they don’t identify with the terrorists’ goals.

Note that this point implies that the strategic situation in the so-called “War on Terror” is dramatically different from previous wars- real wars- which were fought with huge armies on both sides. In that case, public opinion wasn’t so much of an issue because each side had control of a government and could draft many soldiers, produce large numbers of guns, tanks, planes, ships, etc. Global public opinion is only really important in this “war”, which means that it has no real precedent. I think that one of Bush’s major problems is that he doesn’t seem to understand this new reality. He seems to see himself as a kind of combined Reagan-FDR-Christ figure, fighting a huge army of darkness with his own huge army of light. Well, in a sense, he’s right on the money here- every single action he’s taken since 9/11 has served to create and enlarge the huge army that he’s currently fighting.

I think that from bin Laden’s point of view, 9/11 was- at least at first- wildly successful tactically but a total failure from a strategic standpoint. Why? Because if you look at polls taken from right after the event, most people- even people in the Middle East- considered it to be an unspeakable act of barbaric violence and were sympathetic to the U.S.’s position. Now consider the polls taken more recently. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, people all around the world are seething with rage at the U.S. This shift in public opinion represents a dramatic strategic victory for the terrorists; it makes recruiting easier, more people are willing to shelter them, and far fewer people are willing to turn them in even for huge ransoms.

Therefore, I have to question his assertion that a hypothetical lack of a U.S. military response to 9/11 would’ve precipitated a series of disasters. It seems to me that even if new attacks did follow, every new attack would’ve brought the world into greater solidarity with us, isolating the terrorists even further. I’m not saying that the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake; in fact I think it was fully warranted due to the Taliban’s refusal to turn over bin Laden. (Iraq is a completely different matter, in my opinion.) I’m just confused that he thinks our lack of reaction would’ve encouraged more attacks. It almost sounds like he’s saying that terrorists are willing to engage in suicide missions, but only if we’re not going to counter-attack. Because then they might… uh… die? His appraisal of the situation seems to assume that we face a rational enemy with realizable goals and a centralized infrastructure; in that case the possibility of a military strike on our part would be a very real deterrent. Note that in most wars this assumption is perfectly valid, so it’s easy to understand how this mistake can be made.

Because of this reasoning, I must disagree that military counter-strikes are the best way to deter terrorist attacks. I believe that terrorists plan their attacks with the specific intention of provoking an excessive response, which in turn boosts public support for their cause. A “shock and awe” response to a terror attack isn’t a deterrent to terrorism. It is, in fact, precisely the reaction that the attack was designed to elicit in the first place.

Then there’s the often-repeated talking point that any opposition to the President’s war policy is equivalent to “giving in to terrorists”. While I agree that giving into terrorism once encourages more terrorism, I’m uncertain as to how universally that principle should be applied. For instance, Al Qaeda publicly denounced the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and demanded that it stop with their usual bombastic threats. Does that mean we should have stopped the investigation and told the soldiers to keep mistreating prisoners because to do otherwise would constitute “giving in to terrorists”? Also, I have to say that I agree that the CIA was wrong to back the Shah of Iran when they knew his regime was oppressive and unpopular. Ditto for the U.S. keeping bases in Saudi Arabia when they were fully aware of the fact that the locals had serious religious problems with foreign soldiers on their soil. What should we do when the terrorists make demands that actually (gasp!) make sense?

While most terrorist demands are fundamentally evil and should be rejected outright, some of them are shared by many peaceful people. Even a broken clock is right twice a day- why can’t terrorists occasionally have legitimate complaints? It’s ironic that their actions, taken in the hopes of changing U.S. policy, actually tie our hands. We can’t pull our bases out of Saudi Arabia right now because that would be seen as evidence that the attacks successfully changed U.S. policy, and guarantee more attacks in the future. On the other hand, indulging the instinct for revenge that we all feel after an attack actually works to the enemy’s advantage. It’s frustrating– I think our society needs to tread a fine line between encouraging terrorism by showing that it works, and continuing to pursue brain-dead policies that merely anger ordinary people and provide new recruits for the terrorists. Unfortunately, I don’t have any idea where that line should be drawn…

(Ed. note: this essay was first written on 2007-04-28.)

Last modified February 6th, 2012

4 Responses to “Global counterterrorism strategy”

  1. ln posted on 2008-10-31 at 11:13

    You, I, and other like-minded people can see past the fear mongering tactics which will certainly lead to that nasty fascism we’ve been approaching ever since 9/11. You are moderate and reasonable in your post and present a very compelling, logical argument. I think the explanation, setting aside logic and reason, is very simple:

    If said loud enough and often enough, especially in an environment that cultivates a sufficient level of permanent fear, an overwhelming number of people will believe anything you tell them as truth. Most if not all of these people are morons. They tend to react with only knee-jerk reactions, bumper-sticker wisdom, and even violence toward opposition to their narrow-minded and primitive world views because what they don’t comprehend only frightens them more and causes them to cling even stronger to their misguided notions.

    “Human Nature.” That’s the long and short of it.

  2. It’s hard enough to uncover the motivations behind another person’s beliefs even when your own beliefs don’t differ from his. If you do disagree with his beliefs, I think the motivations you “discover” are more likely to reflect your own biases rather than any genuine insight into the other person’s psyche.

    I’m not disputing that many people are dumb, in fact I count myself as one of them. But are you certain that you’ve arrived at the best possible explanation, rather than a convenient way to boost your own self esteem by allowing you to feel superior to the unwashed masses?

    For the moment, let’s suppose your “moron” explanation is correct. Even if this is true, would it be productive to insult (deservedly or otherwise) “most if not all” of the people who hold political beliefs that differ from your own?

    I don’t think so. I think insults lower the quality of dialog, eliminating the possibility of a genuine exchange of ideas. This reduces civilized debate to a mere argument- a battle waged by two sides who don’t have the slightest interest in examining their own ideas for flaws (or admitting them if flaws are found). Insults polarize society, pushing people on either side to ideological extremes in an attempt to provide balance against the ever-multiplying “crazies” on the other side. Furthermore, before the insult your opponent may have been persuaded that you were right. This is rare- it’s a blow to his pride to admit that his reasoning was faulty- but it does happen. Insulting him, though, raises this blow to his pride to such a degree that it would look like outright cowardice for him to “capitulate.”

    Maybe an alternative explanation is that people are simply too preoccupied to do the research necessary to see the issues in a broad enough context? They’re not morons— just too busy with day-to-day life to keep up with an entire globe’s worth of foreign affairs…

  3. Betty posted on 2008-12-08 at 17:51

    (Ed. note: this comment was written on 2007-06-09.)

    WHAT US actions in Guantanamo Bay? Ridiculous things like the Quran flushing that was later shown to be a false story? Or the “torture” tactics that are used on our own US troops during boot camp or other military schools? From everything I’ve read about that place, it sounds like a (in the words of Rush Limbaugh) “tropical retreat from the stress of Jihad.” Please enlighten me if I am mistaken.

    As for Abu Ghraib, I think you’re going a little far to call that fiasco torture. Humiliating and appalling, yes, and certainly enough to rouse some righteous indignation in the Muslim world, but torture? No. Again, if you know something I don’t, please let me know.

  4. (Ed. note: this comment was written on 2007-06-10.)

    WHAT US actions in Guantanamo Bay? Ridiculous things like the Quran flushing that was later shown to be a false story?

    No, that claim seemed false from the beginning. It’s exactly the kind of thing a religious fanatic would say to inflame his followers. There’s virtually nothing we can do to stop these bizarre rumors from being started. All we can do is project a strong anti-torture stance, and consistently apply it to all detention centers and all theaters of war. Our morality won’t stop the fanatics from telling wild tales about Americans, but it will reduce their credibility in the wider population.

    Or the “torture” tactics that are used on our own US troops during boot camp or other military schools? From everything I’ve read about that place, it sounds like a (in the words of Rush Limbaugh) “tropical retreat from the stress of Jihad.”

    I haven’t heard anything specific regarding torture at Guantanamo Bay. Instead, what concerns me is that Guantanamo Bay was chosen for a prison site specifically because it lies outside of U.S. law. Prisoners can (and have) been kept there indefinitely without trial. I agree that terrorists are dangerous prisoners and should be executed if/when proven guilty in a court of law, but I’m not convinced that every last prisoner there really is guilty. I’m also skeptical of a justice system that only provides trials in the form of secret military tribunals which, after (what, six?) years of incarceration have yet to take place. If these prisoners are guilty, I think they should be tried and sentenced in a timely fashion in an ordinary court of law.

    This shady approach to justice has merely worsened the image of the U.S. around the world. It grants (some) legitimacy to groups who criticize the U.S. record on human rights, which is exactly the worst move the U.S. could possibly make. This public image problem is devastating in a “war” against loosely aligned terror groups, because public opinion is their only real resource. Terrorists don’t need weapons or large armies or weapons of mass destruction. All they need are a couple of box-cutter knives (or pipes and fertilizer, etc), and more importantly the backing of a significant portion of the world’s population.

    So that is what we must deny them in the long run. Fighting individual terrorist groups may help prevent attacks in the immediate future, but defeating terrorism on a global scale over a decades-long timespan requires addressing its root causes, not the symptoms.

    As for Abu Ghraib, I think you’re going a little far to call that fiasco torture. Humiliating and appalling, yes, and certainly enough to rouse some righteous indignation in the Muslim world, but torture? No.

    First of all, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve only seen pictures of the innocent stuff. The stuff that the interrogators decided would be fun to record for… well… some kind of sick photo album, I guess. The really bad stuff might make even the most depraved sadist say “Hmmm… this might be incriminating, no? Better put the camera away.”

    Secondly, here are two documents detailing a case brought by the ACLU which has produced dozens of autopsy reports from various American detention centers (including Abu Ghraib), and several of them seem to describe injuries consistent with torture. The first document includes all the autopsy reports, so some of them are natural and some are clearly describing wounds inflicted on the battle field. But the deaths involving strangulation, multiple blunt force injuries combined with restraint marks and lack of self-defense wounds seem very suspicious to me.

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