I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Strange Burden Shifting

By Anonymous Liberal -- On Thursday, Andrew Sullivan wrote the following:

But, for all Cheney's and Rumsfeld's flaws, they are
at least proposing something serious, however
ineptly carried out. I have yet to hear anti-war
voices on the left propose a positive strategy for
defeating Islamist terror at its roots, or call for
democratization of the Arab Muslim world. Indeed, I
heard little but scorn or silence when Bush announced
this vision in London. Do the Democrats stand for
democracy in Iraq? Or in Iran? Do they favor
Beinart-style containment of Islamism? Nuclear
deterrence against Tehran? Certainly, the Kossites
seem utterly uninterested in any of these subjects.
That's their prerogative; and it's equally my
prerogative not to take them seriously until they do.

The same goes for the Dems as a whole. Until the
opposition party presents a progressive, democratic
agenda to reform the Middle East - as Blair has done
in Britain, for example - there's no reason to take
them seriously on national security. Maybe their
presidential candidate will articulate such a vision.
So far, however: so not so much.
I've heard this same general sentiment expressed by a lot of people, and I've gotta say, it makes absolutely no sense to me. As near as I can understand it, Sullivan is admitting that the policies the Bush administration has been following have been ill-advised and incompetently executed, but it's the opponents of these policies he is not yet willing to take seriously, apparently because they have not yet unveiled a grand master plan for ridding the world of Islamic terror.

Though Rumsfeld and Cheney have been wrong about everything, according to Sullivan, they are "at least proposing something serious." Really? What exactly is it that they're proposing? I've been following the news pretty closely, and I haven't heard them offer any proposals of any sort for some time now. Their plan, as near as I can tell, is to cross their fingers and hope that Iraq somehow gets better.

Perhaps Sullivan is refering to the original "plan" of reshaping the Middle East by force, one country at a time, of establishing Iraq as a "beachhead for democracy" in the region. Well, I think the last three years have demonstrated how profoundly unserious that plan was. The neocon plan was certainly far-reaching and ambitious. I'll give it that. But it was never very well thought out. It was, from a logistical standpoint, totally unrealistic, and it was built upon a number of very dubious assumptions about the "root causes" of Islamic terrorism, most notably that lack of democracy is the primary problem.

But this premise just doesn't hold up. As the recent elections in Palestine and Lebanon illustrate, terrorist groups are more than capable of winning democratic elections. But, more importantly, the British experience has made it crystal clear that Islamic fundamentalism is not a problem confined to third world autocracies. Encouraging the spread of democracy is certainly a worthy goal, but there's no reason to think doing so will solve (or even diminish) our terrorist problem, especially when our preferred method of democracy-spreading is unprovoked war.

Sullivan seems to acknowledge that the neocon plan is not working and may even be counterproductive, but he is unwilling to take the "anti-war" crowd seriously until they offer forth some alternative grand sweeping strategy for fighting terrorism.

But what if there isn't one? The neocon plan of reshaping the entire Middle East by force was always a pipedream. It vastly underestimated the difficulty of such an enterprise, and even worse, it fundamentally misconceived the problem. Most grand sweeping strategies tend to do that. Let's face it, the Muslim world is vast. There are millions upon millions of Muslims outside of the Middle East, in Asia, Europe, and here in North America. And recent experience has demonstrated that the sort of radicalization that leads to terrorism can happen anywhere.

Conservative pundits and politicians have long berated anyone with the temerity to suggest that terrorism is not a problem best handled militarily. But it is manifestly obvious that fighting terrorism effectively involves mostly non-military measures. Just look at the foiled "liquid-bomb" terror plot. These bombers were set to fly out of the UK. They may have had connections to Pakistan. We're clearly not going to militarily engage either of those countries, for obvious reasons. So how can such a problem be dealt with militarily?

The blunt instrument of military force is particularly ill-suited to fighting a worldwide terrorism network, particularly one that spawns unaffiliated copycats. Nor is military force an effective way of attacking the "root causes" of terrorism, as the war in Iraq tragically illustrates. As a general matter, invading and occupying countries is a recipe for more terrorism, not less.

People like Sullivan seem to believe that because Islamic terrorism is such a serious threat, only a bold, audacious, totally unorthodox strategy is sufficient to deal with it. I very much question that assumption. There are no quick fixes when you are fighting an ideology. Like communism before it, I suspect Islamic fundamentalism will only be defeated through a slow war of attrition. Ideologies must die out, they cannot be killed.

Fighting terrorism effectively will involve working closely with other countries, even the ones we don't particularly like, to identify and cripple terrorist networks. Occasionally there will be ways to effectively use military force, like in Afghanistan, but these will be the exception not the rule. The most effective way to address the root causes of terrorism is to pursue policies that will hasten the spread of modernity, not just democracy, throughout the Middle East. When people have jobs and lives and hope, the ideology of jihadism will be far less appealing. But this process will take a long time, and we can't make it happen by brute force. We must be vigilant and patient. Very patient. The Cold War wasn't won overnight. But there were many points along the way where reckless ill-considered action could have been disastrous.

Over the last four years, our leaders have engaged in a counterproductive strategy, and they show no signs of understanding that. Under those circumstances, the burden isn't on the administration's critics to present some grand alternative strategy. The only "unserious" option at the moment is allowing these clowns to continue making a mess of things.

-posted by A.L.


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