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Slate presents its "Real War on Terrorism."
September 5, 2002 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Slate presents its "Real War on Terrorism." Robert Wright's "The Earthling" column for Slate is taking a thoughtful look on how to deal with terrorism, and for foreign policy laymen like myself, it's pretty interesting. He's writing a piece a day for two weeks, outlining his propositions and prescriptions one by one and asking for the Fray folk (Slate's message board) to try to dismantle the logic of his arguments.

His propositions so far: Al-Qaida and radical Islam are not the problem. For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people. The number of intensely aggrieved groups will almost certainly grow in the coming decades of rapid technological, and hence social, change. The amount of discontent in the world is becoming a highly significant national-security variable. His prescriptions: Take your bitter medicine early. The substance of policies should be subjected to a new kind of appraisal, one that explicitly accounts for the discontent and hatred the policies arouse. The ultimate target is memes; killing or arresting people is useful only to the extent that it leads to a net reduction in terrorism memes. In a war on terrorism, applying force inconspicuously makes sense more often than in regular wars.

(I know, I know, what could be more Plasticky than a Slate link, but it's good reading and good discussion fodder.)
posted by blueshammer (20 comments total)

 
I think that Robert Wright is one of the most important analysts writing today (along with Friedman). I wanted to post this, but feared the op-ed police...so thanks. And of course his book rocks.

I call Wright the "lone coherent dove".
posted by goethean at 9:49 AM on September 5, 2002


Well meaning, but a non starter as it puts US policy at the whim of the multitudes of small groups of intensely aggrieved and motivated people.

The ugly fact of life we all seem not to want to face is that, everything Has cost, and someone always loses, at least to extent that there are many situations where someone getting screwed is all but unavoidable.

Whats worse is that in a world where fanatics seem to grow like weeds, not every aggrieved party deserves to be aggrieved, and fanatics never seem to mind stepping over this small obstacle to their pet cause.

Good post though, (op-ed police be damned). I favor substance over form here on MeFi.
posted by BentPenguin at 9:56 AM on September 5, 2002


Looks like the start of an interesting series. I agree that Bush's long-term policy is not very well defined. The idea that any successful long-term policy cannot be purely military makes good sense to me; we have been trying "military diplomacy" for quite a while now, and it just doesn't seem to work.
posted by zekinskia at 10:10 AM on September 5, 2002


I'm a huge fan of Robert Wright, and I'm glad someone else posted this to pre-emptively assuage my guilt :)

BP- I don't think he's arguing that U.S. foreign policy needs to accommodate every last fringe group. He's pointing out that foreign policy (a) needs to recognize that they are as potentially problematic as sovereign states (this is analogous to the web ideal of one guy can reach the same audience as Wal-Mart), and (b) needs to work at eliminatig the causes of these group's discontent, rather than the people themselves.

Today's (Thurs) piece is particularly good, likening extreme political ideas to memes- you can kill a carrier, but the virus will still spread.
posted by mkultra at 10:13 AM on September 5, 2002


One thing that is implicit in his analysis is that the only reason that Al-Qaeda is attacking the US now is money. The vast ammounts of petro-dollars and the fluidity of that money due to its concentration and corruption mean that suddenly there is a confluence of both means and desire to attack using non-conventional means. The lesson seems to be that if the means are there, international "mega-attacks" are inevitable under the current policy. If this is true, it makes me wonder whether the favored prescription will be denying the means rather than the far more complicated meme-destruction.

I agree fundamentally that if America is to be safe from aggrieved parties, covert operations will need to be stepped up and overhauled. The question is, how does one regulate covert wars? The CIA's mistakes of the past are the stuff of legend, how do we ensure that they are going after the right people, and using methods that will not engender even worse enemies 20 years down the road?
posted by cell divide at 10:17 AM on September 5, 2002


I also enjoy Robert Wright, and look forward to reading his book when I get a chance. Game-theory (which I feel is some-times applied to broadly) is an excellent way to step back from our present situation and get a "non-political" biased solution that bring about a solution rather than a vindication.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 10:17 AM on September 5, 2002


Well meaning, but a non starter as it puts US policy at the whim of the multitudes of small groups of intensely aggrieved and motivated people.

With respect, I'm not sure I get what you mean. You don't think it's at their whim right now? Operation Enduring Freedom, then, would have taken place regardless of the actions of 20-odd hijackers and perhaps a few dozen more insiders on the ground? They wanted either a holy war, or capitulation and compromise by western powers, and those seem like the only two probably outcomes from here on out.

Terrorism seems to me to be, almost by definition, the product of multitudes of small groups of intensely aggrieved and motivated people, and terrorism is most certainly the driving force behind our current policies.

In fact, to extend, it seems like small but determined groups of people (at least in the beginning) have been behind a lot of the history of our country. I'm thinking of revolution, abolition, prohibition, sufferage, civil rights, the anti-vietnam movement, etc.
posted by Hildago at 10:21 AM on September 5, 2002


I don't think he's arguing that U.S. foreign policy needs to accommodate every last fringe group. He's pointing out that foreign policy

In fact, he sees most/all of these opposition groups as more similar than different. What both McVeigh and the militias on the one hand and binLaden and his ilk on the other (and WTO protesters also) ultimately oppose is (on Wright's view) the almost inevitably emerging global economic entity. Wright wants the acceleration of the establishment of this entity to slow down and bring more folks with it so that fewer will be less violently opposed to its emergence.
posted by goethean at 10:23 AM on September 5, 2002


On preview:
cell divide: covert actions need not only cover American eyes, it must also be concealed from the other side.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 10:26 AM on September 5, 2002


Ok. We all admire Wright. That said: more and more people are discontented because there simply are more and more people coming into the world with fewer and fewer resources etc to make live decent. Now what?
Yes, there are milita nuts in America and elsewhere but not anywhere on the scale of the Muslims who seem to express so much hatred for things Western. In fact, it is not only the guy picked up in a sleeper cell but the religious schools that taught him hate--and that alas seems to be substantially widespread.
It is then that "meme" that must be altered. I just had read a pice that indicated by polling just how many Muslims world-wide are convinced that Israel behing 9/11! Now with that sort of thinking.......well, you get the picture.
posted by Postroad at 11:09 AM on September 5, 2002


He's pointing out that foreign policy [...] needs to work at eliminating the causes of these group's discontent, rather than the people themselves.

The counter-argument is that there are certain groups whose discontent cannot be eliminated. Irreconcilable differences do exist. There's no way to mollify someone who is pissed that the entire world is not under shari'a law. If you buy Wright's argument about the increasing ability of small numbers of people to cause great harm, this means that we need more direct action because extremists no longer need popular support to be dangerous.
posted by jaek at 11:21 AM on September 5, 2002


Irreconcilable differences do exist. There's no way to mollify someone who is pissed that the entire world is not under shari'a law.

Those differences don't exist in the vacuum that you portray them. Wright's point is that the US can easily change global public opinion, which very much includes extremists. How? By causing fewer casualties in Afghanistan, which could have been achieved by using ground troops or bombing at less than 60,000 feet (thereby endangering US troops). By having a different line on Palestine than Ariel Sharon. By give some slight lip service to environmental or global poverty pacts. etc., etc.

No the extremists you will never win over, but if the US acted like a global power rather than totally isolationist other than to occasionally bomb a country back to hell, binLaden wouldn't have quite so many tens of thousands ready to die for his cause.
posted by goethean at 11:40 AM on September 5, 2002


Ultimately, Bin Laden and his ilk oppose American Hegemony less for economic reasons and more for religious reasons. You can't negotiate with a fanatic. The only thing you can do is make his life so difficult that he's unable to accomplish anything. As long as the majority of the Islamic world is stuck in the 12th century, we will have this problem. There is a very strong anti-Modern movement in the Islamic world. That is what it boils down to.

Competing world views. Memes, if you will.
posted by geekhorde at 12:43 PM on September 5, 2002


geekhorde: That's Huntington's thesis, which is simplistic and flawed and critiqued by Fukayama as well as Wright and others. Disenfranchisement by the world economy leads to extremism, not vice versa.
posted by goethean at 1:02 PM on September 5, 2002


No the extremists you will never win over, but if the US acted like a global power rather than totally isolationist other than to occasionally bomb a country back to hell, binLaden wouldn't have quite so many tens of thousands ready to die for his cause.

But the whole first half of Wright's piece argued that bin Laden doesn't need tens of thousands willing to die for his cause, because with advanced technology you only need nineteen people to do the trick.
posted by jaek at 1:31 PM on September 5, 2002


yeah, 19 people caused $83-95 billion in damage and some fractional multiple of a $49 billion increase in defense spending (not to mention homeland security) with probably more on the way. economically, i think it's a pretty good case for why terrorism works. like judge posner in the linked-to-article sez:
When terrorists have plausible aims and cannot be extirpated save at enormous cost, it may be sensible to make an accommodation with them. An endless war is not always the most moral or the most prudent course of action. Sometimes a political solution may be possible and desirable; Northern Ireland may be a current illustration.
of course, if the those aims run in the direction of "death to all americans" then the alternative becomes a bit more unsettling:
...a totalitarian regime would fight the particular kind of war that we are fighting more ruthlessly than we are fighting it, and therefore more effectively. For a liberal democracy may not be ideally qualified to fight this war. It is a war in which most of the fighting is against secret enemies within rather than against uniformed enemies without, and the most effective way of fighting secret enemies inside your own country involves the wholesale suspension of civil liberties.
in other words, when the price of freedom is freedom, waging an effective war against terrorism means "the terrorists have already won" (or from a civilizational persepective: DEMOCRACY IS WAY TOO HARD!) still, it need not be a tit-for-tat race to the bottom as the economist points out :)
posted by kliuless at 2:43 PM on September 5, 2002


Well, let's look at the facts. The facts are that Bin Laden is in no way "disenfranchised." He may be threatened by our "sinful" and "decadent" pluralistic and decidedly NON-theocratic institutions in the West. He may even know some people who are in some way exploited by our economic systems. However, when it comes down to it, his opposition to us, and that of his allies, is about his ideas about his culture in the world.

We do not fall within Dar al Islam, therefore, it is permissible to make war upon us. By any means necessary.

Let's be honest. There are forces within the Islamic world, very well educated forces, who are embittered by the lessons of history. Not too long ago, Islam was ascendant over the cultures of the West. They were a force to be reckonned with. Now, they are little more than oil barons and camel thieves. You think that there aren't SOME forces within the Islamic world that aren't bitter about that? It doesn't matter who the enemy is. It could be anyone. Ultimately, they want to see the return of the Caliphate, and the subjugation of the entire world to the will of Allah. If America stands in their way, then America is who they will attack. If it is anyone else, then they will attack them.

Not that there aren't modern and moderate voices in the Islamic world. But they were profoundly silent after 9-11. Or they made excuses.

Ultimately, it comes down to competing memes. One memetic culture favors religious and ideological freedom, for the most part, and the other favors a monolithic theocracy. These CANNOT in the end coexist. The men who flew those planes into those buildings BELIEVED in what they were doing. That amount of irrationality cannot be appeased, and cannot be accomodated. Our distruction is what they are seeking.
posted by geekhorde at 10:14 PM on September 5, 2002


Not too long ago, Islam was ascendant over the cultures of the West. They were a force to be reckonned with. Now, they are little more than oil barons and camel thieves. You think that there aren't SOME forces within the Islamic world that aren't bitter about that?

You just argued for my point, which is that disenfranchisement leads to extremism and not vice versa.
posted by goethean at 8:29 AM on September 6, 2002


Bin Laden's primary problem, for years and years, had been with the ruling party of Saudi Arabia. He sees (as many Americans do) that the House of Saud is hypocritical, repressive, inefficient, and deeply, deeply corrupt.

So while Bin Laden is now able to tap into the disenfranchised and poor Muslims of the world by using US hegemony as a scapegoat, and highlighting the very real US-backed injustice that is Palestine/Israel, his real goal is one that, ironically, many in the US share-- the end of corrupt rule in Saudi Arabia.

I don't buy that this is a clash of religions or even memes when it comes to Bin Laden. His followers, or sympathizers, yes, and that is a war we can win without trickery, just by honestly pursuing the values we hold dear in America around the world. But Bin Laden and his leaders are not religious, they are using religion in order to advance goals of power and conquest, the same goals that have motivated his kind since forever.
posted by cell divide at 10:01 AM on September 6, 2002


Actually, what Bin Laden and his ilk mean by "corrupt" is probably quite different from what you or I may mean about "corrupt" in reference to Saudi Arabia. They see Saudi Arabia as corrupt for cooperating with the West.

And just because the Muslims don't rule half of Europe and threaten the other half with conquest anymore, that doesn't mean that they're "disenfranchised." Their "enfranchisement" means, for them, the conquest of Islam of the rest of humanity. They may have less relative political power, but they are in no way disenfranchised. Up until now, the West has been mostly content to let them rule their backward kingdoms and military dictatorships any way they want to, as long as it doesn't threaten the stability of the region.

You have not yet begun to see "disenfranchisement." Mark my words, if the forces within the Muslim world continue to push the West, eventually, the West WILL push back. And it won't be pretty.

There are no democracies in these cultures. No tradition of real religious tolerance. Back in the 12th century you could be a Jew or a Christian, but you had to pay a tax to the Caliph. No tradition of freedom for women. Tell the women in Afghanistan who had to wear the burqa for so long, give up their medical practices or to stop teaching because of religious zealots that the West "disenfranchised" them. I wonder what they would say.

I suppose you could make a case that the British Protectorate system and the creation of the nation-states in the Middle East after WWII could be seen as a kind of disenfranchisement. Certainly we are dealing with the end results of colonialism. But America was never really a colonial power. Not to the extent that Britain and France, and possibly even Germany, were.

In the end, the West has done more good for the Muslim world than they would care to admit. Years of buying their oil has lined the coffers with gold, created the potential of a huge middle-class in most countries that take advantage of the opportunity. But most countries don't take advantage of the opportunities.

What we did to them was to not roll over and say, "By gosh, you're right. This Muhammed fellow sounds like a swell guy. Where do I sign up for this great new Muslim World Order?" Because that's what they want. Don't doubt the sincerity of Bin Laden and his kind. You think they DON'T believe in what they're doing? I think 3000 dead people would disagree with you, if you did doubt him.

And as for power and religion. In their world view, they are not separate. The Caliph was BOTH the spiritual and the political ruler of Islam. They have no tradition of the separation of Church and State. And that is why they are so dangerous.
posted by geekhorde at 12:33 PM on September 6, 2002


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