Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Telling It Like It Is

I apologize to my few faithful readers for the dearth of activity here as of late. The typical problem of "too much work to do, and not enough time to do it," as well as a brief hiatus for my fall break, had claimed me.

Recently, however, I have been catching up on my news, and was pleased to find this gem of an article from Philip Gordon on the necessity of fundamentally altering the way we approach the war on terror. Some key excerpts (emphases mine):

Almost entirely missing from [the] debate [on how to prosecute the war on terror] is a concept of what "victory" in the war on terror would actually look like. The traditional notion of winning a war is fairly clear: defeating an enemy on the battlefield and forcing it to accept political terms. But what does victory -- or defeat -- mean in a war on terror? Will this kind of war ever end? How long will it take? Would we see victory coming? Would we recognize it when it came?

It is essential to start thinking seriously about these questions, because it is impossible to win a war without knowing what its goal is. Considering possible outcomes of the war on terror makes clear that it can indeed be won, but only with the recognition that this is a new and different kind of war. Victory will come not when foreign leaders accept certain terms but when political changes erode and ultimately undermine support for the ideology and strategy of those determined to destroy the United States. It will come not when Washington and its allies kill or capture all terrorists or potential terrorists but when the ideology the terrorists espouse is discredited, when their tactics are seen to have failed, and when they come to find more promising paths to the dignity, respect, and opportunities they crave. It will mean not the complete elimination of any possible terrorist threat -- pursuing that goal will almost certainly lead to more terrorism, not less -- but rather the reduction of the risk of terrorism to such a level that it does not significantly affect average citizens' daily lives, preoccupy their thoughts, or provoke overreaction. At that point, even the terrorists will realize their violence is futile. Keeping this vision of victory in mind will not only avert considerable pain, expense, and trouble; it will also guide leaders toward the policies that will bring such a victory about.
Mr. Gordon goes on to make the comparison between the War on Terror and the Cold War, noting that while they are different in certain fundamental ways, they are also alike in that they involve a duel of opposing ideologies -- a duel that can only be won when one ideology has the full extent of its shortcomings and failures laid bare and is finally ground down into dust. So long as the United States retains its "moral authority and ideological appeal," he says, Islamic fundamentalism can be defeated. However, he also resists the urge to engage in rosy simplifications, reminding us that terrorism will never be eliminated, only marginalized:

This is a critical point, because the goal of ending terrorism entirely is not only unrealistic but also counterproductive -- just as is the pursuit of other utopian goals. Murder could be vastly reduced or eliminated from the streets of Washington, D.C., if several hundred thousand police officers were deployed and preventive detentions authorized. Traffic deaths could be almost eliminated in the United States by reducing the national speed limit to ten miles per hour. Illegal immigration from Mexico could be stopped by a vast electric fence along the entire border and a mandatory death penalty for undocumented workers. But no sensible person would propose any of these measures, because the consequences of the solutions would be less acceptable than the risks themselves.

Similarly, the risk of terrorism in the United States could be reduced if officials reallocated hundreds of billions of dollars per year in domestic spending to homeland security measures, significantly curtailed civil liberties to ensure that no potential terrorists were on the streets, and invaded and occupied countries that might one day support or sponsor terrorism. Pursuing that goal in this way, however, would have costs that would vastly outweigh the benefits of reaching the goal, even if reaching it were possible. In their book An End to Evil, David Frum and Richard Perle insist that there is "no middle ground" and that "Americans are not fighting this evil to minimize it or to manage it." The choice, they say, comes down to "victory or holocaust." Thinking in these terms is likely to lead the United States into a series of wars, abuses, and overreactions more likely to perpetuate the war on terror than to bring it to a successful end.

The United States and its allies will win the war only if they fight it in the right way -- with the same sort of patience, strength, and resolve that helped win the Cold War and with policies designed to provide alternative hopes and dreams to potential enemies. The war on terror will end with the collapse of the violent ideology that caused it -- when bin Laden's cause comes to be seen by its potential adherents as a failure, when they turn against it and adopt other goals and other means. Communism, too, once seemed vibrant and attractive to millions around the world, but over time it came to be seen as a failure. Just as Lenin's and Stalin's successors in the Kremlin in the mid-1980s finally came to the realization that they would never accomplish their goals if they did not radically change course, it is not too fanciful to imagine the successors of bin Laden and Zawahiri reflecting on their movement's failures and coming to the same conclusion. The ideology will not have been destroyed by U.S. military power, but its adherents will have decided that the path they chose could never lead them where they wanted to go. Like communism today, extremist Islamism in the future will have a few adherents here and there. But as an organized ideology capable of taking over states or inspiring large numbers of people, it will have been effectively dismantled, discredited, and discarded. And like Lenin's, bin Laden's violent ideology will end up on the ash heap of history.

Unfortunately, I have little to add on to Mr. Gordon's analysis, if only because it is so expansive and well-articulated. He goes on to lay out the evidence suggesting that the possibility of a widespread backlash against Islamic fundamentalism by ordinary Muslims is strong -- as in the cases of Jordanians turning strongly against al Qaeda after their bombing at a wedding in November 2005 and the "tribal revolt" in Anbar Province in Iraq -- and that the ideology of a new Islamic caliphate as envisioned by Osama bin Laden lacks wide support. As a strong believer in leveraging the incredible power of Internet technologies to shine a light on closed societies, I was also satisfied to hear Mr. Gordon report on signs of increasing Internet openness in Saudi Arabia, where he says 2,000 bloggers have taken to their keyboards.

To paraphrase another Brookings article: there's one big problem with Mr. Gordon's path to victory in the war on terror -- he's six years too late. But unlike the scenario in the aforementioned article, it is not too late to rectify the errors of the past several years. It simply remains to be seen if our next Commander-in-Chief and the Congress have the foresight and political will to put such a plan into effect.

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