Thursday, August 10, 2006

Unsavory Characters

Last week I wrote about having to deal economically with unsavory regimes partially because openness tends to erode the power of dictatorial regimes. This article in Slate today points out how the terror plot to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives was foiled by British intelligence agencies with the help of Pakistani intelligence agencies, which aren't necessarily full of the most savory characters in the world. The real eye-opener in the article, though, is the reference to a 2003 article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker about how the U.S. had an opportunity to work with the very unsavory Syrian intelligence agencies post-9/11 but burnt that chance (and the chance to put the clamp down on Hezbollah) in the run-up to the war in Iraq. I suppose the same principle applies with ordinary domestic police work; a good detective needs to develop relationships with a bunch of low-lifes and shady characters in order to bring down the big criminals. I guess there needs to be all sorts of carrot/stick arrangements with these dictatorial regimes to work with them but not prop them up; that seems to have worked out OK with Qaddafi.

All of this is a reminder of my general feelings on the whole Global War on Terror. First, it's important that we recognize that there really is a worldwide movement that hates Western society with a passion and would like to see us destroyed. (This post from my favorite excitable moron Cory Doctorow just three days ago particularly pissed me off--- terrorist threats aren't environmental factors like lightning bolts or car crashes, they're part of a deliberate plan to disrupt and destroy our society and they'll grow if we don't stop or prevent them.*) Part of the implication of that is that we're at war now and have been at war for several years, even before we sent any troops to Afghanistan or Iraq.

The two big-picture successes so far have been the toppling of Saddam and the fact that there haven't been any successful large-scale terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 (how many people were saying at the time that further attacks would be inevitable by now?) Also, there have been baby steps toward democracy in the Muslim world where previously there had been none.

The downside is pretty manifest, though: Bush seems to have been completely unprepared for the possibility of the insurgency in Iraq, Osama bin Laden and his best pals are still on the loose, Israel and Hezbollah are engaging in open warfare, successful terrorist strikes that have avoided the U.S. have nevertheless struck in Britain, Spain, Indonesia, Russia, and elsewhere, and in general the struggle for the hearts and minds of people in Muslim countries isn't going anywhere near as smoothly as planned. To top it off, the terrorists have "won" to the extent that they've been successful in screwing up, to varying degrees, air travel, civil liberties, and reasonable political discourse. In other words, Bush has done a pretty piss-poor job, but the isolationist head-in-the-sand approach isn't going to work, either.

*A more intelligent article about our perception of terrorism dangers can be found here.


At Friday, August 11, 2006 at 5:20:00 PM PDT, Blogger Ryan said...

I think the only unalloyed success, actually, is Afghanistan, even with the Taliban regaining some foothold there. If we hadn't taken the eye off the ball, it's exactly how things should be done. "Removing Saddam" is successful only if you divorce that completely from the low-level civil war going on. I'm not convinced that this can be done.

Downsides in this "War", however, are too many to mention. One of the major problems is that, conceptually, there are a bunch of different problems that really doesn't fall under "terrorism" or even "Islamo-fascism" but are often confused by some as such. Saddam was a random nutjob dictator that isn't part of the global jihadi conspiracy. The Shiite /Sunni struggles has been going on for some time. The Palestinian problem is largely a *nationalistic* issue.

These are all different problems, which merit different ways of thinking about them beyond "jihadis bad - must convert or kill" that afflicts too many these days. The Lebanese and Palestinians are not the same, just as Taiwanese and the Japanese are not the same.

At Friday, August 11, 2006 at 5:46:00 PM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

On the one hand, yeah, there are a whole lot of separate problems in the Middle East, but I don't think it's inaccurate lump them broadly under the "worldwide Jihad" movement as long as one recognizes that we're speaking broadly. Obviously on the micro scale, problems in Darfur don't have much to do with problems in Lebanon, which don't have much to do with problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, rebels in Indonesia, homegrown terrorists in Britain, wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, etc. but I do think we can think in terms of a broader global problem of conflict between Western values and fundamentalist Islam. It's useful in the sense that finding the way to minimize the appeal of the homicidal maniacs in the Muslim world is the big elusive key to a more meaningful peace in the world.

At Friday, August 11, 2006 at 6:08:00 PM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

Just to expand on that--- the various individual conflicts all have their individual players and causes and such, but they're all symptomatic of the larger problems in the Muslim world.

From the U.S. perspective, bad policy and planning is certainly one of the major sources of our problems in Iraq, and it adds to the background level of Jihad vs. West conflict globally, but it doesn't do much to explain why, say, Islamic fanatics in Indonesia behead Christian schoolgirls.

There's a tendency among some leftists to think that the terrorists' grievances with the West must all be rational and that if we'd just appease them, then we wouldn't have these problems. But if we listen to the things Osama bin Laden rails against in his tapes, we know that his beef with the West goes way beyond anything legitimate; the terms of appeasement are totally unacceptable.

We can't give him what he wants. What we need to do is present an appealing alternative that meshes democracy and Islam in such a way that the jihadist perspective is further marginalized in the Middle East and he's reduced to an isolated raving loony with no power to inspire Muslims to take up rifles or suicide bombs.

At Monday, August 14, 2006 at 1:57:00 PM PDT, Blogger Ryan said...

I don't disagree with the general premise that violent Islamism is presently the biggest threat in the world today. The problem is that most people have trouble thinking clearly about what this means, and instead lapse into incoherence or self-aggrandizing nonsense that you often see in Andrew Sullivan ("opposing the Iraq war means you don't hate nasty dictators with sufficient fervor" or some such crap). Part of the problem is that folks get too attached to broad categories and lose the ability to actually reason through particular situations.

For whatever reason, human minds lapse into binaries categories. Dove v. Hawk. Right v. Left. West v. Islam. Most of these dichotomies are fairly useless, at least if you were to approach these problems with any kind of intellectual rigor.

The Chechnyan rebels have a vastly different set of concerns than Hamas. Pakistan and Syria are very different countries with different interests -- though if you want to be uselessly "broad" about it, they're both Islamic countries with dictatorships.
Yes, the average Arab's general antipathy for Israel and the Western materialistic values is highly relevant. The response to modernity is at the heart of a lot of problems in this world, but it remains world affairs is not simply reducible to simply a clash between Jihad v. McWorld.

People who make policy in this country should have some clue as to the similarities and differences of these countries when dealing with them. Iraq, for example, has its own history and own sectarian divisions that make it very difficult for some one-size-fits-all democracy experiment. There's a story that Bush apparently didn't know what Shiite and Sunnis were in late 2002, when the Iraq war plan was drawn. It seems to me that a country's history and internal politics are important data points to consider when you're deciding on whether to depose its government.

I don't know who these "leftists" are who want to "appease" terrorists. Do you care to name some, and point to some my arguments being made, besides far-left cranks? Certainly no one on the left that I read or take seriously have made this suggestion. Unless by "appeasement" you mean people who believe that trying to kill every single Muslim who dislikes Western values is not necessarily a good idea.

The Cold War wasn't won by killing all the commmies, either.

At Monday, August 14, 2006 at 2:07:00 PM PDT, Blogger Ryan said...

Also, "meshing democracy and Islam"? Sounds appealing in theory, but what does this actually entail?

Generally, if the economic and educational prerequisites are not in place, "democracy" is demogoguery by other means. The Nazis, for example, initially gained power from the ballot boxes.

Being against "Islamo-fascism" or whatever with gusto, a la Andrew Sullivan or Joe Lieberman, is not the same thing as taking these issues seriously. I think people too easily confuse the two.

Here's one *serious* approach to our present foreign policy problems, from one of the smartest writers alive.

At Monday, August 14, 2006 at 6:46:00 PM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

Getting the economic, educational, etc. prerequisites in place is part of what I mean when I talk about democratization. When I use the term, I do not mean to suggest that having elections is a sufficient condition for "democracy." Perhaps a rule of thumb is that if by having a "democratic" election, your country elects people who are not into democratic ideals (free speech, rule of law, etc.), then, well, your country hasn't really attained what I would call democracy.

Differentiating "leftists" I speak of vs. "far-left cranks" is kind of a tautology. I use the term "leftists" to describe those who think of politics strictly in terms of a zero-sum conflict, opposing the right-wing, instead of "liberalism," which actually begins to describe a philosophy.

I'm not going to go searching the web for sources; this is a personal blog and not a public news source, but I'll name a few off the top of my head. Noam Chomsky is pretty well-regarded in some circles and has risen to prominence in recent years by telling the world that the U.S. is the biggest terrorist state in the world. Ward Churchill thinks the victims of 9/11 deserved it. Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan have wavered between shows of support for U.S. troops as people and statements of support for the insurgency in Iraq. Plus there are numerous anonymous maniacs to be found every day in the comments sections of Kos, Democratic Underground, etc.

I dunno, maybe these people are "far-left wackos" to you; they at least have cachet with a sizable minority. For the record, I do not count people in that category just for advocating a "bring the troops home now" position. I think that position is wrong, but it's altogether a different sort of wrong from the people out there who are implicitly or explicitly rooting for the insurgents in Iraq to win. Or those who constantly play down the evil of Saddam or Islamic fundamentalists, absolving them of responsibility for their many crimes while amplifying the crimes of the U.S.

Like with the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy --- some commentators essentially treated the Muslims who rioted and called for the cartoonists to be killed as poor confused children who shouldn't be held responsible for how they respond to some mild satire.

Back to the big picture--- I do think that we should try to halt the rise of Islamic dictatorships and shari'a law; a democratic society (see definition above) is inherently superior to life under tyranny for all peoples. But---what's the best way to accomplish this? Toppling a dictator may be a part of it, depending on the situation, but it has to come with a realistic nation-building plan, the sort of thing Bush belittled during the 2000 presidential campaign. Bush seems to have that that once the dictator was toppled, "Mission Accomplished." Bush was wrong.

I think that when the dictator of a country isn't outwardly hostile to us, constructive diplomacy, give and take, economic carrot/stick, etc. is the way to go.

At Tuesday, August 15, 2006 at 1:12:00 PM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

Oh yeah, two words: George Galloway.


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