September 8, 2004

Goody Two-Shoes, or the Composition of Toughness

There are a lot of things I don’t like about the Bush Administration, as anyone who reads this blog knows. The keystone of my complaint is that they’re incompetent, that they are screwing up their management of America’s global role at a time when incompetence has a uniquely high price. The question of whether the war in Iraq is morally right is a secondary or tertiary one for me. It so happens in this case that I think effectiveness in the war on terrorist groups and particular forms of militant Islamicism is aligned with what most people would regard as moral or ethical principle. That’s because I think such a war has to be won with a combination of cultural understanding, careful demonstration of the authentic attractiveness of modernity and liberalism, reasoned diplomatic persuasion, economic incentive, and military force. I don’t think it can be won simply with military force alone.

In fact, one reason so many people are reduced to sadness and horror by the events in Beslan is because Russia has already done what the “flatten Najaf” brigade has wanted to do in Iraq. Russia was victimized by Chechen banditry and terrorism, so Russia invaded Chechyna and pretty well wiped most of its population centers off the face of the map with heavy bombardment, followed by occupation. That doesn’t seem to have stopped horrific acts of terrorism by Chechens against innocent Russians.

It’s hard to know what would stop such attacks. Not territorial concessions—Chechnya was effectively autonomous before the Russian invasion. Not negotiation: there’s no responsible, authoritative polity left to negotiate with. Not strong internal security and defense by the Russians: their nation is huge and almost necessarily porous, and their economic and material capacity to mount such a security regime is lacking in any event.

There have been many organized groups that have practiced something similar to what we now call terrorism in the past whose names and causes are today nothing but a historical memory.

Some examples:

Early 20th Century anarchism in the US
Various varieties of anarchism and nihilism in pre-1917 Russia
Isolated cases of actions by the African National Congress
The Weather Underground

So how was terrorism in these cases defeated? In some cases, it was not defeated, but instead was subsumed into a victorious cause. The Bolsheviks were not major practicioners of “terrorism” in the overall context of pre-Revolutionary Russia, but post-1917 Soviet historiography was happy to claim such activities as part of the overall history of revolutionary action.

In other cases, an ultimately successful revolutionary or political movement may have dabbled in terrorism, as the ANC did, only to pull back from a few tentative forays in that direction due to intense negative reaction within and outside the movement. For a nationalist movement that seeks or relies on international political legitimacy, terrorism may be too costly.

In some cases, movements practicing terrorism were defeated because they were small, marginal organizations with minimal popular appeal and therefore had limited ability to replace members lost to arrest, conflict with opponents, or other forms of attrition. The Weather Underground, for example, was really nothing more than a few fairly stupid middle-class white kids. That’s no consolation to the people they killed or hurt, but they were never going to be able to accomplish much precisely because they turned to terrorism. Early 20th Century anarchism in the US, while a larger and more sustained movement, was roughly the same.

There are a few cases of groups that practiced terrorism being effectively contained through drastic military action, but these were often followed by political concessions to the causes or interests being pursued initially by the terrorists—say, for example, the British response to the Mau Mau uprising in late colonial Kenya.

The problem in part is that the range of variation in the history of defeated terrorist groups is fairly wide. Boil it down to:

a) terrorist movement wins some or all of the political goals it seeks and stops practicing terrorism, often because it has gained control of the state and society it was attacking
b) terrorist movement stops practicing terrorism because it judges it can accomplish its goals more effectively in some manner and because the cost of terrorism to its interests is too high
c) terrorist movement is held off or contained by security forces and becomes irrelevant or marginal as its members are killed, voluntarily decide to give up being terrorists, or are regarded with such loathing by the rest of their society that they have no source of support
d) terrorist movement defeated conclusively through drastic military action and repression, often followed by political concession to the underlying causes or interests behind terrorist actions.

I think that covers a lot of existing cases, if not all of them. Let’s start from the premise that groups like al-Qaeda cannot be defeated with the first option: that there is nothing which can be conceded to them that would satisfy them, and such concessions are profoundly unacceptable on moral and pragmatic grounds anyway.

Let’s move to the second option. Also not in the cards at the moment: because there can be no major concessions to militant Islamicism, it has nothing to gain by being “respectable” with the West, and its respectability at the moment within the Islamic world is not altered by terrorist activities. This has the potential to change over time, however. This is one of the more sensible propositions underlying the neoconservative argument about Iraq: if a stable, democratic and capitalist Islamic nation appeared and life there was better than in either fundamentalist states like Iran or corrupt autocracies like Egypt, then there would be a real incentive in the Arab world to reject anti-modern movements like al-Qaeda. It’s also possible that a moral consensus within Islamic practice against terrorism (which definitely violates some Qu’ranic exhortations) might grow over time, or in some other way the perceived rewards or needs for terrorist action within the Islamic world would weaken dramatically. (For example, if the US were able to broker a stable settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.)

Third and fourth options. Can military action by itself succeed, either by practicing strong defensive security or strong offensive operations? No, I don’t think so, in part because movements like al-Qaeda are much larger in their membership and potential membership than historical fringe groups that were easily defeated by strong military or police action. The most important part of #3 is that groups are marginalized when very few people feel much desire to join their cause, either because there is too great a chance of suffering death, injury or imprisonment or because the other side, the targets of the terrorists, seems more moral, more attractive, more admirable, more desirable. This is where the tactics that anti-terrorists use matter: if they are consistently ethical and restrained, they may eventually make a particular terrorist group into moral pariahs, or expose terrorists as the source of suffering even in their home communities, by making the terrorists seem far worse than their opponents. But if anti-terrorist forces reduce the perceived distance between themselves and terrorists, then the terrorists have permanent wellsprings of support and materiel.

If you combine 2, 3 and 4, you could make a good justification for a combined operation that was resolute on defense, aggressive where possible in offensive terms, and which sought to neutralize the perceived rewards and appeal of terrorist action.

To bring this back to the Bush Administration, then. They may be trying to combine all these options, but they’re doing it extremely ineptly, especially in the case of Iraq, which is simply the wrong war to have fought. So why aren’t they paying a more severe price for this incompetence with the electorate? For the most part, ardent supporters of Bush don’t seem to me to strongly disagree with the observation that the Bush Administration’s performance in the war on terror has been poor to date. What they argue is that the Kerry Administration will be much worse.

I’ve been trying to think about that fact. I now think I know why some potentially reasonable people see it that way (leaving aside the pure hacks who would sing Bush’s praises regardless). The problem is, they may have a point.

Strong critics of George Bush, like myself, nevertheless need to give him limited credit for a few things in his foreign policy. Most crucially, I think a declared willingness to pursue unilateral solutions to key threats and a skepticism about existing multilateral institutions, particularly the UN, is important. I also think that a consistent emphasis that the major principle guiding US interests abroad should be the defense of liberty rather than a realpolitik advancement of national security is important, even if the Bush Administration doesn’t itself consistently follow that principle. This all still means that exclusive, aggressive, xenophobic unilateralism is foolish, but the basic shift is a good one.

More to the point, the Bush Administration has established itself as being willing to be publically or openly ruthless, to make a certain kind of toughness a matter of policy rather than the secret or shadow face of foreign policy. I support American forces killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders wherever and whenever they can, even if that involves using Special Forces or cruise missiles within the territory of other nations who have not assented to those operations. I support the general proposition that the highest matter of principle in US foreign policy should not be a respect for sovereignty, but a defense of national and global liberty. Discretion and good judgment is still important, but the use of US military and economic power wherever and whenever it produces good results is critically important.

If some people feel uneasy about Kerry, it may be because they feel that Kerry’s perspective on international affairs will be governed more by the need to be virtuous than to be effective. I don’t think this is a fair reading of Kerry or his team, but it is a fair reading of one major lineage of anti-war sentiment. I think it is important for us to act ethically but not just because that’s the right thing to do—I also think it’s the effective thing to do. This is to some extent the accident of this particular struggle. If the war we are now engaged in was a conventional war between two armies battling for the control of territory, and the opportunity to gain an important strategic victory through the use of heavy bombardment even at the cost of civilian lives and property destruction presented itself, I’d say that you go ahead and take the opportunity. That is not what this war is about; that is not the nature of this particular conflict.

You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and you don’t act like a clumsy occupier or New Crusader if what you really need to do is marginalize and contain terrorist groups in Islamic societies. But if the necessary approach happens to also look like the most conventionally moral one, then that’s just a fortunate coincidence. In this instance, Vietnam is less the appropriate historical sounding board than Hiroshima. (Not, I hasten to note, because the use of nuclear weapons is advisable in the here and now, merely because of the moral questions that Hiroshima raises about how to conduct warfare.) Hiroshima may not have been the right thing to do, but it was probably the necessary thing to do, or to put it differently, one kind of moral principle trumped another in that decision. Not so absolutely that we can be sure, even now, which was which: it remains, legitimately, a case to debate. But I know how I would want that equation solved myself, and should a similarly tough decision present itself, I know which way I want the painful calculus to go.

At least some critics of the war are more concerned with the promotion of national (or international) virtue, and from collective virtue, their own personal virtue. At least some critics of the war worry more about whether they’re personally good people than worry about what is good for the United States and the world. The more that Kerry appears to represent that approach, the more than those who believe that our government must do what is necessary in war will feel uneasy or be unable to support him, regardless of the demonstrated incompetence of the Bush Administration in the actual conduct of post-9/11 world affairs.

That’s what the subtext of the absurd battle over who was more manly in 1970 is about: not just who can do the right thing, but the necessary thing. If Kerry can’t convince more people that he is ready to do the necessary thing with the hope that it turns out to be the right thing as well, he may lose.