The roots of terrorism

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever get this strange feeling of déjà vu? Last Friday’s horrific terrorist events in Paris are being called France’s 9/11. Last I checked there were 129 mostly French citizens murdered in six separate but obviously well coordinated terrorist incidents in Paris, and more than three hundred wounded. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these incidents occurred on a Friday the Thirteenth. The date may not have the same unlucky connotation in France that it has here in the United States, but ISIS (which admitted to sponsoring the acts) and al Qaeda know the power of marketing and symbolism. Anything that they can do to make such events more memorable will be done, and tying events like this to memorable dates is one.

Shortly after 9/11 here in the United States, our military did the expected things. We sent our air force into Afghanistan. In our case it worked reasonably well, at least at first, because we destroyed the Taliban government there that hosted al Qaeda. We installed our own more secular and western government in its place; a form of government that was not natural to the region and which unsurprisingly caused a strong insurgency.

Fourteen years later al Qaeda is a diminished presence in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is hardly stable, secular or particularly democratic. The Taliban are resurgent and it looks like more civil war is ahead there; in fact it has already begun. Our leadership took being caught with its pants down as a sign that America had to be proactive to address these threats, so we unwisely toppled Saddam Hussein. The state of ISIS, such as it is, is a direct result of that unwise action. Indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to last Friday’s events.

The French government of course quickly decided that their own 9/11 could not go unanswered, so it sent its considerable air force to bomb targets in Syria controlled by ISIS in coordination with our own. This was done to presumably degrade and destroy ISIS that just last week President Obama unwisely asserted was contained. ISIS proudly admitted that it had planned and coordinated these attacks. It was done for the same reason that Osama bin Laden planned and coordinated 9/11. His goal was not so much to destroy the United States, as it was to use the U.S. as a proxy to further his cause. And it worked amazingly well for him, actually better than he imagined as our invasion of Iraq introduced anarchy that eventually allowed ISIS to rise.

Presumably France won’t go the extra mile the way the United States did in Iraq, but it does not have our vast military resources anyhow. Presumably its leadership is a bit clearer-headed than ours was after 9/11 and realizes these military strikes are more to satisfy their citizens’ cry for a counterpunch rather than to meaningful affect a particular outcome.

Fires remain fires only as long as they have a combination of fuel and oxygen. Understood in this context, ISIS’s actions were predictable. The neophyte state is rather amorphous but it certainly needs energy to continue. The oxygen comes from more people committed to their ideology, and the fuel comes from its funders. ISIS exists in a resource poor part of the Middle East, so most of its money actually comes from outside the state, i.e. those with money that support its radical version of Sunni Islam. To get the money it needs to continue to demonstrate it has power and can draw recruits. So going for soft targets like innocent civilians in Paris is logical. It’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it can execute power over a free society like France. Such acts will inspire many and it will impress its creditors. It allows the state to continue because its military has been significantly degraded by allied airstrikes and by the many forces engaged on the ground in the region.

Fourteen years after 9/11 it’s obvious from these incidents that if there were easy ways to contain terrorism they would have worked by now. In fact, if there were hard ways of containing terrorism, they would have shown affect by now as well. Invading Iraq and trying to stand up a secular government there is a hard thing to do. Actually there has been a lot of progress, but it’s mostly unseen. While intelligence within ISIS is poor, our intelligence capability has improved remarkably during this time. It’s just not enough in a free society to stop periodic incidents like these, although many do get deterred and prevented. A state cannot know everything and call itself free.

It’s possible that with time ISIS will be degraded and destroyed as President Obama hopes. However, even if this victory happens, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ideology in general is the real problem. If ISIS goes and the dynamics of radical Islam are not addressed as well, it will simply spring up elsewhere in other forms in the Middle East. Wiping out ISIS in other words is merely winning a battle. The real war is to change hearts and minds.

In 1995 the United States endured the Oklahoma City Bombing, an act of domestic terrorism. This act was similar in size and scale to last Friday’s incidents in Paris. Its perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was not particularly religious, but he was dogmatic. He was deeply conservative in the sense that he was upset about changes happening in America. He believed that changes disenfranchised white people, and that these changes were being achieved through the federal government through what he perceived as its pro-liberal policies. At its root, McVeigh’s complaint was that he was against democracy when it did not favor his interests. He believed enlightened ones like him had the duty to change things through acts like terrorism when this happened.

Basically McVeigh was an authoritarian, something that resonates strongly with many Americans, most of who align with the Republican Party. Stripped of its religious façade, that’s what the War on Terrorism is really about: it’s a struggle between those powerfully pulled to an authoritarian framework versus those who believe government should be run democratically come what may. The roots of this conflict might very well be genetic, as there is convincing research that shows that liberals and conservatives are wired differently right down to their DNA. Conservatives believe in authoritarianism and feel in their bones that they must follow the leader like a sheep providing they can trust their leader and conversely to wholly distrust the leader when they don’t (hence their utter contempt for President Obama.) You can see this in Donald Trump’s appeal. Conversely, liberals are comfortable with ambiguity and want to empower all the people.

This conflict is probably not going to go away with ISIS or even al Qaeda. However, it’s clear that within the last hundred years or so liberals have been winning promoting a more secular, humane and tolerant world. Regardless of the rationalization that impels terrorists (God, Islam, racism, communism) the common threat is liberalism (i.e. progressive social change), which is manifested through secularism, representative democracy, freedom and tolerance for those unlike us. If more intolerance in France can be created then France begins to model ISIS in spirit. Islam is more likely to take hold in a country where the culture favors authoritarianism.

ISIS isn’t explicitly aware of this, but in this mindset requires intolerant and authoritarian governments. It fights for a world where government enforces its own radical brand of Islam worldwide, but this is a fight that can never be won. However, it can inadvertently be a proxy in a larger and more nebulous cause to put in power those whose DNA makes them comfortable with the leader-and-follower model, and that reviles tolerance and ambiguity.

France must do what is pragmatic to lessen the likelihood of future incidents. However if in response it discards its values of freedom, secularism and tolerance then whether ISIS thrives or dies does not really matter: the uber-cause of authoritarianism wins, and France loses.

Obama’s lack of a strategy so far is a pretty good strategy

The Thinker by Rodin

Yikes! It’s almost the end of August and I haven’t written anything about politics this month! I thought retirement would give me all this extra time to blog, but so far it has not been the case. About half of the month has been spent on vacation, which I blogged about, and the other half of this first month of “retirement” has been acting as Mr. Handyman and general property manager as we stumble through the process of getting our house ready for sale.

Not that there isn’t a lot to talk about. President Obama tried to take a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard while events were (literally) exploding in Syria and Iraq, the Ukraine, Libya, the Gaza Strip and Ferguson, Missouri. Obama got bad press for going golfing right after making statements and for not being in Washington during all of this, as if a President is not trailing three hundred plus people with him on vacation to allow him to work remotely, or he couldn’t be back in the White House in an hour if needed. (Curious that these same people don’t criticize him for taking foreign trips, unless there is some domestic crisis underway.) Most lately, he is criticized for wearing a tan suit at a press conference.

All this is piffle of course. It’s probably not a good photo op to show the president swinging golf clubs after making serious statements about the Islamic State. Perhaps the most serious charge laid recently against the president is his self confessed lack of a strategy dealing with the Islamic State, which lately has been imitating our waterboarding during the occupation of Iraq, not to mention grisly beheading an American journalist.

While Obama supposedly dithers, most of the Republicans already have a strategy. Typical of the proposed strategies is one opined by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who wants us to bomb the Islamic State “back into the Stone Age”. This strategy is not surprising from a party that exercises power principally through bullying. If your weapon of choice is the club, it becomes your solution to everything.

Let’s rewind here. When we invaded Iraq, we exercised a “shock and awe” strategy that proved our mighty ability to scare people, destroyed their government, and resulted in a real al Qaeda in Iraq, which had no presence in the country prior to our invasion. Why did they rush in? Because we were there and because there was a power vacuum. Their presence helped energize groups like ISIS/ISIL. We could try to bomb the Islamic State into the Stone Age, but it’s kind of hard when they are using a lot of our leftover munitions and armored personnel carriers. Unless the quality of our munitions and equipment is more inferior than believed, this is probably not a great strategy. So naturally, according to Republicans anyhow, the way to get rid of the Islamic State is to do more of what failed us before!

The United States is not the only country in the region suffering from this cognitive dissonance. There is also Israel, which of course we provide with plenty of lethal munitions, mostly at our expense, which has been used to kill over two thousand Gazans in their latest war with Hamas, many of them innocent children. There now appears to be a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which left the political situation pretty much the same as after their previous war in 2009. One thing though has not changed: all that murder from the skies and from Israeli soldiers has simply fueled more hatred that will ensure more wars like this in the years ahead. Hamas is hardly wiped out and predictably both Hamas and Israel are claiming victories that did not in fact occur. Hamas was not wiped out because it is driven by an ideology that is compelling to many in that region. Being around to fight another day against a vastly superior military force is victory enough for Hamas.

There is no lasting peace possible through strength in our modern world, not that Republicans will ever understand this. Sane people of course are intimidated by the application of overwhelming force, but if there are enough people that put ideology over sanity, the conflict will continue. Probably ninety percent of Gazans would be happy if Hamas were overthrown, but it doesn’t matter if ten percent don’t and are willing to put their lives at risk to continue the conflict.

Bombing the Islamic State into the Stone Age may degrade its ability to wage war, but it will only fuel the mindset that will ensure future wars like this. Obama’s lack of a strategy is simply a timeout to figure out a strategy that might actually help solve the larger problem. The problem in a nutshell: how to cool the ideological fever that is causing the conflict in this region.

I suspect that Obama’s emerging strategy is a lot like mine. The main thing to understand is that most of the chaos in the Middle East is a result of our tinkering with the power structures that were already in place. Doing more of the same is unlikely to make things better but based on experience is almost guaranteed to make things worse, which it has. It fueled the breakup of Iraq and brought the Islamic State into existence.

It’s a bad chessboard for trying to make a move. In my humble opinion, the best strategy may be not quite benign neglect, but minimal involvement and using proxies where they exist, such as moderate forces battling in Syria. Which is kind of what we are already doing, albeit not to great effect so far. We can certainly work hard to cut off the source of funding for the Islamic State. We can try to keep their oil off the market, and we can try to influence states like Qatar that are helping to keep the state in business not to do so. It makes all the sense in the world to keep Americans far away from the Islamic State and to warn Americans who do go there that their lives are in jeopardy and their lives will not be ransomed.

Another exercise in feel good muscular diplomacy will have the same predictable consequences it had in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. It was a strategy that worked in World War One and World War Two, because we were working with well-defined nation-states. Because this was effective, wars are now mainly waged through paramilitary proxies that are ideologically driven. They are much harder to win because the enemy is so diffuse. You can’t kill an idea, but you can sap its energy.

Winning is a generational game, and it begins by not emulating tactics that have proven disastrous in the past. We will win these wars probably 80% through diplomacy, 20% through force of arms, and through proxies of our own that we nurture and support. That sounds like a strategy that might actually work, but it will be hard to sell. There are no instant results but if anything is likely to actually eventually work, it will.

I hope our very intelligent president and I are on the same page, which I think we are. In a way, Obama is blessed with a term limit because he can do what is right without worrying about the political consequence. I hope he does.

Iraq: what now?

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is very much in the news, since a Sunni fundamentalist army called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) now occupies most of Western Iraq, not to mention portions of Syria. Recently it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and is now threatening Baghdad itself. The Iraqi Army doesn’t much resemble an army, as it is retreating quickly from combat. Many are concerned that ISIS will capture Baghdad and create a state in fact, not just in name. Life in this fundamentalist Sunni state is likely to be quite fundamental, as in crazy Muslim fundamentalist. Some here in the United States worry that this new state will sponsor international terrorism and bring it to the United States.

In that unfortunate event, well, mission accomplished I guess, since it is principally these same neoconservatives that pushed us to invade Iraq in the first place. (I predicted the debacle from all this back in 2003, as posts like this will attest.) We let this genie out of the bottle. Naturally many of these same neoconservatives are now arguing that we need to put U.S. troops back into Iraq to clean up this mess. Some are castigating President Obama for removing our residual troops in Iraq in the first place.

These people are great at selective memory, such as forgetting that they believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. More to the point though, if they are going to wag their fingers, they might want to wag them at Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who adamantly insisted that all our residual troops had to go since our presence was causing instability and he had a handle on the security situation. More selective memory: it was President Bush who before he left office set 2011 as the date when all our troops would come home. Yeah, whatever, it’s all Obama’s fault.

To his credit, President Obama has already said that U.S. troops will not be going back into Iraq. He has not ruled out other military options to assist the Iraqi government. Airstrikes are one option that Obama is seriously considering. It’s possible airstrikes might stop the advance of ISIS troops, but in the end this is a lost cause. That’s because, as I pointed out in 2006, Iraq is a nation is name only. (I noticed this post has been getting significant hits these last few days.) The Kurds have pretty much declared their own country, but cling to the political fiction that they are a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, mainly because it is easier to be ignored this way. No matter, al-Maliki has no time for the Kurds, who aren’t attacking him and simply want to be left alone. ISIS is his real problem.

The truth is Iraq has mostly always been a state in name only. Created by the British after World War One under a League of Nations mandate, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the British got tired of managing the place and let it run itself. The Ba’ath Party, managed to create a fractured state glued together mostly through tyranny. Its principle despot and tyrant of course was Saddam Hussein, who we imagined was training terrorists and creating stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to lob at us. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein simply proved what historians already knew: Iraq wasn’t much of an autonomous country.

Curiously, we now seem to be sort of aligned with our enemy Iran at the moment, which is sending advisors to help in the battle against ISIS. Who knows how this will all play out, but if ISIS is smart it will control the Sunni parts of Iraq and stop there. This is because ultimately they have a losing hand trying to make Shi’ites in eastern Iraq follow their version of Islamic law. So most likely after many more battles Iraq will cease to exist as a country, unless the eastern and Shi’ite part of the country decides to go by that name.

There is no point in investing more money and blood to try to change these ethnic and religious dynamics. It’s as futile as building dykes and seawalls will prove to be to stop sea level rise due to climate change. What the United States can and should do is work to isolate whatever new nation emerges. To think though that through military force, or intelligence, or smart bombs we can really change the situation is delusional. Naturally, the neoconservatives promoting these insane ideas are as delusional today as they were eleven years ago when they started this whole mess. Regardless, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The United States turned out to be the catalyst of change, but at some point the Ba’ath Party would have lost control of Iraq anyhow, and something resembling these current problems would have arisen.

My belief is that another Islamic state in this area is inevitable. I also believe the fastest way to get rid of it is to let it come to fruition. I’m not saying the United States should actively help it happen, but that over time this state will go through a political process anyhow, much like Iran’s, most likely. With a few weird exceptions like North Korea or Zimbabwe, oppressive states don’t tend to have much staying power. Today in Iran, pretty much every house that can afford it has a satellite dish picking up illegal channels. The modern world is out there. Attempts to try to repress it won’t work forever. Resistance will eventually build from within and something more progressive will emerge. We can indirectly or covertly assist this process, but we should not risk life or limb to do so.

The truth is that the fundamentalist Islamic revolution sweeping much of the Muslim World is a Muslim problem. Yes, there is some remote possibility that it will result in real danger to our actual national security, which is not our “status” in the world but danger to our homeland and the economic order of the world. Many lives will be lost in these Islamic countries, and huge numbers of people in these countries will be traumatized and/or displaced. I obviously don’t like that this is happening and will continue happening, but I don’t think it can be stopped by external agents like us. I would argue that Israel’s national security is actually enhanced by these conflicts, providing they don’t spill over into Israel itself. Muslims killing Muslims have no time to kill Jews.

The 21st century is likely to be very messy. Most likely we will be occupied by problems closer to home: displacement due to sea level rise due to global change, not to mention the chronic problem of displaced and oppressed people coming into the United States, such as the heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied children escaping kidnapping and death in unstable countries in Central America. Arguably, simply keeping our nation together will be a huge challenge. Red America seems increasingly antagonized by Blue America and visa versa, and there are many in Red America anxious to start a new civil war.

We are fulfilling the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. We sure don’t have to make it more interesting, however, which is why we need to stay as disengaged in Iraq as possible and let this sad sectarian and religious conflict play itself out.