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July 15, 2005

Thinking About, Speaking About, Acting On Terror

Sherle Schwenniger's expansive article on a foreign policy for the Democrats is certainly the best thing I've read in the genre. I'll be saying a lot about it in the next few days (there is, unfortunately for all of you, lots to be said), but today let's do terrorism.

With regard to the Middle East in general, we must extract ourselves from what could escalate into what many Arabs see as a civilizational war with the Islamic world. This, however, does not mean disengaging, but rather repositioning the United States to be less of an overbearing dominant power. Our strategy toward Islamic jihadism ought to consist of lowering America's profile in the region and patiently containing bin Ladenism as it slowly loses its allure by being denied the foreign imperial enemy it needs in order to succeed. And the best way to lower our profile, without sacrificing any legitimate American interests, is to internationalize as much as possible US policy toward the Middle East--to reduce America's dominant, in-your-face presence in the region by withdrawing forces from Iraq and by sharing responsibility with the three other members of the "Quartet," the EU, Russia and the UN.

On a policy level, this really is how Democrats should think about these issues (aside from the quartet part: the EU, Russia, and the UN are not going to replace our endangered bodies and large checks with their own). Problem is, on a political level, it probably isn't how Democrats should talk about these issues. But as a way to conceptualize terror, the article gets most of it right. Terrorism should be viewed as the armed outlet of fringe movements that happens to be dangerous because of an unlucky combination of money, easily obtained weaponry, terrible conditions in the Arab world, and a heavy American presence around issues that breeds resentment in the Middle East. It's just that America -- and Democrats -- can't really say, "oh, good point, we're going to leave now."

Aside from the foreign policy problem of creating a precedent for terror to succeed, the political consequences of backing away from our perceived confrontation with al Qaeda are scores of Republicans gleefully tarring us "appeasers". It so happens that most everything we do spurs them to that reaction, but this would help it stick better than ever before (I never understand those who argue that we should ignore how our actions will look because Republicans will attack anyway. Boxers know the other guy'll punch, but it doesn't make them stop blocking).

It's a very weird position to be in: Americans have a narrative about terror. They want to kill it. Fine, fine, so do I. But because we've jammed it into a war formulation, there's a perception that we just need to find the right battlefields, point guns, and shoot. Anything else is weakness, fear, therapy. Even if it works better. So Democrats, while they should be thinking about how to do this right, need to talk about how to do it wrong.

That was on pretty good display at the conference. Thomas Frank, reprising his general theme, seems to think national security issues don't exist, or at least shouldn't be mentioned in polite society. But Katrina vanden Huevel, who does think seriously about this stuff, made a variety of perfectly good policy arguments that'd nevertheless prove disastrous electorally. Soft power is much stronger than hard power. We need a foreign policy focused on diplomacy. Etc.

This stuff isn't necessarily wrong (though nor is it always right), but Democrats hardly need to play into stereotype by emphasizing how much more talking they'd do in an attempt to defeat terror. The Democratic appeal has to focus on fighting smarter and better in order to convince voters that, if the need came up, we'd fight at all. Because we would. We just wouldn't fly off half-cocked at countries that don't pose a threat until we invade them.

Clinton, when he ran in a mostly foreign policy free election, moved to George H.W Bush's right on foreign policy, blasting him for coddling the Butchers of Beijing and letting Bosnia spin out of hand. Democrats now need to move above the son, blasting him not for a lack of aggression, but a lack of intelligence, strategy, forethought. During an election, the duty is to get elected. Once elected, the duty is to lead correctly. Schwenniger's piece is good on the second part, but it shouldn't be mistaken for advice on the first.

July 15, 2005 in Terrorism | Permalink

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Comments

Just to be clear, are you actually advocating that the Democrats should lie about their foriegn policy beliefs and goals in order to get elected?

Posted by: Dave Justus | Jul 15, 2005 2:48:33 PM

Good writeup. "Sherle," however, not "Shirle."

Posted by: Jon Bolton | Jul 15, 2005 2:51:33 PM

Dave -- not quite. I'm saying this isn't the part we should emphasize politically, but it is what we should think about on a policy level. But if you're really shocked that politicians say things they don't quite believe because their actual beliefs leave them wide open to political attack, well, I've got lots of very sad, very disillusioning things to tell you.

"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we've got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom."

That was Bush. Humble sounds good. Arrogant bad. How'd that work out once he entered office?

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 15, 2005 3:13:18 PM

A minor point, but your parenthetical thing here misreads what she wrote:

"On a policy level, this really is how Democrats should think about these issues (aside from the quartet part: the EU, Russia, and the UN are not going to replace our endangered bodies and large checks with their own)."

She was just saying that the US should share more responsibilities via-a-vis Arab-Israeli peace with the other "Quartet" members, who have been designated that way for about three years now in that context. She wasn't referring to Iraq. It seems a bit confusing, but the "Quartet" is solely a reference to Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Posted by: Haggai | Jul 15, 2005 3:38:27 PM

I mostly agree with Ezra. You have to get elected to enact your policy. I also agree that the Repub/Cons think and act and talk like the only way to defeat terrorism is with military forces deployed in traditional ways - principally against nation-states, and that any suggestion that anything else will work is defined by Repubs/Cons as treasonous, no-backbone, ineffectual activity.

Where I differ is on the question of whether Dems must accept this opposition framing and respond by some sort of slight-of-hand. That won't work. Clear talk is now required, with clear examples of what will work and what won't. We especially need to make the point that an western/US empire-oriented, anti-Islam war of civilizations will lose the effort against terrorism and make inevitable the multi-generational kind of war neither side can win. If the Dems can't effectively make this fundamental point, then little else will make sense politically.

Contrast how much the UK government has been able to achieve in identifying and looking for the terror network on the London bombings in less than a week with the efforts of BushCo since 2001. This is intelligence and national security forces (police work written large) being deployed to its best effect.

Recent polls of Moslem opinion seem to indicate that the bulk of most (but not all) of the moderate people in Islamic countries are willing to support a major effort to end terrorism. But they surely will not support anything that looks like an effort of the western countries to subjugate Islam. Pakistan in particular runs counter to this trend in the polls. Why is that? A military dictatorship? Perceived excess US influence? The next-door example of what the US is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq? Identification with the Palestinians, who seem to be losing rather than gaining the ability to govern themselves?

Afghanistan is both a good and bad example of western action. On the good side, removing the Taliban was an important way to reduce training of terrorists. We removed the Taliban without a major occupation by ground troups. On the bad side, achieving stability there has been far too western-dominated, and the result is tenuous at best. It is a NATO operation largely (outside Kabul - where the US military is far too prominent), and is perceived as neither effective nor Islamic oriented. The Quartet could not help with these problems.

Somehow, the participation of Moslems of other nations needs to happen. Is a possible partial solution a Islamic Legion (working alongside a Quartet Legion?) to achieve stability in reconstructing troubled states?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 15, 2005 5:17:56 PM

John Deutch, deputy secretary of defense from 1994 to 1995 and director of central intelligence from 1995 to 1996, is a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He makes some strong points in a NYT op-ed today concerning US policy and action in the mideast:

Time to Pull Out. And Not Just From Iraq.

America embarks on an especially perilous course, however, when it actively attempts to establish a government based on our values in another part of the world. It is one matter to adopt a foreign policy that encourages democratic values; it is quite another to believe it just or practical to achieve such results on the ground with military forces. This is true whether we are acting alone, as is largely the case in Iraq, or as part of an international coalition.

...But the notion of intervening in foreign countries to build a society of our preference is not just a Republican or conservative failing. The corresponding Democratic or liberal failing is the view that America has a duty to intervene in foreign countries that egregiously violate human rights and a responsibility to oppose and, where possible, remove totalitarian heads of state. This Democratic rhetoric quickly moves from "peacekeeping" in a country torn by strife to "peacemaking" and to "nation-building."
...
We should not shirk from quick military action for the purpose of saving lives that are in immediate danger. For example, the decision not to intervene early to prevent mass murder in Rwanda was a major failure. But we should not be lured into intervention that has as its driving purpose the replacement of despotic regimes with systems of government more like our own. It is not that the purpose is unworthy, but rather that it is unlikely to succeed.

If we want to influence the behavior of nations, we would be better served by combining diplomacy with our considerable economic strength.
...
The [Iraq] insurgency cannot be overcome easily by either United States military forces or immature Iraqi security forces. Nor would the situation be eased even if, improbably, the United Nations, NATO, our European allies and Japan choose to become seriously involved.

After proposing steps to achieve US withdrawal in Iraq, Deutch says:

Of course, these measures cannot guarantee a secure and democratic Iraq free of external domination. But they could be first steps of a strategy to pursue America's true long-term interests in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

This kind of thinking may be needed to understand how terrorism by Moslem individuals (not Islamic countries) could be made manageable: making clear that this is not a war of civilizations.


Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 15, 2005 6:13:37 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 17, 2007 2:59:03 AM

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