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May 24, 2007

The White House Responds

It's interesting that the White House has offered a direct response to Edwards' challenge to the Global War on Terror Framing. I'm not going to get into the primary feint of the response, which is an attempt to conflate the Bush administration's record on preventing attacks by al-Qaeda with their linguistic approach, but it is worth examining the actual contention, that the lack of domestic terror attacks is "the result of a persistent, relentless, focused, and successful effort to break up terrorist cells, to arrest jihadists, and to deliver massive blows against terrorist networks and hideouts and nations that harbor them."

In Foreign Affairs this month, CIA veteran and terrorist expert Bruce Riedl has a chilling assessment of al Qaeda's improving status. "Thanks largely to Washington's eagerness to go into Iraq rather than concentrate on hunting down al Qaeda's leaders," writes Riedl, "the organization now has a solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq. Its reach has spread throughout the Muslim world, where it has developed a large cadre of operatives, and in Europe, where it can claim the support of some disenfranchised Muslim locals and members of the Arab and Asian diasporas. Osama bin Laden has mounted a successful propaganda campaign to make himself and his movement the primary symbols of Islamic resistance worldwide. His ideas now attract more followers than ever."

And the key here is Iraq. As always, the key is Iraq. What notable in the White House's response to Edwards is that Iraq figures in only as a task, never as a victory. The positive developments are entirely contained to direct actions taken against al Qaeda. But it's worse than that. As Riedl explains, "In Iraq, Zarqawi adopted a two-pronged strategy to alienate U.S. allies and destabilize the country. He sought to isolate U.S. forces by driving out all other foreign forces with systematic terrorist attacks, most notably the bombings of the United Nations headquarters and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. More important, he focused on the fault line in Iraqi society—the divide between Sunnis and Shiites—with the goal of precipitating a civil war. He launched a series of attacks on the Shiite leadership, holy Shiite sites, and Shiite men and women on the street...Even by the ruthless standards of al Qaeda, Zarqawi excelled."

That success was predictable. Entering Iraq allowed al Qaeda to engage us asymmetrically, highlighting their strengths while degrading ours. Given that enduring chaos counts as a win for them while only sustained stability would enhance our position, it was an impossible task from the start. But the loss has consequences: In propaganda, and in prestige, and in terrorist recruitment, and in funding. The difference between the Global War on Terror and a war against al Qaeda is Iraq. The reason the GWOT framing has been so pernicious is that it enabled Iraq, which substantively and massively harmed the fight against al Qaeda. And, unintentional though it may be, the White House's glancing, understated treatment of their central initiative in the war on terror in the document recounting their successes rather proves the point.

May 24, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

I think some of the above is true, but some of it is also less clear. We of course don't know what would have happened if we had not gone into Iraq. It is entirely plausible that Pakistan would have remained just as much of a safe haven, Afghanistan rather then Iraq would have been the cause celebre of terrorist recruitment against the evil imperialist occuppiers and the unhappy Muslims in Europe would have still been unhappy. Indeed the later at least seems almost certain.

As for Zarqawi's tactics, they have not been the unmixed success that is presented here. In exploiting Shia/Sunni divides he has been forces to kill Muslims, rather then just infidels and that has had a negative effect on his popularity. More signifigant is the horrific failure that was an occuppied Fallujah and other areas where secular Iraqi Sunnis were forces to come face to face with Taliban style rule and found that they didn't like it. Further, the coalition of Sunni tribes that started last Sept. in Anbar process and has been steadily building up steam with the express purpose of kicking Al-Qaida butt is hardly a mark of a successful PR strategy. Lastly of course, Zarqawi is dead.

I am not going to make the claim that I can prove that Iraq was a good thing. My estimation of it was always based on it requiring a much longer term outlook then we currently have. It is however obviously a mistake to take only the enemies successes into account combined with the hypothetical failures they would have had in an alternate timeline as your criteria for judgement.

Posted by: Dave Justus | May 24, 2007 1:06:19 PM

The difference between the Global War on Terror and a war against al Qaeda is Iraq. The reason the GWOT framing has been so pernicious is that it enabled Iraq, which substantively and massively harmed the fight against al Qaeda.

Well, that's one difference. The Global War on Terror enabled Iraq only because of false assertions about Iraq's connections to terror. Had all the assertions been correct (including the part about the danger to us that couldn't be precluded any other way), the invasion would have made sense. This really doesn't show that there's anything wrong with treating the fight against al Qaeda and its direct and indirect allies as a "war." The most obvious parallel to the War on Terror is the War on Drugs, which is carried out in mostly nonmilitary ways (if with equally limited success). I think the "war" part is understood broadly. The use of "War on Terror" to apply to Iraq was objectionable, but the term itself used properly in other ways might be fine.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 24, 2007 1:09:41 PM

"Thanks largely to Washington's eagerness to go into Iraq rather than concentrate on hunting down al Qaeda's leaders," writes Riedl, "the organization now has a solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq.

Que?

Posted by: slickdpdx | May 24, 2007 1:12:32 PM

We of course don't know what would have happened if we had not gone into Iraq.

That's the standard dodge for folks who want to minimize what a catastrophically stupid decision it was. It's true in extremely limited and largely irrelevant ways, and it's false in every way that matters. There are enough direct and measurable consequences of this lunacy that anyone who's paying attention has to admit that it is, in fact, lunacy.

It all comes down to this: for us, Iraq is a battlefield; for al Qaeda, it's an ATM.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | May 24, 2007 1:15:07 PM

I appreciate Edwards' attack on the GWOT as a proxy for the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, but frankly I don't think there's actually anything wrong with GWOT as an idea, per se. Indeed Edwards in his speech utterly fails to come up with an alternative to GWOT that is substantively different (he even fails to offer a superior rhetorical alternative).

Posted by: Korha | May 24, 2007 1:39:41 PM

I think this summarizes well the consequences of the political and strategic myopia that led to the current bloody impasse. Add to that the the cynical desire in certain elite quarters to use the GWOT frame as a cover for long cherished designs on direct global hegemony and you have a complete picture.

It should have been evident from the jump that 9/11 was a provocation. The purpose was always to draw us into an asymetrical conflict. The model for this being the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation. You'd think that such an obvious rope a dope ploy would have been recognized for what it was immediately.

However, Al Qaida and its jihadist allies had a powerful resource to draw on: American exceptionalism. Exceptionalism preaches that the U.S. is unique among nations and therefore unconstrained and uncontaminated by the political, cultural and historical realities that govern lesser nations. We are, in all places and at all times, the exception to the rule.

Thus the idea that Osama bin Laden, who believes that Islam defeated and ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union in the mountains of Afghanistan, might be attempting the same trick with the US never received serious tactical consideration. The exceptionalist mindset considers all such comparisons to other nations to be invidious.

The supreme irony is that the Soviets had their own doctrine of exceptionalism, conferred by Marxist-Leninism, that allowed them to ignore the fate of all previous imperial adventures into Afghanistan.

The leadership learns nothing because, ultimately, they believe the world has nothing to teach them.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | May 24, 2007 2:13:16 PM

What's wrong with 'War on Terror'? The same thing that is wrong with 'War on Drugs'. Although some (above and elsewhere) think labelling the anti-drug proliferation efforts as a war hasn't been harmful and may even be good, the phrase(s) obscure more than enlighten. War basically means war with military organizations - always has and always will.

That special-operations-type military groups may be useful in limited circumstances in fighting against drug lords and terror groups is really beside the point: the main efforts are and should not be military in nature, but intelligence-driven and investigative in nature. A civilian police SWAT team is just as effective as a special ops team in raiding identified facilities and capturing/killing those involved.

Using conventional troops to man checkpoints to suppress terrorists or heavily-armed battle groups to control territory when the opponents are integrated into the civilian background creates more opponents than it eliminates.

Both drugs and terror are not objects that respond well, or even acceptably, to conventional military approaches, and the use of the phrase(s) creates expectations that can't or won't be fulfilled, thus leading to the frustrations associated with failure.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 24, 2007 2:13:40 PM

There's a war on terror? Starting when?

There's obviously a war on to seize energy assets in the Middle East, which could be going better, and another to roll back dissent and civil liberties in the U.S., which is doing fair-to-middling; but if there's a 'war on terror' outside the world of words, I see no sign of it.

Posted by: RLaing | May 24, 2007 5:06:17 PM

So the War on Drugs and War on Terror are frustrating because they're called wars? By all means let's call them something else then, and watch the frustrations melt away. How about "Effort Against Drugs" and "Progressive Stance on Terror"?

Posted by: Sanpete | May 24, 2007 5:21:18 PM

It's certainly true that characterizing something as a"war" can be a harmless exercise in hyperbole. A war on litter, a war on germs, a price war or a war on dirt for example. However, there's a fundamental distinction between casual wordplay and sloganeering used to consciously prepare a population for military action against another population. It is a distinction written in human blood.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | May 24, 2007 6:54:01 PM

The "Global War on Terror" is stupid because (a) it doesn't really make sense and (b) it licenses endless, limitless war.

You can compare it to the "War on Drugs" if you want (though if I were trying to advocate for anything, I'd shy away from comparisons like that). But the administration and its dead-ender supporters on the right clearly do not regard it that way. They routinely argue that the US is at war with an enemy who is at war with us right back. They draw comparisons to World War II, not the "Drug War."

Posted by: Jason | May 24, 2007 7:00:16 PM

it licenses endless, limitless war

Then we should definitely use some other language, since the mere words give us license for endless war.

Among the things that led us into Iraq, the use of "war" in "War on Terror" is pretty low on list in terms of significance. It's the "terror" part that mattered more, as the point was to portray Iraq as tied up with terrorism and our invasion as an attack on terrorism.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 24, 2007 8:05:52 PM

Calling it the War on Terror is bad for the same reason calling it the War on Drugs is bad; it defines the debate in purely terms of conflict. You don't focus on drug treatment when you're in a war on drugs and you don't consider diplomatic approaches to extremists when you're in a war with them. It limits the possible solutions to the problems. While I'm not saying that we should never use military force against terrorists, there *might* be *some* instances where diplomacy would be a better tactic which we just don't use. Iran seems like a good example.

On another note, sometimes it's just so frustrating thinking that what is going on in Iraq is *exactly* what anti-Iraq War people said would happen before the Administration started the invasion. And the supporters were so triumphant when those tanks rolled through Baghdad.

Posted by: Ben | May 24, 2007 9:06:18 PM

This was a very good post.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 24, 2007 9:14:38 PM

Ya know, I've been trying to think of a useful analogy to explain how Bush blew the War on Terror, and I think I've finally got it.

Imagine Tony Soprano, Jersey mob boss, kills your wife. If you're a smart person, you go after Tony and you take him and his organization out. Badda boom badda bing.

But if you're George Bush, you half-assedly go after Tony. You don't catch him right away, so you decide to turn most of your attention to taking out the New York Gambino family, who you've been pissed at for years. Because that will send a message to all those mobsters, right?

Unfortunately, taking out the Gambinos doesn't work like you hoped. All these other families come out of nowhere and start fighting, and it's a gang war in New York. And the worst of it is that Tony and his people in the Jersey mafia move in and open up a whole bunch of operations in New York.

So, here's my question. If I'm Tony Soprano, and you not only let me get away with killing your wife, but afterwards you did me the favor of taking out my largest competitor--am I gonna think twice about killing your kids?

This is why they're gonna try to hit us. Because we let Osama bin Laden get away with 9/11. George Bush taught every terrorist that there's no downside to killing thousands of Americans. So, um, why not?

Posted by: anonymous | May 24, 2007 10:02:37 PM

Then we should definitely use some other language, since the mere words give us license for endless war.

It's not the words so much as the concept behind them. If you accept that it makes sense to declare war on terrorism, and that we have to go fight terrorism wherever terrorism goes, and we can't stop until we defeat terrorism, then yes, you've signed on for a war that will never end.

It's like declaring a "War on Violence" or "War on Evil" or, yes, a "War on War." Terrorism is just another form of warfare, which is fundamentally about killing people and destroying things in the hopes that it will get other people to do what you want.

I'd have no problem with a War on Terrorism or even a goddamned War on War, if you mean war in the metaphorical sense, a la the War on Poverty or War against Cancer or whatever.

But that's not what the GWOT is all about. It's not about eliminating terrorism, it's about monopolizing it.

Posted by: Jason | May 25, 2007 12:42:18 AM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 8, 2007 8:08:31 AM

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