Cross posted from The American Prospect
The United States has two main resources to combat terrorism: The hard power of military might, and the soft power of diplomacy that comes from convincingly claiming the moral high ground. Five years after the 9/11 attacks, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Bush Administration has gutted both.
On the one hand, the military is stretched to the breaking point across Iraq and Afghanistan. As noted analyst Olivier Roy and many others have explained, the big winner of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom has been Iran. Ironically, America is in a weaker military posture today in regard to two of the three charter members of the so-called “Axis of Evil”—Iran and North Korea—than at any moment since 9/11.
As to soft power, no one outside the United States takes seriously any more President Bush’s claims that America does not torture. America’s claim to be a moral actor has been fatally undercut. Congress’s enactment of legislation last week that purports to “clarify” the War Crimes Act and allows some forms of torture only confirms and codifies what the cumulative evidence of Abu Ghraib, black sites, and extraordinary rendition had already made clear. When America is seen as a nation that is willing to disappear and to torture, al-Qaeda’s twisted arguments gain in credibility outside the United States.
Two recent books by longstanding experts in terrorism and counter-terrorism serve to confirm the bleak prospects for the administration’s approach to counterterrorism. One is targeted at a specialist audience, and is appropriately rich in historical detail. The other is pitched at a non-specialist level. Both succeed admirably.
In What Terrorist Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, Louise Richardson, executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, has written the kind of brisk and accessible survey of terrorism-as-modus operandi that has been sorely missing for the past five years. Surveying groups going back to the Sicarii, or Zealots—a Jewish sect that violently opposed Roman rule in Palestine—Richardson places today’s terrorism in the context of a broad historical overview, one that underscores the adage that there is nothing new under the sun: Perpetrating violence against civilian populations in order to provoke a political response is old hat, as is devising religious justifications for such acts of terror.
Richardson’s breakdown of the psychology of terrorism is illuminating. At the individual level, terrorists adopt a simplistic approach to morality, placing themselves in a purported victim’s shoes and then vindicating whatever they do as just, proportional vengeance. Ironically, it is a feeling of horror at others’ suffering that lies at the inception of many terrorists’ journey to violence.
Georgetown professor and RAND Corporation analyst Bruce Hoffman, in the second edition of his Inside Terrorism, covers much the same ground as Richardson, but in more detail. Hoffman’s survey of terrorism as a political tactic begins with the French Revolution and canvasses not only the Irish Fenians and Clan na Gael of the late nineteenth century, but also Russian and American analogs. He lingers on the Irish example to admire those groups’ “uncommon understanding” of the power of the media and the importance of fundraising. Indeed, Hoffman’s analysis focuses at useful length on the role of media. Terrorists’ savvy use of expanding media opportunities is especially important given their movements’ dependence on continuously recruiting new members. From “insurgent television”—as Hoffman terms al Manar, the Hezbollah station—to al-Qaeda’s use of the Internet to disseminate propaganda, recruit, and conduct training, Islamist terrorists now have at their disposal multiple vectors to reproduce their message.
Hoffman’s analysis of old and new media underscores the centrality of soft power in efforts against al-Qaeda—the cultural allure of the United States and its allies as the embodiment of an attractive set of just, moral principles. In his concluding chapter, Hoffman presents a sobering portrait of al-Qaeda as an “enduring threat,” still capable of organizational transformation in response to U.S. strategy: al-Qaeda’s ideology, Hoffman notes, has proved resilient, and the Iraq war in particular has served as a rallying point for recruiting. This has turned out to be a precient claim in light of the recently revealed collective judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Of the two, Richardson is the more willing to offer trenchant prescriptions. Most notably, she condemns as counter-productive the “war on terror” framework. It not only confers unwarranted legitimacy on al-Qaeda, but induces a kind of “war psychosis” in terrorists’ targets that pushes them to take immediate action rather than more carefully calibrated, long-term responses.
In a charitable (if strained) attempt at optimism, Richardson notes that governments in the past have managed to learn from their mistakes in counter-terrorism and reform. But as distant war drums rumble for Iran and the CIA rolls up its sleeves to start using “enhanced interrogation techniques” again, there is regrettably little indication that the Bush administration has learned much in the past five years.
At its start, the administration’s declared “war on terror” was America’s to lose. Unfortunately, as Richardson candidly argues, the Bush White House has consistently taken measures that fritter away our strengths and amplify our weaknesses. Richardson’s primer, along with Hoffman’s more rigurous appraisal, ought to be required reading as the rhetoric mounts this campaign season.
Aziz Huq: “Five Squandered Years” (PDF)