Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hot and Cold

In an editorial at the WaPo, B.U. professor Andrew Bacevich offers up some ideas on how the West might win its Long War against Islamist extremism:

Changing the way they live -- where "they" are the people of the Islamic world -- qualifies as mission impossible. The Long War is a losing proposition; it will break the bank and break the force.

Devising a new course requires accurately identifying the problem, which is not "terrorism" and, despite Washington's current obsession with the place, is certainly not Afghanistan. The essential problem is a dispute about God's relationship to politics. The proposition that the two occupy separate spheres finds particular favor among the democracies of the liberal, developed West. The proposition that God permeates politics finds particular favor in the Islamic world.

This conviction, which is almost entirely ignored in McChrystal's report, defines the essence of the way they live in Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other countries throughout the Middle East.

At its root, this is an argument about what it means to be modern. Power, no matter how imaginatively or ruthlessly wielded, cannot provide a solution. The opposing positions are irreconcilable.

In confronting this conflict, the goal of U.S. national security strategy ought to be limited but specific: to insulate Americans from the fallout. Rather than setting out to clear, hold and build thousands of tiny, primitive villages scattered across the Afghan countryside, such a strategy should emphasize three principles: decapitate, contain and compete. An approach based on these principles cannot guarantee perpetual peace. But it is likely to be more effective, affordable and sustainable than a strategy based on open-ended war.

Bacevich recommends that we focus our kinetic or "hot war" interventions to the decapitation of terrorist groups, targeting their leadership in ways which minimize collateral damage (more along the lines of the Somali strike last month than of Predator-borne hellfire missile attacks). By "contain," he refers to the erection of infrastructure defenses by means of "well-funded government agencies securing borders, controlling access to airports and seaports, and ensuring the integrity of electronic networks that have become essential to our way of life," as well as decreasing dependence on foreign oil. Finally, by "compete," he means maximizing the benefits of life in democratic, capitalistic societies, and so offering an alternative to living within Islamist societies (rather like we did by exporting jazz and blue jeans to the USSR). The professor also suggests that, by "attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis -- we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live."

This strategy is very reminiscent of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” approach to the containment of Soviet Communism. As far as it goes, it is sound. It is about using the benefits of liberal Western democracies to outcompete the ideological singluarity of Radical Islamism.

But it only goes so far. As I and others have pointed out, Islamism is not a centralized, hierarchical system like the USSR, but a distributed and multifarious network. Such networks are remarkably robust in the face of conventional efforts to disrupt them. The ideal strategy with such a beast is to approach it from as many angles as possible, and to attack key nodes relentlessly and intelligently.

The article’s approach is an essential component in an overall strategy which also includes the kind of COIN doctrine which has borne such bounteous (if of course imperfect) fruit in Iraq. However, I think the author fundamentally misunderstands the nature of COIN doctrine by characterizing it as a mere "hot war." Successful counterinsurgency depends as much if not more on civil affairs as it does on kinetic operations. Also, mere decapitation strikes of the sort which he apparently advocates as our sole military endeavor do nothing to provide the sense of security in a population which would enable it to even consider looking for alternate ways of living, while it is surrounded and submerged by the chaos which the Islamist groups will be undergoing as they scramble to replace their slain leaders. Forceful population protection measures MUST be present, so that those people will have a real opportunity to experience the contrast between fear and death and chaos on the Islamist side, and security, prosperity, and hope on the liberalizing side.

Some voices on the Right have suggested that Islam itself is The Problem, and that a worldwide effort to marginalize its practice and to discredit its tenets is the only sure way to achieve victory over the more virulent aspects of its practice. I could not disagree more. Attacking Islam, as such, will only further polarize those devout populations we hope to woo into modernity, and awaken xenophobia and a sense of threat to the underpinnings of their world-view. Rather, we should strive to foster the sputtering liberalizing tendencies within Islam itself. While the exclusivity and expansionism which is endemic to the Abrahamic religions (each of which posits a special relationship with the Divine which supersedes all other faiths) have proved especially refractory to liberalization within Islam, this does not mean that such liberalization/reformation is altogether impossible. It's just extraordinarily difficult.

The author’s gratuitous swipes against Western civilization’s treatment of women and minorities (not to mention the one against Sarah Palin) are offensive, unnecessary, and counterproductive.

A good article, but one which does not go far enough, nor acknowledge conditions in the real world.

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