Why we can’t win the “war on terror”

A provocative new book from an expert on terrorism argues that Bush's tough-guy stance is making things much worse -- and that we should negotiate with al-Qaida.

Topics: Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaida, Iraq war, Books,

As the midterm elections approach, the Bush administration has launched its latest propaganda campaign, claiming that it is our Churchillian duty to fight the menace of “Islamofascism” — a meaninglessly broad term that conflates secular insurgents in Iraq, al-Qaida-inspired Sunni extremists, Syrian Alawites and Baathists, Palestinian nationalists, Shiite leaders in Iran and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. Those who don’t sign on to this supposedly WWII-like struggle, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld charged, are “appeasers.”

It is hardly surprising that George W. Bush has revived this kind of heroic, clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, which has always worked for him. In fact, this is an insultingly simplistic formulation that, by failing to distinguish between different types of groups, not only would keep us bogged down forever in Iraq but threatens to enmesh us in new quagmires.

In a recent speech, ambassador James Dobbins, who headed U.S. negotiations after the Afghanistan war, made this point emphatically. “In a search for moral clarity, the administration has tried to divide the Middle East into good guys and bad guys,” Dobbins said. “America tends to treat Middle East diplomacy as a win/lose or zero-sum game in which Syrian, Iranian, Hezbollah or Hamas gains are by definition American losses and vice versa. The result, of course, is the United States always loses, because if you insist that the population of the region choose between Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, on the one hand, or the United States and Israel, on the other, they are going to choose the other side every time.”

It was Bush’s failure to distinguish between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein that got us into the mess we are in today. If his latest sales pitch for an undifferentiated “war on terror” succeeds, the result will be permanent war, the hatred of at least a sixth of the world and serious long-term damage to our nation’s standing. Whether Americans will realize this, call off Bush’s radical “war on terror,” recognize who our actual enemies are and start to fight them with our brains, not just our muscles, may determine whether a terrorist in a cave with a handful of followers will succeed in doing what empires and führers could not.



Louise Richardson’s admirably clearheaded “What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat” helps dissipate the fog of emotionalism, patriotic chest beating and just plain bad thinking that have swirled around America ever since 9/11. Her book effectively demolishes virtually every myth that the Bush administration has promulgated about terrorism, and demonstrates (if further demonstration is needed) why its policies have greatly increased the threat to the United States.

Until now, there was little chance that a dispassionate work like Richardson’s could be heard. But with Bush increasingly resembling an incompetent, overmuscled boxer taking wild, roundhouse swings at his opponent — and losing badly on points in the late rounds — perhaps Americans are ready to consider a smarter approach, and start trying to outbox our terrorism foes rather than knock their block off.

Richardson, who is the executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, became interested in terrorism because of her background. Of Irish descent, she grew up strongly sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army, and as a youth considered joining the organization. Later, as a professor of government at Harvard, she took up terrorism as an intellectual hobby before teaching classes about it. At that time, her field was highly unusual. Before 9/11, the “terrorism studies community,” as she calls it, was “marginalized … no major universities had positions in terrorism, and very few even offered a course in the subject.” After 9/11, she notes, a new breed, so-called counterterrorism experts, emerged. “Their priority was counterterrorism policy and American power … They found the terrorism studies community incurably soft on terrorism, ignorant of policy, and blind to the threat of al-Qaida. Members of the terrorism studies community tended to console themselves by remarking how little the newly minted experts knew about their subject. It is clearly in everyone’s interest for this gap to be eliminated.”

Richardson says she “emerged from her academic shell” to challenge the Bush administration’s response to terrorism. “Lives have been lost because of our government’s failure to understand the nature of the enemy we face and its unwillingness to learn from the experiences of others in countering terrorism.”

Richardson has two main critiques of Bush’s antiterrorism policies. The first is now accepted by virtually everyone who is not invested in Bush’s war: We should never have attacked Iraq because it had nothing to do with international terrorism. By doing so, we squandered international support, stirred up Muslim and Arab rage, and made the terrorism threat far worse. Her second point is more controversial because it directly challenges the Bush administration’s Manichaean, good-vs.-evil response to terrorism: The entire “war on terror” was a mistake. “Our objective should not be the completely unattainable goal of obliterating terrorism; rather, we should pursue the more modest and attainable goal of containing terrorism recruitment and constraining resort to the tactic of terrorism.”

This means learning about our enemies, not just demonizing them. Under Bush’s leadership, however, thinking is tantamount to appeasement. When it comes to terrorism, America is still more or less in the first day of class, ignorant of its enemies and in denial about their motivations. “What Terrorists Want” makes a compelling case that dogmatic certainties, moral posturing and tough-guy sloganeering offer cheap emotional rewards and pay domestic political dividends, but are completely counterproductive.

Richardson starts her analysis by offering a lucid definition of terrorism. In her view, terrorism “simply means targeting civilians for political purposes.” She then notes terrorism’s seven key characteristics. First, it is politically inspired. (Refuting Colin Powell’s pious — and silly — statement about al-Qaida that “we should not try to cloak their … criminal activity, their murderous activity, in any trappings of political purpose. They are terrorists,” she notes, “in point of fact, it is precisely because they did have a political purpose that they were, indeed, terrorists.”) Second, it must involve violence. (“Cyberterrorism” is not terrorism.) Third, its purpose is not to defeat the enemy but to send a message. Fourth, the victim and the act usually have symbolic significance. Fifth, it is carried out by substate groups, not states. (Richardson acknowledges that this is a controversial definition, and admits that states do employ terrorism. She draws the distinction because without it, discussions of terrorism become conceptually unwieldy.) Sixth, the victims of terrorism are not the same as the intended audience. Seventh, terrorism deliberately targets civilians. A final crucial point: Terrorists are weaker than their enemies. This is why they embrace terrorism.

Are there “good” terrorists and “bad” terrorists? Richardson wisely declines to enter that endless debate over means and ends. Rather, she sticks to her criteria, regardless of whether a terrorist claims to be a “freedom fighter” or indeed of whether he has subsequently become a statesman. Terrorists do not retroactively get not to be terrorists because their side won. Richardson cites the case of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin: That he became a statesman in the ’70s does not alter the fact that he was a terrorist in the ’40s. What is noteworthy, however, is that Richardson does not use the term to demonize but to describe. It is simply a fact that Begin, like his counterparts in the Red Brigades, the Tamil Tigers, Hamas, al-Qaida and countless other groups, was a terrorist. This does not mean that he was an evil monster forever beyond understanding, or that he was insane or a criminal, or that he had no legitimate motive. It means simply that he used violence against civilian targets for political ends: i.e., he was a terrorist.

Used in this neutral fashion, of course, the word “terrorist” has quite a different value than it does in the way it is customarily used in the American press, where it is a virtual synonym for “evildoer.” Richardson rejects the widespread notion that “to understand or to explain terrorism is to sympathize with it.” She makes it clear that she regards the intentional targeting of civilians as profoundly immoral. But she in effect brackets or suspends issues of morality, focusing first on other characteristics of terrorism. This astringent, detached perspective allows her to situate terrorism in a larger historical and social context without falling into facile judgments or generalizations.

In a wide-ranging historical tour, Richardson demonstrates that the 9/11 attacks, far from being unique, are merely the latest manifestation of an ancient phenomenon. The three earliest known terrorist groups were the Sicarii, or Zealots, of the classical age, the medieval Assassins and the medieval-to-modern-age Thugs. The Zealots, militant Jews determined to oust the Romans from Palestine, favored stabbing their victims in crowds, a tactic intended to spread panic. The Assassins were a fanatical Shiite sect that aimed to purify Islam and reconstitute it as a single entity. They also favored assassinations performed by stabbing, and their followers considered it shameful to escape — much like today’s shaheed, or “martyrs.” So inexplicable was their suicidal behavior that observers thought they must be high on hashish — hence their name, Assassins. The Thugs, a bizarre Hindu sect, do not fit Richardson’s definition of terrorists, since their motives were purely religious, not in any way political, but she includes them anyway because they are commonly considered to be terrorists, and because they resemble modern terrorists in certain ways. The Thugs believed that they needed to supply the goddess Kali with human blood. Toward that end they carefully selected victims, whom they first befriended and then strangled with a silk tie in the most painful way possible. In longevity and number of victims, they are by far the most “successful” terrorist group in history. They operated in India for an incredible 600 years, during which time they are believed to have killed 500,000 people.

The French Revolution played a key role in the genesis of modern terror: Its hallmarks were “terror from above,” i.e., terror imposed by the state, and the notions that killers are the guardians of the will of the people. It also marked the emergence of purely secular terrorist ideology. Previous terrorist movements had been driven in large part by religion, but after 1789 terrorism was to remain secular until the Iranian revolution in 1979. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakunin, who advocated terrorism by small elite groups as a means of bringing down the state, prefigured modern social revolutionary terrorists like the Red Brigades. Nineteenth century Irish nationalists and Russian anarchists also practiced terror, as did scattered anarchists in the U.S. and Europe, who succeeded in killing President McKinley, among other heads of state.

Some might argue that contemporary terrorism is different in kind because it is so much more bloodthirsty. Richardson acknowledges that 19th century terrorists killed very few people compared with their 20th century counterparts, but argues that the reason was the example set by the two world wars, in which states killed mass numbers of civilians for political reasons (for example, Dresden, the London Blitz, the siege of Leningrad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki). These mechanized slaughters helped obliterate the distinction between combatants and noncombatants. “The greater brutality of terrorists reflected a greater brutality in political life generally.” It is not that terrorists got more evil — the world did.

But though terrorism is as old as the hills and has been practiced by many cultures and religions and for many different reasons, its sheer awfulness leaves it mysterious. What kind of a person would deliberately kill innocent men, women and children, for political goals that are often virtually unattainable? Aren’t they insane, or simply evil, on the face of it?

The answer is no. Richardson answers that three things are required to create a terrorist: “a disaffected individual, an enabling group, and a legitimizing ideology.” Some of the 9/11 terrorists were educated, middle-class Muslims who had grown up in Europe and felt profoundly alienated from the societies in which they lived. They met other individuals in the same boat, some of whom had links to global jihadist movements — the “enabling group.” (Psychiatrist and former Foreign Service officer Marc Sageman has made a close study of these relationships, which he argues are crucial to global jihad, in his book “Understanding Terror Networks.”) And, of course, the “legitimizing ideology” was an extreme version of Salafi Islam.

Psychologically, terrorists see the world in black-and-white terms, identify with the sufferings of others and desire revenge. But they are not, except in rare cases, mentally ill. (Richardson points out that most terrorist groups reject obviously disturbed individuals, because they are not worthy to carry out acts that terrorists see as driven by a higher moral purpose.) They are often motivated by perceived humiliation. Practically, they seek what Richardson calls the “Three Rs: Revenge, Renown and Reaction.”

Having defined terrorism, given a history of it and established that terrorists are quite “normal” — even exceptionally idealistic — in their psychology and goals, Richardson then turns to the most important and provocative part of her book: a powerful critique of America’s reaction to 9/11. She argues that the 9/11 attacks did not change the world — “rather it was our reaction to September 11 that changed the world.” And not for the better.

Richardson points out that the terrorist attacks were spectacularly successful, but they hardly emerged out of a void. Muslim rage, driven by U.S. policies ranging from coziness with autocratic Arab regimes to support for Israel, as well as by socioreligious frustrations that U.S. policies had nothing to do with, had been building for years. Americans thought the attacks came out of the blue because we are insular, are ill-educated about the world in general and the Middle East in particular, and — with that touching, maddening innocence and assumption of national superiority that have bemused observers from Henry James to Graham Greene — were unable to conceive why others might hold legitimate grievances against us.

Rather than try to educate Americans — teaching them, for example, that superpowers throughout history have been hated, or about the complexities of our Middle East policies — the Bush administration “retreated to simplistic formulas of good and evil.” By so doing, Richardson argues, it squandered a crucial opportunity to “educate the American public to the realities of terrorism and to the implication of the United States’ global preeminence.” (She does not point out that the likelihood of the Bush administration, which regards U.S. hegemony as given by divine fiat, doing this is somewhere between zero and none.)

As for our reaction, its effects have been little short of catastrophic. By invading Iraq, we created the very terrorist boogeyman we feared. And by declaring an unwinnable “war on terror,” we escalated the conflict unnecessarily, elevated Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to a bad eminence they did not deserve, and condemned ourselves to certain defeat. As Richardson points out, all a terrorist has to do is set off one bomb somewhere to make us “lose” the war on terrorism. This is making things much too easy for them.

Richardson notes that terror attacks are designed to, and inevitably do, inspire fear, and reaction, out of all proportion to the actual threat they pose. “We believed that we now faced a powerful enemy driven by irrational religious fanaticism and determined to use weapons of mass destruction against us,” she writes. “In fact, our enemy was much less powerful than we thought, demonstrated a persistent capacity for rational behavior, and had concrete political as well as religious motivations, and its interest in weapons of mass destruction was driven more by a desire to intimidate us and defend itself against us than by the desire to deploy them in the United States.”

Richardson’s last point about WMD seems to me dubious at best, and leads one to wonder if her mostly salutary emphasis on the rational motivations of terrorists leads her to misread al-Qaida. After all, if al-Qaida was prepared to crash jets into the World Trade Center, why wouldn’t they use weapons of mass destruction (which she argues they had little chance of obtaining) as well? That caveat aside, however, her demythologizing of al-Qaida, and her insistence that a “more focused and more moderate reaction” to the attacks would have been more effective than the path we followed, are convincing. Richardson points out that thanks to the invasion of Afghanistan, which she supported, the danger of a WMD attack actually went down after 9/11.

Richardson’s most audacious argument is that America should try to talk to its enemies, to find out what they want and whether their demands are negotiable. “We take as a given that their demands are so extreme as to be nonnegotiable, but it would be worth finding out if that is, in fact, the case. Yet suggestions that we actually talk to the terrorists are considered tantamount to treason,” she writes. She points out that although they routinely deny it, countries do in fact negotiate with terrorists, and sometimes successfully. “Britain ended the IRA’s terrorism only through negotiating with the terrorists and … the cease-fire currently enjoyed in Sri Lanka is a result of government talks with the hated Tamil Tigers.” (That cease-fire has recently broken down.)

Richardson’s proposal is certain to be greeted with outrage. But she is not dogmatic or naive. She is under no illusions about how dangerous bin Laden and his partner, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are — after all, they carried out by far the most destructive single terrorist attack in history. And she acknowledges that bin Laden, and his fellow Islamist terrorists, are motivated by both religion and politics — and that religious motivations make terrorists “more absolutist, more transnational, and more dangerous.” She notes, “To this day we do not know quite how much relative weight Osama bin Laden attributes to his religious and his political goals. The manner in which he has altered the listing of his various aspirations in his various statements suggests that the political is primary and religion a tool. But we do not know that for sure, and he would certainly deny it.”

Richardson thus avoids the mistake made by University of Chicago terrorism scholar Robert Pape in his “Dying to Win.” By arguing that al-Qaida terrorists were primarily motivated by anger at foreign occupation of their homelands, Pape seriously understated the religious dimension of Islamist terrorism. Richardson does not make this mistake.

Nonetheless, there are several obvious objections to her proposal. Reading bin Laden’s statements as collected in “Messages to the World,” it is far from clear that any of al-Qaida’s demands are negotiable: Many of their grievances are historical, and others involve total rejection of policies, principally American support for Israel, that Richardson admits are not going to change. Richardson’s call for dialogue makes more sense with ambiguous terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, which are a combination of what she calls “transformative” (i.e., absolute in their demands) and “temporal” (i.e., have specific political goals). With bin Laden, the ratio clearly tilts more toward transformative. He has offered specific truces to European countries, but never to the U.S. Moreover, the familiar objection to negotiating with terrorists — that by meeting their demands one will only encourage more terrorism and more demands — cannot simply be dismissed, although Richardson points out that that is not always the result of negotiations. In short, it is difficult to imagine a practical way that a negotiation with al-Qaida, or the splintered autonomous Salafi groups that have sprung up in al-Qaida’s wake, could succeed.

Richardson, however, is not advocating that negotiations must lead to concessions. And it is hard to contest her conclusion that gaining intelligence about the enemy — which can be done secretly and through intermediaries — is always a good thing. “By knowing your enemies, you can find out what it is they want. Once you know what they want, you can then decide whether to deny it to them and thereby demonstrate the futility of their tactic, give it to them, or negotiate and give them a part of it in order to cause them to end their campaign … The most likely outcome would be to discover that they are not a unitary actor and that some have negotiable demands and others do not. Then the direction of policy should be to exploit these differences and sow dissent among them.”

Richardson’s strongest argument for negotiating and, if necessary, implementing policy changes is not to prevent al-Qaida from attacking again but to prevent others from joining the jihad against America, and to weaken al-Qaida’s ties to Muslim populations. She puts forward a two-track strategy: using good intelligence, allies and judicious force to destroy terrorist groups while simultaneously addressing the grievances that lead people to embrace terrorism. “Conducting a war of ideas is a more nebulous and less energizing concept than waging a ‘real’ war of bombs and bullets,” she writes. “In order to win a war of ideas … one has to engage with the adversaries and even concede at times that they may have a point.”

There is, of course, a taboo against changing our policies “in response” to terrorism. But Richardson argues convincingly that this taboo, however morally satisfying, is tying our hands in our fight. If we refuse to implement desirable policy changes on principle simply because terrorists have also demanded such changes, we have obviously severely limited our freedom of action and our ability to respond effectively.

An obvious case in point is our presence in Iraq. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it would be in our national interest to withdraw our troops from Iraq. Must we then refuse to withdraw simply because al-Qaida or other Islamist terrorists demand that we do so? That would be an absurd result — it would mean that we are being held hostage by the terrorists. Yet that is precisely the position held by the Bush administration. This is not the policy of a mature government, confident of its superior strength and willing to outsmart its adversary, but of a shrill, insecure, hyperaggressive one whose actions are playing into its enemy’s hands.

Indeed, Richardson points out that the Bush administration’s absolute, holier-than-thou reaction to 9/11 bore a disturbing similarity to bin Laden’s. “By using the extreme language of conviction that bin Laden uses, by declaring war, even a crusade, against him in response to his war against us, we are mirroring his actions. We are playing into his hands, we are elevating his stature, we are permitting him to set the terms of our interactions. Given that he has a very weak hand and we have a very strong one, we should not be letting him set the parameters of the game.”

For its part, the Bush administration has been highly effective at setting the parameters of the game — and intimidating the cowering Democrats — by claiming that it is “tough” on terrorism while the Democrats are “weak.” Richardson cuts through this posturing by arguing that the only point that matters is who is effective.

It is an obvious point, but to convince voters of it, Democrats will have to overcome decades of GOP rhetoric that paints them as the 97-pound weakling. But with the tough-guy approach discredited, and the prospect of an endless and unwinnable war looming, Americans may finally be ready to wise up.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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