1. Many Causes
In the first post in this three-part series, I discussed the roots of Arab Muslim sickness: failure; blaming an external party for that failure; implicit belief in one's own powerlessness; rebellion against that sense of powerlessness by demonstrating an ability to hurt the external party; chosen means (suicide bombs) that can only cause my condition to worsen; more suicide bombs; cultural stagnation and moral depravity; repeat. In the second part, I discussed these roots as they manifest themselves in Palestinian culture and ongoing failure. The question I'd like to address here is, what can the west do to cure, or at least contain the spread of, the sickness?
We need to start by asking what conditions permit the propagation of the disease. The question is initially daunting, because there seem to be so many factors at work: among them, the nature of Islam; Arab history and culture; political repression and economic despair; the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And many others.
Take a step back, though, and you'll find there's some good news here. Because although the causes of the disease are many, they aren't redundant. That is to say, if we can find a way to inhibit even one causal factor, we can dramatically reduce the incidence and effects of the disease.
Think malaria for a moment. What causes it? Malaria parasites? Mosquitoes that carry the parasite? Mosquitoes biting people? Swamps where the mosquitoes breed? The climate that permits the swamps?
All of the above. But you don't need to (and anyway couldn't) eliminate every one of these causes to dramatically reduce the incidence of the disease. If you can attack even one cause cost effectively, the benefits can be significant.
As it happens, pesticide-treated nets, each of which costs just a few dollars, seem to be the most cost effective way of bringing malaria under control. Is there an equivalent we can bring to bear on the sickness propagating from Muslim Arabia?
There is indeed, and it's the one the Bush administration has at best ignored and more often undermined: reducing our dependence on petroleum.
2. The Most Treatable Cause
As NYT columnist Tom Friedman has pointed out in The First Law of Petropolitics
, there is an inverse relationship between freedom and the price of a barrel of oil. If Friedman is right about this inverse relationship -- and logic, common sense, and empirical evidence indicate he is -- and President Bush is right in thinking that the root cause of Islamic terrorism is a lack of freedom in the Arab world -- then Bush's implementation of the so-called "Freedom Agenda" is impossible without a dramatic decrease in the price of energy.
I think Bush is right in believing that repression contributes to terrorism. And I think Friedman is right is suggesting high oil prices contribute to repression. But the link between oil prices and terrorism isn't just indirect, in that petrodollars prop up some of the world's most repressive (and dangerous) regimes. Petrodollars also directly contribute to the spread of the disease. Saudi Arabia uses them to fund madrasses that inculcate children with intolerance and hatred of the west. Iran uses them to arm Hezbollah -- "The Party of God" -- in Lebanon and pursue nuclear weapons of its own.
The most important US security imperative today is to reduce the price of a barrel of oil. We can't hope to contain the disease by killing mosquitoes one by one. We have to drain the swamp. For how to do it, read Gasaholic Communists
If we succeed in reducing the price of oil, all our other initiatives against the disease -- public relations, security, law enforcement, intelligence, and military, can succeed. If we fail in the primary imperative, we will fail in everything else.
3. Iraq is a Distraction
Is there reason for optimism?
Some. The efforts of the Bush administration remind me of what Winston Churchill is supposed to have said about America: "You can always count on America to do the right thing... after it has exhausted all the other possibilities."
The Bush administration certainly is exhausting those other possibilities with Iraq. What were our first priorities after toppling the Taliban? Capturing or killing Bin Laden and his #2, al-Zawahiri and building a stable Afghanistan. This morning, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, al-Zawahiri released another video. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, opium production is at record levels and the Taliban is resurgent. By diverting so many military, intelligence, financial, and other resources to Iraq, Bush reduced the chances that we would successfully complete the dismantlement of al Qaeda and the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We can argue about the relevance of Iraq in the overall battle against the disease of Islamofascism. But I don't see how we can argue that, in attempting three monumental undertakings simultaneously instead of only two, the Bush administration dramatically increased the likelihood that we will fail at all of them.
I believe Iraq is the greatest foreign policy mistake in US history. We lost many more people in Vietnam, and we were there for longer. But how did General Abazaid, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, put it recently? "If we leave, they will follow us." No one ever said that about the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese.
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld famously asked in a leaked memorandum whether we had metrics to determine whether we were capturing and killing more terrorists in Iraq than we were creating. As far as I know, the administration never provided an answer. But maybe they didn't need to. Thanks, Paul
, for the painfully hilarious link
4. Getting Out of Iraq
How do we get out of Iraq? First, we have to change our rhetoric. The story we need to tell the world -- and ourselves -- is that "we already won the war; the rest is up to Iraqis. If they prefer civil war to unity and prosperity, we can't help them. If by their actions they indicate that they prefer a breakup of the country, we won't stand in their way. Our task was to topple Hussein and verify no WMD; that mission has been accomplished."
Back in April, I suggested breaking the country into three
. In May, Joe Biden
endorsed the idea, too. Since then, events on the ground
have continued to create momentum for a three-state solution.
A breakup won't be smooth. Probably there will be a civil war, worse than the relatively low intensity Sunni/Shiite conflict already raging. But if the Sunnis and Shiites want to fight each other, why are we trying to stop them (and how long can we keep them from going at it)? Cold-blooded realpolitik suggests that we'd be better off with Islamofascists divided along sectarian fault lines rather than being brought together, as Hezbollah has partly managed to do by inspiring Egyptians and Saudis.
But most likely, we're going to waste another two and half years in Iraq. I believe it's politically, emotionally, and psychologically impossible for the architects of the war to acknowledge the magnitude of their mistake. Instead, they'll try to hold on and leave it to the next administration to get us out of there -- at which point, they will write in their memoirs that we had turned the corner and Iraq was won, but that the cowards in the new administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
There is a similar school of thought on Vietnam: that by 1972, we had destroyed the Viet Cong and rearmed the South sufficiently so they could stand up to the North. But after the Cambodian incursion came to light, Congress cut funding for the whole enterprise and the South was then helpless against the continued Soviet and Chinese supplied onslaught from the Northy. If Bush can just keep us in Iraq until the next administration takes over, he will have created the conditions for a similar fig leaf argument for himself.
It's possible, though, that things will get so much worse so rapidly in Iraq that Bush will be denied his fig leaf. In August, the Marines concluded that Anbar province, including much of the Sunni Triangle, is a lost cause
And the troops we've repositioned to save Baghdad must have left a vacuum behind them. The news coming out of Iraq is only going to get worse.
So sooner or later, we'll get out. We'll rethink our strategy and refocus our resources. Here's what I hope to see then.
5. After Iraq
First, meaningful steps to reduce the price of oil (actually, I hope we don't have to wait years before implementing those steps, but I'm sure we will).
Second, expanded but refined law enforcement and intelligence work. Assassinations, kidnappings, and interrogations on a small, discreet, deniable scale (actually, I don't want to see the assassinations, kidnappings, and interrogations -- if I do, it means it's been done sloppily and will be counterproductive).
Third, devotion of appropriate resources to securing loose nukes. Absent WMD, al Qaeda doesn't threaten our civilization (only our own overreactions and stupidity can do that). But there's little doubt that if AQ could acquire and deploy WMD against America, they would. The Soviet Union had the means but was deterrable; AQ is undeterrable but lacks the means. We must make those means unavailable to them.
Fourth, less bombastic war rhetoric. If Bush really believes we're engaged in the "decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,"
why did he commit so few troops to Iraq? If Rumsfeld really believes “we face similar challenges [to the rise of Nazi Germany] in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism
,” why is the country not mobilized as was during World War II?
Fifth, more cleverness, less venting of rage. It's natural to want to lash out after a terrorist provocation might seem to offer a temporary salve for our collective ego -- this was the emotional underpinning for the march into Iraq -- but ego ought to have little to do with our objectives. It may be that we'll have to exercise patience and restraint in the face of horrible provocations. Doing so will be difficult, but as James Fallows argued in the September Atlantic Monthly, our own overreactions
will be the biggest obstacle to victory in this fight (thanks David Terrenoire
for the link).
Sixth, examination of new approaches to Israel and Palestine, based (ironically) on the rise of extremism in the region. It used to be that repressive Arab regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia used Israel to distract their populations from the government's domestic repression, inability to provide jobs, and other failings. Now, hatred of Israel is fueling the rise of Iran and Hezbollah -- the hatred is slipping out of the control of these governments and becoming more dangerous than it is useful. Accordingly, conditions might exist for accommodation from Egypt, Saudi, and elsewhere. A long shot, but possible.
Finally, we may need to reconsider the feasibility of bringing freedom to people the name of whose religion, which provides the core of their identity, means "submission."
6. A Different Metaphor
Less than a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world is again engaged in a great game for power. Our opponent this time is not communism, but Islamofascism. But the roots of that earlier conflict provide a framework for understanding the nature of this new one, and could, if sensibly applied, help us to prevail once again.
Communism was an ideology that by its own tenets was guaranteed to fail in competition with the west. Command economies are inefficient; they cannot win in a capitalist foot race any more than a runner who insists on tying his shoelaces together can win against an opponent operating under no such self-imposed handicaps. The only way for communism to "win," then, was to sabotage its opponents. Married as it was to its own stunted ideology, it really had no choice.
Islamofascism is the same. A society that eliminates half its productive workforce by refusing to permit women to drive or vote or go out unaccompanied by men cannot compete against societies that lack similar constraints. The unconstrained societies will inevitably prosper and progress; the constrained societies will inevitably weaken by comparison. The only choice for the constrained is to try to bring the unconstrained down.
For a while, anyway. In 1989 I wrote, "'Workers of the world, unite!' was the birth cry of communism; 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em,' sounds like its death knell." If we effectively contain Islamofascism, there is hope that eventually it will undergo a similar metamorphosis (for possible philosophical models for modernized Islam, read George Packer's excellent "The Moderate Martyr"
in the Sept 11 issue of The New Yorker).
If that metamorphosis does occur, the Arab psyche can rightly be flush with pride at its own positive achievements. The sense of indignity, humiliation, and helplessness in which the disease has taken root will pass, and the Arab middle east could become a productive part of the 21st century. If it doesn't, the Arab middle east will become an isolated seventh century theme park. Geopolitically, either outcome would be acceptable to the west.
What's most encouraging, but in some ways, most nerve-wracking, is that the outcome is largely up to us. Islamofascism appeals outside the Arab Middle East only by contrast to the perceived depredations of the west. If we stop perverting the implementation of our ideals by our addiction to oil, if we rediscover our better, truer selves, if we choose our means carefully, the disease will go into remission.
To put it another way: Islamofascism can't win this struggle. Only we can lose it.