Wednesday, July 13, 2005

On Pape-ism

The question of what baits the hook that lures aspiring jihadists is a sine qua non in the war against terror. Answering it would come a long way in determining jihad's strategic agenda and rational criteria for our own success and failure. A sobering thing to wonder is to what extent those in charge of prosecuting the war have arrived at any consensus at all on this. President Bush, it has been observed, received an thorough scolding for letting slip the statement that the war on terror is unwinnable, and a thorough scolding for apparently stepping back from this mentality. The event is an important one to consider in a political critique of the war on terror.

Chief among the elements of war skepticism is the belief that military incursion into the Middle East is automatically translated from within the 'Arab street' to be an act of aggression, provoking an immediate escalation of terrorism. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape has formulated what appears to be a sophisticated argument to this effect in a new book (which I haven't read), 'Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism', summarized in these newspaper articles (hat tip Justin Logan):

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/09/opinion/09pape.html?

http://www.iht.com/bin/print_ipub.php?file=/articles/2005/05/18/opinion/edpape.php

That the argument is familiar is a relief. But I confess I am not much in agreement with it. Though I have not read the book, the above articles do not encourage me much. Pape opens the Herald-Tribune article positing that the fact that the successful Iraqi elections were followed by a spike in terrorist attacks amounts to a "contradiction", and that the contradiction can only be resolved by concluding that "there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think" - and that American intervention is the one assured constant at the root of it all. As Ronald Bailey notes in his response to this theory over at Reason, bin Laden 'stipulated' an end to American intervention in the Middle East as a basis for an al-Qaeda ceasefire in his 2002 tape.

Justin, my former boss (and a damn smart one), argues that policymakers in Washington should follow Pape's argument to its natural conclusion and withdraw from Iraq, or risk an even greater swell in bin Ladenist ranks. Is that the full logical extent of the conclusion, though? If any military mobilization in the Middle East is bound to rain fire on us, how is it possibly that any conceivable war against terrorism could amount to anything more than a case of the US playing tag with mass murderers? How is any response to terrorist aggression not destined to exacerbate rather than secure?

Because war against terrorists has to be an unavoidable, intractable one in order for it to any justification to be convincing. I would hold that it is. I would reject the argument that the risk of arousing jihadist rage is prohibitive of armed conflict against them. Government of a free people has an implicit moral obligation to respond to credible foreign threats to American lives, articulated clearly and forming in plain view, by attempting to render them powerless through military action. So, more to the point, how might Pape's recommendations be heeded in Washington? Where is the appropriate strategic equilibrium, balancing the intrinsic threat of inaction with the permanently side-constraining threat of inspiring further terrorism? Do we limit the scope of militarism to responding to threatening parties that have already made their move, thus establishing a policy of 'get shot first, ask questions later'? Pape's thesis would argue 'yes'. How does the very likely emboldening of committed terrorists witnessing the apparent retreat of the Great Satan correlate to overall threat of terrorism against us, and to the consideration of a policy of non-intervention?

To state my basic intuition, I do not believe that the relationship between American militarism in the Middle East - past and present - and the provocation of terrorism should obscure the "positive argument" of bin Laden and his ilk in determining our war policy. I do not believe that the risks we've yet accepted in confronting Islamic terrorists can be held to eclipse the danger posed by the perverse and proactive imagination of the terrorists themselves. I do believe that the most significant animating principle of the terrorist mind is a hatred of the West, of liberalism, of civil society, of secular constitutionalism and representative government, and an obsession with the singular wish of eradicating any elements of these in the Middle East. I believe that America regrets its past and present follies a great deal more than bin Laden does, and that within this psyche, the casualties of American intervention serve only as useful simulacra for this 'revolt'. Militant Islamism is in my view a delivery mechanism for raw, simple totalitarianism.

This surely isn't an original argument, obviously. Anyway, Ronald Bailey's recent Reason article states my own view of the argument better than I can - I retort, you deride:

http://www.reason.com/links/links071105.shtml

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