Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 June 2014

Clear Thinking about “Terrorism”


[I hate to upstage yesterday’s post about Magna Carta’s 800th birthday, which has world-historical significance. But the following post has greater current importance, as we Yanks seek to address what is happening in Iraq right now.]

“Terrorism” is a miscreant word. If there were capital punishment for fracturing thinking, it would deserve it. The very word has subverted clear thinking for several decades.

Like a Frankenstein monster, it’s a combination of things that shouldn’t be stitched together. “Terror” is an emotion. But the ending “-ism” denotes a political philosophy, a school of thought, perhaps even a governmental or economic system.

What nonsense to hitch them together! Terror is not a philosophy, political or otherwise. It’s a strong emotion. It’s extreme fear. And fear, as Frank Herbert once wrote, is “the mind killer.” It hardly promotes thinking.

The consequences of the miscreant word’s overuse have been terrible. They include our own, unnecessary Yankee invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq—which incidentally began the two longest wars in our national history. They also include Assad’s transparently absurd “justification” for his genocide against non-Alawite Sunnis (among others). No, Bashar, all your enemies are definitely not terrorists; nor are all the innocent people you have slaughtered and displaced.

Sowing terror can be a tactic in military conflict. If you can get the enemy to fear you, stop fighting and flee, you can win a battle.

Terror can do that. ISIS/ISIL just recently showed us how, as it captured cities in middle Iraq by getting the Shiite Army, which was not fighting on its own turf, to flee. In a civil war or insurgency, terror can impede or prevent the formation of effective opposition.

But once the fighting stops or subsides, you have to organize and govern. Terror can help sweep away opposition, at least temporarily, as you do so. But in the long run, as you begin to govern, you have to have popular support. You can’t continue to kill or maim everybody who doesn’t think exactly like you, at least not without some sadly predictable consequences.

Terror doesn’t garner support. It makes enemies. Every time a suicide bomb goes off, for example, it kills lots of innocent people. But there are survivors. There are also friends and loved ones of the maimed and dead victims. These become your enemies.

In some Islamic societies, where the Code of Hammurabi still applies, a single act of terror can earn you scores of sworn enemies for life. The survivors take on killing you and yours as a sacred duty, a matter of personal honor and lifelong devotion. That, of course, makes it harder for you to govern, let alone to promote any real political or religious philosophy. Blood feuds are not the stuff of stable government.

This reasoning is not rocket science. It’s basic human nature. And its proof is no further away than the still-wet pages of recent history. Despite four decades of so-called “terrorism” (the misuse and overuse of terror as a military and political tactic), it has not yet created a single government anywhere in the world, let alone a stable or enduring one. Even Communism, a fictional economic theory imposed on unwilling people by tyranny, has done better than that.

Bin Laden, the paradigmatic terrorist, is dead. Why? Because people who hated him and despised his indiscriminate slaughter told us Yanks where he lived. Ditto al-Zarqawi, the brutal Iraqi terrorist, who is reputed to have founded ISIS/ISIL. Now al-Zawahiri, the still-surviving comrade of bin Laden and current apparent leader of Al Qaeda Central, has disowned ISIS/ISIL as too extreme to be an Al Qaeda affiliate.

His reasoning: extremism and random slaughter alienates, instead of drawing, popular support. Duh! Al-Zawahiri can reason this far because he’s one of the very few extreme Islamist leaders with a solid education: he’s a medical doctor.

Bin Laden had Saudi money and was a good propagandist. He turned the lemons of his complete military incompetence into lemonade by claiming that Allah had ordained his many narrow escapes from death.

But bin Laden was an abysmal strategic thinker. He wanted to topple the Saudi monarchy and so attacked us Yanks—the world’s only superpower—because he saw us as the linchpin of the House of Saud’s support. What he didn’t see was that we Yanks don’t control the Saudis; we just buy (or help them sell) their oil. He also didn’t see that many Yanks would also have liked to topple the House of Saud just as much as he did, if only we could do it without immense collateral damage and still keep the oil flowing. A cleverer man might have devoted his decades of effort not just to killing innocent bystanders, but to garnering and focusing Yankee support for his chief goal (a better Saudi Arabia).

That support might well have been forthcoming. It still might.

Contrary to popular Yankee fears and Fox demagoguery, “terrorism” as a “political philosophy” is on the run everywhere. It’s on the run in Afghanistan, where today’s cause celebre is the allegation of stuffing ballot boxes against presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah. No one even alleges ballot-box stuffing for the Taliban because it has little governmental or real popular support.

So-called “terrorism” is also on the run in Egypt. There the mere anticipation of terror has caused the vast majority of Egyptians to support a return to authoritarian rule, and that rule to jail and condemn thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom are innocent of any real wrongdoing. It’s almost like Newton’s first law: an extreme action (grabbing supreme power as the first act of a democratically elected government) produced an equally extreme and opposite reaction: the ostracism and suppression of what once might have become Egypt’s first real political party.

“Terrorism” is on the run in Africa, too. It’s on the run in Mali, where local people have invited French troops in to find and defeat extremists. It’s on the run in Nigeria, where an entire nation is aghast at Goodluck Jonathan’s condescending indifference, and Western skill and technology, coupled with motivated Nigerian troops, are finally on the hunt for the innocent girls’ kidnappers. Can bin Laden’s fate for the enslaver of girls be far behind?

“Terrorism” is probably on the run in Iraq, too, although that fact may be hard to see now, through the smokescreen of ISIS/ISIL’s recent easy victories.

The Kurds and their loyal, well-organized and effective peshmerga fighters aren’t going anywhere. They have effectively defended Kurdish territory for several decades, keeping terrorists at bay, mostly on their own. And now they have Yankee weapons and Western support and have gained new territory.

Perhaps the Kurds also have some clandestine Turkish support. In the past several years their clever leaders have discovered that waging politics with the Turks can be much more fruitful than waging insurgency or war. It’s now much easier for the Turks to protect their own borders by allying with the stable and reliable Kurds than by fighting random bands of roving Arab jihadis.

The Shiites in Baghdad and Basra aren’t going anywhere, either. They outnumber the Sunnis in Iraq, let alone Sunni extremists, at least three to one. They learned to fight during the decade-long war that we started. They have Yankee heavy weaponry and training and continuing Yankee support. And they still have the remnants of Muqtada As Sadr’s fervid militias.

The only reason the Shiites fled Anbar and points north was that Shiite troops on the ground didn’t see that territory as their own. They will fight to protect their homes and their families in Baghdad and Basra, just like anyone else.

So that leaves the Sunni “middle of Iraq,” where ISIS/ISIL and the Sunni sheiks who once led the Sunni Awakening each think they are using the other. But who has the real power there? The sheiks, whose mostly secular governance, through family, clan and alliances, goes back centuries? Or the recently immigrated and largely clueless foreign jihadis running around in pickup trucks with machine guns? My bet is that subtlety, guile, relationships, and local knowledge will triumph over dumb brute force, and soon, just as they did in the Sunni Awakening seven years ago.

The simple fact is that for forty years, Islamist “terrorism” has failed as a political philosophy everywhere. It has failed utterly and abjectly.

Extremism has done nothing for the Palestinians but keep them in poverty and misery for sixty years and counting. It has made a mess of Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, and soon perhaps Mali and Nigeria. It has helped make Syria a wasteland and a killing field, while giving Assad a transparent but plausible excuse to perpetuate his medieval brutality and genocide, with the aid of advanced weapons from Russia. Nowhere on Earth has any Islamist movement even begun to create the peace and order of the “caliphate” of which some Islamists dream.

On a global scale, all the extremists have managed to do is evoke the fear and loathing of the entire advanced world: us Yanks, Europe, Russia, China and India. They have managed to make the world’s richest and most powerful nations fear, hate and oppose them. That’s progress?

The universal fear and loathing from advanced societies are not without reason. Nowhere on Earth is there a glimmer, among Islamist leaders, of kind of wisdom and justice that a new caliph would need and that Mohammed himself had. The smartest of the extremists, like al-Zawahiri, are only beginning to understand that terror and death are not tools of governance, but blunt instruments of destruction and often (as in 9/11) counterproductive acts of desperation.

Now we in the West can continue to react with uncharacteristic thoughtless fear and loathing and spasmodic military strikes. Or we can begin to play politics.

Will this effort work? Maybe not. But’s it’s worth a try. It’s better than mutual jihad between primitive societies and the advanced world, which ought to know better than to begin a process that could end in genocide.

The key is not in the Afpak region. There’s too much bad blood and mistrust there, from too much recent conflict. Our occupation of Afghanistan and the ISI’s manipulation of the Taliban and local warlords have muddied the waters of normal social evolution too much. The key to converting Islamist “terror-ism” into a real “ism” (i.e., politics) lies much further south and west, in Anbar.

The Sunni sheikhs there are practical, capable local leaders, with centuries of experience in local politics. They are mostly secular. They did it all once before, in the Sunni Awakening that allowed us Yanks to extract ourselves from Iraq with what, for a time, seemed honor. They are smart, well-educated and civilized. (We Yanks should not mistake their lack of English fluency for lack of brains or political potential; we should get good translators.)

So our goal in Sunni Iraq should be simple. We should protect the Anbar sheiks as the rarest of treasures that they are: practical politicians in a region of religious extremists with zero or near-zero governing experience. We should support them in their struggle to maintain their territory in a fairly partitioned Iraq, with a fair share of Iraq’s oil revenue. We should support them in their alliances and struggles with jihadists, and we should help them learn how to get jihadists to lay down their arms and begin to govern.

Among the biggest mistakes that Dubya and Rumsfeld made in Iraq (and there were many!) was disbanding Saddam’s army and purging Iraq of all Baathists, without even vetting them first. Not only did this blunder deprive Iraq of many of its most experienced and capable people. It deprived Sunnis with vast military and government experience of gainful employment, leaving them no choice but to fight us Yanks and, eventually, the increasingly sectarian government of Nouri Al-Maliki.

Now is time to correct that error. It is far too late for Al-Maliki himself to do it. The political fault lines have already hardened into taken territory, and the battle lines have formed in new places. The Anbar sheikhs have made a perhaps unholy alliance with the jihadis, and the die is cast.

The only attainable stable outcome for Iraq is to become partitioned, and for the Sunni sheikhs to teach the jihadis how to govern, or to expel them. Whether Iraq becomes a federal, single state or three separate states doesn’t matter. What matters is that politics and governance reflect established facts on the ground: three separate states, each with fair and legitimate claims to self-determination and to a fair share of Iraq’s oil wealth.

“Terrorism” and Islamic extremism must learn to become an “ism” that actually can govern. If we Yanks can help the Sunni Iraqis pull that off, we can atone, at least in part, for the many catastrophic Western blunders in the region, going all the way back to the Brits creating a nonviable chimera called “Iraq” out of whole cloth. Then maybe the Anbar sheikhs can become an example for the rest of the Middle East and South Asia.

The Sunni/Shiite Divide: Not Our Fight

In previous essays, I have suggested that the United States draw closer to Iran (1 and 2), not just to solve the nuclear puzzle and assuage Israeli paranoia, but to atone for a cardinal foreign-policy sin of ours and to address a whole range of regional issues effectively. That advice might seem inconsistent with the foregoing essay, in which I suggest that we support the Sunni sheikhs in Iraq in their quest for self-determination and rational governance. But it is not.

The key to resolving the apparent contradiction is to understand that we Yanks have no dog in the Sunni/Shiite fight. Although we Yanks have millions of peaceful Muslim citizens, we are not a majority Muslim nation. If the truth be told, we don’t understand why Sunnis and Shiites are such mortal enemies. (Our analogous Christian schism between Protestants and Catholics was resolved peacefully long ago.)

So we Yanks ought to remain scrupulously neutral as we confront the Sunni/Shiite sectarian divide. And we try hard to do so. Our First Amendment, which forbids establishing any official religion and allows our own citizens to peacefully practice any religion they like, demands no less.

But politics is another matter entirely. Iran is a powerful, modern nation, rapidly restoring the democracy that we Yanks killed in it 61 years ago. Just last year, Iran had a real, free election that produced a moderate government. It finances terrorists only as a military tactic, and only in limited circumstances, for specified military objectives.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia remains a medieval kingdom that finances schools of hate and promotes jihad all over the Islamic world. It finances terrorists indiscriminately (as long as they don’t practice their darks arts in the Kingdom itself), and it uses its oil money to do so. It is by far the chief troublemaker in the Middle East and South Asia, surpassing Iran by a large margin, and easily surpassing Israel. So it is natural that, as we Yanks seek stability and order in the Middle East, and promote modernity and peaceful social evolution, we should draw closer to Iran and grow more distant from Saudi Arabia.

All this has little or nothing to do with religion, nor with the political aspects of the Sunni/Shiite divide. It is simply a matter of our chief goal as a nation and a people: making the world safe for profitable business, instead of making war.

So where do the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar come in? They, too, are part of this Yankee master plan. They are far from religious fanatics or warmongers. Instead, they are practical pols with long governing experience. So are many of the Sunni Baathists whom we thoughtlessly purged shortly after our invasion. Many are secular; virtually none are religious fanatics.

So, from a political perspective, and from our Yankee point of view, the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar have much in common with the Iranians. They are practical people with experience in governing and an apparent absence of counterproductive fanaticism. We can deal with them.

We sympathize with the Sunni sheikhs for another reason also. Today they are an oppressed minority. For three decades, it is true, they helped Saddam oppress the predominant Shiite minority in Iraq, often dreadfully. But today they have become the oppressed ones, under the inept rule of Al-Maliki, who deprives them of self-determination and their fair share of oil revenues, step by fateful step.

We Yanks believe that everyone has rights, even minorities. We have a minority president. So, despite their past sins, we sympathize with the minority Sunnis in Iraq, and particularly with the Sunni sheikhs, who seem less culpable for Baathist oppression and more skilled in governing fairly than the average Baathist bureaucrat.

The closest analogy to Iraq today is the Balkans. Just like Saddam in Iraq, the tyrant Tito suppressed ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia until he died and it broke up. Then, just as in Iraq when we deposed Saddam, all hell broke lose. What had been a peaceful country became an inter-ethnic war zone, complete with brutal atrocities.

In that melee, our air power protected Muslim Kosovars against atrocities by Christian serbs. Its use in the Balkans was much more effective and had fewer unintended consequences than our ground invasion of Iraq. But our goal in each case was precisely the same: stability, order and a fair shake for all contending ethnic groups.

Iran should share that goal in Iraq today. With its 70 million people and its status as a regional power, Iran has nothing to fear from the Sunni minority in Iraq, now estimated at about 12 million people (37% of 32.58 million), especially if their influence on Iraq’s government and foreign policy is not out of proportion to their numbers. Iran has much more to fear from oppressed and unhappy Sunnis in Iraq willing to make devil’s pacts with Sunni jihadis just to escape Shiite oppression.

Presumably Iran’s recently elected moderate leaders are worldly and smart enough to understand these truths. If so, there is a basis on which we, Iran and the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar can deal for the purpose of tamping down the religious wars that loose Saudi money is now trying to stir up. In that case there is no contradiction in our working with both the Sunni sheiks in Anbar and the Shiite leaders of Iran for the stability and order that all profess to seek.



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