Thursday, July 14, 2005

Dying to Win

I've started reading Robert Pape's book, Dying to Win, which considers the phenomenon of suicide terrorism. Using empirical data on the attackers, their targets, and the timing of the attacks, Pape concludes that suicide terrorism is rational, usually part of an organized campaign, and targeted at democratic countries with the intention of driving out foreign occupiers. It is not, however, primarily religious in nature. Therefore, western campaigns designed to change Islamic society--especially through war--to combat terrorism are misdirected, and likely to generate more suicide attacks.

Having just started I can't say whether Pape's arguments are solid or questionable but I do think that suicide terrorism is rational at least to the attackers. Whether the role of religion and Islam in the Al Qaeda attacks is significant or minimal is something else. But I'm open to the idea that the conventional wisdom, such as it exists, about terrorism and suicide terrorists in particular, is pretty simplistic and deserving of greater scrutiny.

Which brings me back to the Karl Rove allegations of some weeks ago about the contrast between conservative and liberal approaches to terrorism. Liberals and Democrats have spent so much time demanding apologies and being outraged I think we've missed an important element in his remarks.

And that is that the instrument of war in fighting terrorism--especially suicide terrorism--is at best, an instrument very limited in its effectiveness and in the duration of its application.

I believe the wars launched against Afghanistan and Iraq are bearing this point out. Although the obstensible goal has been to remake these societies, our militaries are in control of only a portion of these states. The administration's stated desire to remake the states that sponsor terrorism, broadly speaking, is running up against the reality of the difficulties involved in occupying other countries and in thwarting the motives, not to mention the operations of, those who oppose our values or our presence and intervention in their lands.

And with both of these countries more or less in ruins (in Afghanistan, the Taliban is regrouping and the U.S. backed Karzai government is in practical control of only the capital and major cities), and with war being the administration's preferred instrument, where else is there to go? Who gets invaded or bombed next, and with what army?

For those of us who are suspicious of and fear the country's military industrial complex, one consolation is that the military as a tool of power is one that can be applied only sparingly. It's hard to imagine, for example, our maintaining the present forces in Iraq while turning to invade Iran (a bigger and better defended country than Iraq) at the same time.

All of this is to say that Rove's allegations about liberals (or Democrats as the case may be) as being soft on terrorism and squeemish about war, should give liberals and Democrats the opportunity to challenge the administration's "war only, war all the time" strategy of making the country safe.

The administration's war policy is a policy instrument of very limited application (not to mention it's blowback potential) and someone, preferably our party, should begin telling that to the American people.

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