Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Palestinian "problem," jihadi ideology and American strategy 

At great personal sacrifice, I have taken to watching the BBC on C-Span at night. Last night's broadcast of course devoted itself to coverage of the aftermath of the London bombings. Notorious British lefties like George Galloway and Tony Benn declaimed at length that these attacks were the consequence of the war in Iraq and our "blood-soaked" support of Israel. American Michael Scheuer (the "Anonymous" author of Imperial Hubris) focused particularly -- as he does in his book -- on the idea that American support for Israel is fueling al Qaeda's jihad. Their prescribed solution, which is virtually received wisdom in Europe's popular thinking and among the American academic left, is that the United States must coerce Israel into a policy of non-violence against the Palestinian Arabs and a withdrawal from the occupied territories under circumstances that permit a viable Palestinian Arab state. If the United States coupled this coercion of Israel with a retreat from Iraq, the roots of Arab rage would be excised. Forthwith, or perhaps with all deliberate speed, Arab support for al Qaeda will dry up.

The most serious problem with this argument is that it rests on the assumption that there is any settlement of the Palestinian "problem" consistent with Israel's survival as a majority Jewish state that would sufficiently mollify the Arab rejectionists who fuel al Qaeda with money and recruits. A settlement might very well make all sorts of people who are merely enraged at the United States and the West become less so over time. It seems to me, though, that the people who are willing to blow up buses of civilians in either Tel Aviv or London are not going to be less inclined to do so because Israel has improved the definition of its borders and recognized a government of the Palestinian Arabs. Nobody commits mass murder of innocent civilians or blows himself up in a crowded cafe because of a subtle disagreement over the location of a border, or whether the border is defined by a wall or paint on the ground. It is far more likely that the rejectionists who support al Qaeda with money and volunteers object to Israel's existance. That is certainly what they say they object to.

Michael Scott Doran made precisely this point almost three years ago:
Unqualified U.S. support for Israel, the critics reason, drives a wedge between Washington and the Arabs, most of whom support Palestinian aspirations; for the United States to improve its regional position, it must remove the wedge by tilting somewhat toward the Palestinians. The problem with this argument is that it rests on two hidden and faulty assumptions: about how much Washington would have to change its stance, and about how much goodwill that change would produce.

Unfortunately, Americans and Arabs nurture such different conceptions of what constitutes a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it is hard to imagine Washington ever adopting a policy toward it that would be truly popular in the Arab world. The most "pro-Palestinian" policy realistically conceivable would look something like the Clinton plan presented in late 2000, but even this would entail major Palestinian compromises (such as the renunciation of the right of pre-1967 refugees to return to their homes inside Israel proper). Under the right conditions, a handful of Arab leaders might be induced to endorse such a settlement, but they would be denounced by others as puppets of Washington and the Jews. Suicide bombings would very likely continue, and the United States would still find itself entangled in a passionate communal conflict. The Palestine wedge would thus remain in place -- smaller and less troubling, perhaps, but a wedge nonetheless.

Doran's article goes on to discuss the difference between the symbolism of Palestine and its actual substantive impact on Arab politics. It is well worth reading.

Al Qaeda, we believe, enjoys the active support of a very small proportion of the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the Muslim world is so large, that small proportion includes a very large number of people. If only 1% of Muslims actively support al Qaeda, that still gives them a base of more than 10,000,000 people to recruit from. If those people are disproportionately Saudis -- as they appear to be -- there are also thousands of rich people in a position to divert funds to support al Qaeda. Is there any possibility that anything less than the destruction of Israel will satisfy the 1% most radical Muslims? Who, in all honesty, believes that?

Indeed, this is why proponents of the "Palestine first" argument never explain specifically how the establishment of a viable Palestinian Arab state with secure borders will undermine the jihadis. The reason is that it won't, even if it brings a cold peace to Jews and Arabs (which would be great, in and of itself).

If not the Palestinian problem or American "imperialism," what is the source of al Qaeda's strength? The answer, I think, it that it is the product -- I hope the culmination -- of more than 70 years of ideological development. That ideology has appeal for all kinds of reasons rooted in ancient Arab and Muslim failures, including their failure to found legitimate governments and engage successfully with the modern world. The ideology of jihadism also succeeds because it competes against, er, nothing. There is no meaningful competing ideology in the Arab world, which sustains its rulers in the barren soil of monarchy or rank authoritarianism.

Just as communism's intellectual roots stretched back decades before the establishment of the first communist state, jihadi ideology is a coherent and highly developed political philosophy with roots long ante-dating the state of Israel, Western dependance on Middle Eastern oil, the presence of American soldiers in the region, or the first jihadi state -- the Taliban government of Afghanistan. As was the case with communism, it will take a long time to discredit and destroy this ideology. While a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs would be a wonderful thing, it will have very little impact on al Qaeda.

How, then, do we destroy both al Qaeda and the jihadi ideology? The answer is that "we" -- meaning the West -- cannot. Just as the United States did not destroy communism, only Muslims, and particularly Arab Muslims, can destroy the jihad. They will do so only when it is worth their great personal sacrifice to ruthlessly pursue the people in their own world who promote this ideology. A settlement between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel will not motivate that sacrifice. Neither will the withdrawal of American soldiers from Arab lands.

As with the decades-long war on communism, the war on Islamic jihad requires strategy that both contains the advance of the jihad as much as practical and motivates its most direct victims -- in this case Muslims -- to destroy it from within (as the Russians and the Chinese have both, in quite different fashion, destroyed communism). Containment, in this case, requires passive strategies (such as homeland security) and the active participation of the existing governments of the Islamic world. American strategy -- including, in my opinion, the war in Iraq -- has been constructed around coercing those otherwise uncooperative governments into that active participation. The demands of containment require us to coerce and cajole fundamentally hideous governments, including especially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as other tactics, such as our flowering alliance with India and our careful diplomacy in Central Asia) have put us in a position to do that.

Unfortunately, steps we take to coerce the autocracies of the Muslim world also make us less popular among the Muslim masses. This is not different from the Cold War, in which active American efforts to contain communism -- the Cuban embargo, the military defense of South Korea and Vietnam, support for the insurgents in Angola, support for Taiwan, and support for Israel in 1967 and 1973 -- enraged the otherwise oppressed populations of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and so forth. As we learned during the Cold War, containment alone cannot dispose of an enemy founded in a well-articulated political philosophy. We therefore must combine containment of the jihadis with a long-term plan to motivate the Muslim world to discredit and destroy the jihad from within. This is the purpose and promise of the Bush Administration's "democratization" strategy.

Muslims need serious motivation to discredit and destroy the jihad because the jihadis are extremely dangerous and ruthless people. They have demonstrated their capacity for breathtaking brutality not just on September 11 and in the Sunni Triangle, but across the world over a period of at least twenty years. None of Western coercion of Israel, the retreat of the United States from the region or promises of Western aid or free trade will provide that necessary serious motivation. The only way to inspire Muslims to fight the jihad is to invite them to embrace a competing ideology that can fill the empty void of their civil society and give them something in defense of which they are willing to risk war with the jihadis. Moderate Islam -- the widely-proclaimed "religion of peace" -- might have filled that void, but it has not thus far and shows no prospect of doing so any time soon. The idea of popular sovereignty -- the philosophy of John Locke, if you will -- is the only political philosophy available in the West that holds any promise of competing with the evil coherence of Islamic jihad. It is also a wonderful thing to fight for.

The "democratization" of the Muslim world, therefore, is critical to the destruction of the jihadi ideology for at least three reasons. Least important is the reason most often given -- that it will "drain the swamp" of Muslim rage that festers under the heel of Muslim authoritarian and monarchical regimes. Far more importantly, popular sovereignty is an ideology that can compete with radical Islam. Indeed, with the death of communism, which was a sort of perverted version of popular sovereignty, it is the only ideology that can compete with radical Islam. Finally, and most importantly, democratic governments are governments worth fighting for. Generally speaking, Muslims are not going to turn in the jihadis in the back of the mosque because a monarch or a dictator threatens them or gives them money. They will, though, if those jihadis threaten an idea that they hold dear. Moderate Islam has failed to supply that idea. Communism is dead. The only alternative is the guiding light of the Englightenment, the idea of the social contract.

It would be helpful, therefore, if the Western left would stop promoting the ill-considered idea that peace in Palestine will have broader significance than peace in Palestine (which would be a great thing in and of itself). Indeed, there is no reason why any honest Western leftist should not support the promotion of popular sovereignty in the Muslim world. Not only is it the only long-term path to victory against al Qaeda and its ideological spawn, but Western popular sovereignty has proven itself as the only political philosophy that stands even a chance at creating a reasonably just society.

It would also be helpful if Western governments, and the United States in particular, focused its strategy more precisely on the promotion of popular sovereignty in the Muslim world. This project will probably take a couple of generations, but there is no time like the present to get going.

Faster. Please.


By Blogger quantum, at Sat Jul 09, 01:56:00 PM:

A fantastic post that places you nicely in a long line of astute blog/strategists like the USS Clueless and Wretchard. I'm linking it at my little neoconblog which i would love you to check out sometime


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By Blogger Sluggo, at Sun Jul 10, 12:51:00 AM:

Mr. T. Hawk, thanks for consistantly adding a measure of clarity to the proceedings.

My thought experiment runs thusly: Imagine that, for whatever reason, the Palistinians one day anounce that they are finished fighting. They lay down their weapons and tell the Israelis that they will fight no more forever. I'm guessing that there would be a Palistinian state, diplomatically speaking, instantly.

What would happen if the Israelis announced that no matter what the Palestinians did, no Jew would fight them again? How long before the last Jew would be killed? A week?

What's evident to anyone with a sense of history is how commonplace, at least in the 20th century, the plight of the Palestinians is. Any number of peoples have been dealt with as badly or worse. Somehow those situations get dealt with and resolved. But those poor bastards are the bloody shirt employed by moneyed psychopaths, kleptocrats and tyrants and have been induced to providing the blood year after year, generation after generation while their puppetmaster get rich. What the hell.  

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