Friday, May 18, 2007

The GOP debate: The press missed a gaffe 

In the live-blogging of Tuesday night's Republican Presidential Debate I wrote that Mitt Romney had committed the gaffe of the night with a confused charge that the various species of Islamic radical had "come together" in the war against the United States. I wrote:

This is both wrong and shallow, and I desperately hope Romney does not mean what he says. If there is one thing we need in our national security it is nuance.

The live-blog was by its nature hurried, but now we have a transcript of Romney's comment. Much of what he said was fair and reasonable, but at its center was an assertion (in bold) that I hope Romney does not actually believe:
It is critical for us to remember that Iraq has to be considered in the context of what's happening in the Middle East and throughout the world. There is a global jihadist effort. Violent, radical jihadists want to replace all the governments of the moderate Islamic states, replace them with a caliphate. And to do that, they also want to bring down the West, in particular us.

And they've come together as Shi'a and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda with that intent. We have to recognize that what we're doing in Iraq has enormous impact on what's going to happen in this global struggle, and that's why it's important for us to understand that if we were to just walk out precipitously, we could conceivably see the border with Turkey be destabilized by virtue of the Kurdish effort, we could have the Iranians take over the Shi'a south, and perhaps most frightening, you could have al Qaeda play a dominant role among the Sunnis and then have a setting where you'd have something far worse than Afghanistan on their hands.

Now, regular readers know that I see all sorts of threats in radical Islamism. I also believe that it is foolish to argue, as many on the internationalist left have, that Iranian revolutionaries and Sunni jihadists will under no circumstances cooperate against the United States because of their historical enmity for each other. Even the 911 Commission recognized that the Khobar Towers attack was probably a joint venture between Hezbollah and al Qaeda. There is, however, a vast gulf between acknowledging that enemies will occasionally band together against an even greater enemy -- as the United States and the Soviet Union did during World War II -- and saying that "Shi'a and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda" have "come together" with the goal of establishing a unified Islamic state and bringing down the West. If Iraq proves anything, it is that Sunnis and Shiite radicals will start killing each other long before they have accomplished even their first victory against the United States.

If Romney actually meant what he said -- and I definitely allow for the possibility that he was just up there spewing whatever nonsense he thought would win applause from South Carolina Republicans -- then it raises several problems.

First, he does not know the first damned thing about the most complex geopolitical struggle since the height of the Cold War and perhaps the summer of 1914. One of our ambitions should be to make sure that all these various radical Islamic groups spend as much time as possible killing each other rather than us. If we do not understand their ancient raging hatreds, that important objective will be much more difficult to accomplish.

Second, as disgusting as all of these various groups are, they are not equally transnational. The Muslim Brotherhood in its current incarnation is not nearly the same threat to the United States as al Qaeda. Sure, it is Islamist and anti-Americanism runs in its blood, but if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt it would not in all likelihood try to leverage that into attacks against the American homeland. Al Qaeda would. Failing to recognize these unsubtle distinctions is like not seeing that Josip Broz Tito, while a commie and a brutal man, was importantly different from Fidel Castro or Joseph Stalin. We can't fight everybody at once, and just as taking on Tito would have been wasteful and stupid, so would be demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood. At least until al Qaeda is stashed away in a tiny little lockbox.

Third, Romney's eruption is counterproductive threat inflation, useful only to extract applause from a room full of hawks. Otherwise, it is dangerous. Yes, Islamic radicalism is a grave threat, but it manifests in different ways against different targets. If we do not understand that we will craft the wrong policies for confronting it. In 1970, it would have been silly and dangerous to talk about Communism as a single unified threat -- silly because it would have been untrue and dangerous because it would have driven us into bad policies. By now we should know that radical Islamism is not one entity that has "come together" against the United States. And it won't in the future, either, unless we persuade these various groups that we are treating them all alike anyway.

Finally, if Romney climbs further out on this limb it would actually constrain him if he becomes president. If he campaigns by demonizing all Islamic radicals equally, how will he explain policies that call for playing our adversaries against each other?

We need more nuance in our public discussion of radical Islam, not less. Here's to hoping that Romney clears this up the next time.


By Blogger Tom the Redhunter, at Fri May 18, 08:32:00 AM:

The media missed it because they do not understand the threat themselves.
Most of them see the WOT as simply being a fight between us and one organization, al Qaeda.

However, as Walid Phares makes clear in "Future Jihad", there are three types of jihadists out there: the Wahabbists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Khumeinists. al Qaeda is neo-Wahabbist so they're in the first camp.

While the Wahabbists and MB sometimes cooperate, you are right that they are quite separate, and each pursues a different strategy towards the same goal; the resurection of the Caliphate. The Whabbists seek to infiltriate Western societies and take them over, the MB seeks to infiltrate Middle Eastern ones and take them over (Sudan is one country they control).

The only difference between the Wahabbists of the KSA and al Qaeda is timing; the Wahabbists want to infiltrate more before going the terrorist route, while al Qaeda wants violence now.

The Salafists (Wahabbists and MB) both of course hate the Khumenists, who want to establish a regional Shia Imamate.

It's hard to say whether Romney was just speaking loosely (remember Gerald Ford's comment about Poland in his 1976 debate w/Carter?) or whether he is truely ignorant of the situation.

Unfortunately it's probably the latter. From what I hear and read most of these politicians barely know a Sunnia from a Shiite, much less what a Salafist is.  

By Blogger Jason Pappas, at Fri May 18, 08:40:00 AM:

Yes, the enemy isn't monolithic and it would be a grave mistake to fail to exploit their internecine conflicts. I have little confidence that any candidate has a grasp of the culture of the Middle East and wider Islamic world, both shared attributes and the vast differences. Seeing that it was decades after the Russian Revolution until we understood communism, I suspect we have a long road with painful detours before we have leadership that can see the problem without either exaggeration or denial. Now if they hired you as a consultant ...  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Fri May 18, 09:04:00 AM:

...or whether he is truely ignorant of the situation...

When dealing with politicians, a presumption of ignorance is usually a safe bet.

The good thing about these clowns is that for the most part they DON'T come together too much in any manner other than rhetorical.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri May 18, 01:33:00 PM:

I think you are reading WAY to much into Romney's "Come together" comment. I think he meant 1) There are numerous Jahadi Groups that hate the United States. 2) They will Band together to attack US/Western interests.

I highly doubt Romney thinks all these groups are working towards the same Caliphate. Give the guy some credit.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri May 18, 01:40:00 PM:

I actually like Romney. I'm just reading the words he spoke in the context he spoke them. As I said, he may have just blabbing, which certainly happens when politicians get into debates. The question is, did he mean what he said, or not? Of course I'd prefer it if he didn't mean what the transcript says. If he did mean it, though, I think he is both generally wrong and speaking about the various threats we face with a deplorable lack of nuance. Sorry.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri May 18, 03:05:00 PM:

Lack of nuance? Maybe he was brainwashed!
See George Romney, circa 1967.

Yeah, brainwashed, that's the ticket.


By Blogger Unknown, at Fri May 18, 04:05:00 PM:


By Blogger Papa Ray, at Fri May 18, 08:50:00 PM:

"...with the goal of establishing a unified Islamic state and bringing down the West."

Well, every radical Islamic (whatever) is bound by the Qur'an, and "The Book" states that the goal of Islam is to be the dominate force and religion in the world, and the rest of us have to be their slaves and pay their taxes or if we don't want to... for them just to kill us. (they get to rape our women first)

So he is not that far off the map. I would rather he overstate the goals of the Islamics than to understate them.

It don't matter anyway, the Mexican and South American illegals are going to be running the country long before the Islamics have a chance to take over.

Everybody knows how the Latinos feel about their religion, so they are not going to knuckle under to Islam or the Islamics.

They will save us gringos.

Papa Ray
West Texas

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat May 19, 05:31:00 AM:

I think Romney is right. In his opening comment he has identified global "jihadists" as the problem, and correctly stated (by way of example) that jihadists come from those groups he mentioned.

To not aggregate those somewhat disparate groups is to fall into the CIA and Liberal trap that such groups can never co-operate against a joint enemy.
Even enemy rivalry is critical, eg, al Sadr relies implicitly on al Qaeda to kill Shia to maintain his retaliatory army and power base.

By specifying "jihadists", Romney absolves the average Muslim from his (Romneys( concerns (and theirs) and by nominating a wide group of jihadists he retains his independence in dealing with, or playing off one group against the other.

In his own way, Bush has succeeded in fractionating the previously amorphous "Muslim" world into various groups of thugs, and Romney has aggregated the thugs into one group. Part of the winning of the WoT is this ability to segregate and aggregate these people for strategic and tactical reasons as seems necessary.


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