Tuesday, June 22, 2004

According to the Guardian, a "senior US intelligence official" is about to publish a book that amounts to a "bitter condemnation of America's counter-terrorism policy, arguing that the west is losing the war against al-Qaida and that an 'avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked' war in Iraq has played into Osama bin Laden's hands." Spencer Ackerman has apparently interviewed the book's anonymous author, giving a fairly detailed picture of his view of the war on terror. (NBC's Andrea Mitchell has also interviewed him.)

All in all, the position taken by "Anonymous" is not a surprising one for a foreign policy bureaucrat to take. It is, however, surprising coming from an American foreign policy bureaucrat. For his words perfectly encapsulate the worldview that has dominated European foreign policy thinking for decades. It is a worldview, in particular, that will be strikingly familiar to any student of a certain British statesman, circa 1938.

Consider his characterization of Al Qaida: the enemy are extremely angry, and not entirely without justification. ("Bin Laden's critique presents in resonant Islamic terminology a coherent jihadist explanation for practically everything Muslims can find offensive about the U.S.") Confronting the enemy would entail unspeakable bloodshed on the most massive scale imaginable. ("To secure as much of our way of life as possible, we will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific islands, and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden....this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America's only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.") Fortunately, the enemy's grievances are limited and regional. ("U.S. support for Israel that keeps the Palestinians in the Israelis' thrall; U.S. and other Western troops on the Arabian peninsula; U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; U.S. support for Russia, India and China against their Muslim militants; U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low; U.S. support for apostate, corrupt and tyrannical Muslim governments.") We can therefore avoid confrontation--and the resulting horrific carnage--by acceding to the enemy's demands. ("I think we should look somewhat at our relationship with Israel. Clearly we need an energy policy, not just in the United States but in the West, that makes us less dependent on oil out of the Gulf. For myself, I can't figure out what American interest we would have in Saudi Arabia if it wasn't for oil.") Then they will happily return to butchering their minorities and leave us alone. ("If they all killed each other to their heart's content, it wouldn't affect America at all.")

Now, it should be noted that despite its most famous calamitous failure, appeasement--as characterized by the above list of principles--isn't an obviously foolish strategy in every instance. As applied to Europe's rebellious colonies, for example, it provided a fairly apt justification for a war-weary continent to disengage from its troublesome overseas possessions--a policy which had plenty to recommend it at the time, and even in retrospect can claim at least one spectacular success (India) and many positive results for postcolonial Europe (if not always for the populations of the former colonies themselves). Clearly, appeasement's costs and benefits must be evaluated for each case independently.

How well, then, does European-style appeasement apply to America's war on terror? Two crucial incompatibilities leap to mind. First of all, the radical Islamists' goals--however limited they may have been at the start--are clearly no longer merely regional. Their rhetoric, their global reach, their choice of targets--all point to a movement dedicated to attacking "infidels" wherever they may be found, not merely in the Middle East. (Indeed, pace "Anonymous", Al Qaida has shown remarkably little interest in Israel for a supposedly regionally-focused organization.)

Even more jarring, though, is Anonymous' assertion that apocalyptic levels of violence will be necessary to crush Al Qaida. ("They've ridden out two wars. They're on the offensive at the moment. What are we left with? If we don't use our military power, we really just sit and take it.") His claim that the war in Afghanistan was a complete failure demonstrates the absurdity of this view: "[soon] you're going to have a government back in Kabul that looks like the Taliban, perhaps under a different name." Perhaps, but the last Taliban government crumbled completely in a couple of months at the hands of a ragtag rebel army, assisted by a few well-placed American smart bombs and special forces ops.

And that's the real weakness of the appeasers' claim that America's military prospects are hopeless: Al Qaida is not Nazi Germany, with a formidable modern army poised to conquer Europe. It's not even Iraq under Saddam Hussein, with a large-but-decrepit army and rumored caches of chemical and biological weapons. It's a terrorist organization with no territory of its own, hiding out among allies in a few regions where at least some of the locals are friendly. Such groups make enemies as easily as they make friends, and America only has to help those enemies enough to keep the balance of power firmly weighted on America's side.

Afghanistan has already fallen; Pakistan appears to have been won over, after a couple of failed assassination attempts clarified the Pakistani president's thinking somewhat; and Saudi Arabia's royal family now has ample reason to respond to Al Qaida's threat to its own hold on power. However chaotic Iraq may be right now, there will doubtless be plenty of Shiites and Kurds eager to accept American help in subduing al Qaida-allied Sunnis, the descendants of Saddam's murderous henchmen. Where, then, will the terrorists go? Syria? Iran? Dangerous enemies to be sure--but again, regimes that are not exactly world powers, and not without regional (and even domestic) adversaries of their own. If this is the threat of which "Anonymous" speaks, then one can only imagine how frightened he must have been of Saddam Hussein, who now inhabits an American-run prison. Rank timidity and abject capitulation in the face of any threat of violence may seem like a perfectly reasonable prescription for toothless Europeans, but it's strange advice to offer to a well-armed, assertive America. I'm afraid Anonymous has wasted his career on the wrong continent.

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