Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Terrorism and restraint

There's an excellent post on Kos on the topic of Terrorist Strategy 101, which uses the format of a quiz to explore Al Qaeda's strategy and possible responses to it. It views terrorism primarily as a strategy for mobilising and radicalising your own moderates, rather than as political coercion through violence or in purely military terms. And there's no doubt that this is part of the story - and part of the story with Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is widely regarded as wanting a "war of civilisations" between Islam and the west, and in order to get one he needs to concince those who currently think that they can live a happy peaceful life in a pluralistic world that no such accomodation is possible. The major thrust of the article is that, thanks to Bush, he's succeeding - because like bin Laden, Bush also wants a "war of civilisations"...

The article's greatest flaw is that it almost adopts a "secret masters" view of history; bin Laden is viewed as an evil genius with powers akin to the Illuminati, with Bush a helpless puppet dancing to his tune. While there's little doubt that Bush is playing into bin Laden's hands (he has been called "Al Qaeda's best recruiting seargeant"), this overstates things too much. I don't think bin Laden expected Bush to attack Iraq - that was stupidity beyond his wildest dreams.

As for how to defeat this strategy, there is only one answer: restraint. This does not mean ignoring terrorists or failing to pursue them; instead it means...

not respond[ing] with overwhelming force that kills the innocent and guilty alike. It is important that we husband and cultivate the moral capital that an attack will give us, not spend it all (and then some) in an over-reaching reprisal. This was the mistake Bush made in Iraq. [...]

We need to realize that we play to the same audience as Bin Laden: those Muslims trying to choose between the twin dreams of the Caliphate and of finding their own place in the world economy. Anything that persuades them that the world is open to them works in our favor. Anything that closes the door on them works for Bin Laden.

Most of all, we Americans need to keep a leash on our own radicals. They are not working in our interests any more than Bin Laden is working in the interests of ordinary Muslims. The extremists on both sides serve each other, not the people they claim to represent. The cycle of attack-and-reprisal strengthens radicals on both both sides at the expense of those in the middle who just want to live their lives.

Unfortunately, I have a nasty feeling that the restraint required is beyond Americans. And that means that we're all going to lose...