Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A liberal war on terror

Peter Beinart's recent piece in The New Republic raises a reasonable problem: Why haven't liberals gotten behind the war on terror, given that most terrorists' political and religious beliefs are diametrically opposed to progressive values?

Good question. And the answer is contained within it, to wit: Liberals have not supported the current war on terror precisely because it does not confront the real nature of the terrorist threat.

Liberals, I believe, would enthusiastically support a "war on terror" that recognized its broad nature, its root sources in radical fundamentalism, and its asymmetrical shape, and responded appropriately. Unfortunately, the DLC-style leadership we've been getting from atop the Democratic party, cheered on by folks like Beinart, has been too timid to articulate that kind of vision.

In the meantime, it should not surprise anyone that liberals are unenthusiastic about the Bush administration's substitute: warmed-over Cold War strategies combined with a megalomaniacal vision of American global hegemony. Moreover, its "war on terror," as I've argued frequently, is manifestly a political public-relations campaign that does not take any serious steps at actually confronting terrorism. We know this isn't a real war on terror because we still haven't caught either Osama bin Laden or the anthrax killer -- and don't show any signs of doing so soon. We know this administration isn't serious about terrorism precisely because we are now spending the bulk of our national energy fighting a war in Iraq that made the likelihood of future terrorist attacks exponentially greater.

Beinart starts out reasonably enough:
On health care, gay rights, and the environment, there is a positive vision, articulated with passion. But there is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda--even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom.

Note, however, the way that Beinart describes the "war on terror" -- that is, as "the struggle against Al Qaeda" and "totalitarian Islam". Nowhere is there a mention, in his discussion of terrorism, of the anthrax killer or Oklahoma City. Nowhere does he evince any awareness that right-wing domestic extremists pose a similarly potent threat to American lives and the national well-being, having committed the second-most lethal terrorist attack on American soil and by far the largest number of terrorist acts within our borders. This blind spot pervades Beinart's essay, but it is only part of what is wrong with it.

Indeed, Beinart veers off into the ditch in short order by getting to the heart of his essay: identifying liberals' antiwar faction as the source of their problem, and urging the marginalization of this bloc.
The challenge for Democrats today is not to find a different kind of presidential candidate. It is to transform the party at its grassroots so that a different kind of presidential candidate can emerge. That means abandoning the unity-at-all-costs ethos that governed American liberalism in 2004. And it requires a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace. In the party today, two such heirs loom largest: Michael Moore and MoveOn.

This is a peculiar formula. Of course, if the Democrats have any grassroots strength now, it is associated with the MoveOn and Howard Dean factions (and mentioning Michael Moore is just silly, since he is a nonentity organizationally speaking). How exactly does he intend to transform the party at its grassroots by excising the people who are its grassroots? If we jettison these folks, as he's suggesting, who do we replace them with? This sounds like a classic formula for self-evisceration.

More to the point, why exactly should we drive out the faction that proved, in fact, to be right about the Iraq war? Perhaps so people like Beinart won't have to be constantly reminded reminded just how wrong they were?

MoveOn.org has never indicated anything but support for combating terrorism, and particularly for hunting down bin Laden. What the grassroots antiwar factions objected to was a willy-nilly invasion of another country without adequate assessment in the case of Afghanistan, and in the case of Iraq, the unwarranted invasion of another country, one only marginally associated with terrorism and unconnected to 9/11, under false pretenses and without a well-planned exit strategy. And you know what? They were right in most cases.

Very few mainstream progressives opposed the Afghanistan invasion on principle; many questioned its necessity and its planning and execution, questions that remain legitimate in light of the outcome there, with bin Laden and Al Qaeda still at large and the Taliban still a political force. But generally speaking, liberal opposition was very muted and generally limited to the factions that oppose war in any form.

Iraq, however, was a wholly different matter. Many mainstream liberals immediately questioned the rationale for invading Iraq (as well as some mainstream conservatives conservatives who made similar cases) -- and were pooh-poohed by the New Republic crew as a bunch of peaceniks. Then as now, the essence of their attacks on the antiwar factions boiled down to image over substance.

I had some specific experience in this area. I was one of the first journalists to ask whether Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and based much of my early reportage on interviews with people like James Woolsey and Laurie Mylroie, who it turned out were also the people directly influencing the White House as well. But the more time I spent on the matter, the more clear it became that the case connecting Saddam to 9/11 was utterly ephemeral, as I explained in one of my first posts at this blog. Even later, it was proven beyond a doubt that Mylroie had been selling everyone a bill of goods.

As the Bush administration had made it clear it intended to invade Iraq, it seemed simultaneously clear that it simply had failed to make any kind of valid case for doing so. And many of us said so.

There were five major substantive objections to the invasion of Iraq:

-- Its rationale was predicated on questionable assertions about the presence of weapons of mass destruction.

-- It seemed similarly predicated on an assumption that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

-- There seemed to be little or no planning for the post-invasion environment, particularly an extended occupation.

-- It would destabilize Iraq, creating an environment ripe for inviting fresh terrorist activity.

-- And most of all, as I pointed out at the time, it would seriously dilute our ability to actually fight the war on terror.

Looking back, all five of these objections were not only well grounded, they proved prophetic. All five are now the essence of what has gone wrong with the invasion.

But those of us looking for liberals to lead the charge in giving voice to these objections found no one -- particularly not the TNR and DLC crowds -- to provide that leadership. So they allied themselves, naturally, with the antiwar progressives who were already geared up in opposition.

As Atrios suggests, the blame lies not with grassroots organizers like MoveOn and Howard Dean, but the Democratic Party leadership. At a time when thoughtful liberals needed someone from the top to step up and oppose the war, they were ignored instead by the John Kerrys and Hillary Clintons who opted to give Bush the green light.

Things haven't gotten any better since. None of the Democratic candidates were able to articulate a cogent approach to the war on terror, particularly not John Kerry. Part of the problem is that the mainstream, pro-defense Democrats have proven to be as hidebound in their thinking as the antiwar folks like Moore and MoveOn, only on opposite sides of the aisle. Neither side seems ready to step outside the box.

The key to winning any war, whether amorphous, cold, or real, is contingent on one's ability to objectively assess the facts on the ground. When your assessments are constantly twisted by politics, ideology, and public relations, you lose that ability. The Bush "war on terror" is doomed to fail because it has made itself ideologically incapable of recognizing the real nature of terrorism itself.

The result has been a "war on terror" that is recognizably a sham. Kevin Drum has noticed some of this as well:
-- The Republican party has made it as clear as it possibly can that the war on terror is not vital enough to require either bipartisan support or the support of the rest of the world. They've treated it more like a garden variety electoral wedge issue than a world historical struggle.

-- Things like Tom Ridge's sales pitch for duct tape, along with the transparently political color coded terror levels, have made the war on terror fodder for late night TV. It's entirely predictable that anyone who was even a bit skeptical in 2002 now views the war as trivial at best, and comical or Machiavellian at worst.

It's arguable that liberals are foolish to let all this prevent them from seeing the totalitarian danger for what it is. But it's hardly surprising. The fact is that compared to fascism and communism, Islamic totalitarianism seems like pretty thin beer to many. It's not fundamentally expansionist, and its power to kill people isn't even remotely in the same league.

Bottom line: I think the majority of liberals could probably be persuaded to take a harder line on the war on terror -- although it's worth emphasizing that the liberal response is always going to be different from the conservative one, just as containment was a different response to the Cold War than outright war. But first someone has to make a compelling case that the danger is truly overwhelming. So far, no one on the left has really done that.

I don't think, though, that the threat needs to be overwhelming for it to be compelling. There are many reasons liberals should be in the front lines fighting the war on terrorism, a few of which Beinart points out, and some of which he misses. The problem is that the war we're currently fighting has little or nothing to do with terrorism, other than making it more likely.

The liberal response can't just be different: It has to be effective. It has be based on a rational consideration of the facts on the ground and must jettison ideological blinkers of all kinds. Most of all, it has to take a realistic measure of the actual nature of terrorism.

The first recognition has to be that terrorism is an asymmetrical threat: that is, unlike conflicts between nations, it involves an attack by a small entity (perhaps only a handful of people) against a large nation. Likewise, the danger terrorist acts represent are outsized compared to the scale of the organization undertaking them.

The essence of terrorism is undermining citizens' sense of security, their belief that their government is capable of protecting them adequately. As P. Terrence Hopmann explains:
Asymmetrical conflict succeeds by playing on such fears. Terrorism strikes at innocent civilians going about their daily lives. It also flourishes on flexibility and uncertainty. The terrorist has the advantage of choosing the time, place, and means of attack. The targets are mostly symbolic, chosen for maximum psychological impact. The goal is to disrupt the lives of all. In fact, the capacity to instill in ordinary people the fear that they can be attacked anytime and anywhere, while doing just about anything, is the most important weapon terrorists have.

It's important to remember that such threats cannot be dealt with by ordinary military means. Of course, those who commit such horrendous acts of terrorism as those carried out on September 11 must be found and brought to justice, one way or another. But the classic riposte of retaliation against the homeland of the aggressor may not only be meaningless, it may be dangerous, creating additional terrorists who are even more dedicated and self-sacrificing than those who went before. And as long as the terrorists continue to find fertile soil on which to operate anywhere in the world, they will be able to survive, to react flexibly to circumvent whatever security measures the United States and other countries put in place, and to find new means to deliver terror at times and places of their own choosing.

The Bush administration has dealt with terrorism in a classic symmetrical response, sending the military out into action against other nations. But terrorism is not state-based; it floats about the fringes of whatever places it finds a foothold under the various circumstances that inspire it. This is pretty much everywhere, including the United States.

Any serious war on terrorism will take domestic terrorists just as seriously as it does those from abroad. One need search no further than the anthrax attacks for an example of how terrorist attacks, both internation and domestic in origin, can piggyback off each other in attaining their goals. Differentiating them in terms of threat assessment only leaves us vulnerable to attack from the faction that is deemed the lesser.

This in turn entails a serious assessment of domestic-terror threats. The Bush administration has deemed eco-terrorism the most significant source of domestic terror -- a clear skewing of priorities, considering that eco-terrorists have to date only committed property crimes, while fundamentalist right-wing terrorists have a long and bloody history of killing people, and have shown little inclination to stop this. (At the same time, mainstream liberals need to take eco-terrorists seriously, which they often do not; the fact remains that not only are these people committing acts of violence, their attacks on scientific research are every bit as regressive as any Bible-thumper's attempts to impose creationism on local schools).

Short of simply trying to rub out anyone who might be deemed a terrorist -- the Bush Doctrine approach -- it's clear that any effective war on terrorism has to be predicated around enhancing our intelligence-gathering capacities. The central component of this has entail our capacity to infiltrate radical groups with the potential to commit terrorist acts. As we saw in the 1995-2000 period, this approach was phenomenally successful in short-circuiting a large number of domestic terrorist attacks.

Some preventative measures are also fairly obvious from the asymmetrical nature of the threat. One of these is a real tightening of our borders and particularly our ports, which remain vulnerable to a scenario under which terrorists place bombs in an uninspected container.

Next, there has to be an understanding of what is fueling terrorism. The Center for Proliferation Studies describes the identifying features of modern terrorists, particularly when it comes to wielding chemical and biological weapons:
The six characteristics we identified are: charismatic leadership, no external constituency, apocalyptic ideology, loner or splinter group, a sense of paranoia and grandiosity, and defense aggression. Of these six characteristics, the two that were present in all of the cases of actual CBW use warrant thorough examination: no outside constituency and a sense of paranoia and grandiosity.

Over the past 15 years and more, the great generator of terrorist acts around the world has been the phenomenon that embodies the commingling of all these traits: radical religious fundamentalism. The forms this takes range from the right-wing domestic terrorists of the Patriot movement to the Al Qaeda fanatics who struck on 9/11. (A variant on this is Tim McVeigh, who was closer to a neo-Nazi than a fundamentalist; but he clearly shared their apocalyptic worldview and urge to defend "traditional" values.) All of them have one key trait in common: an abiding hatred of modernity and progressive values.

So progressives indeed have a clear and compelling interest in opposing terrorism. Central to their support, indeed, is confronting the core of what is driving the phenomenon. The left naturally will readily confront radical fundamentalism, as long as it's made clear that's what we're dealing with.

What's been missing, however, is either a recognition or at least acknowledgement of this aspect of the problem from the right and its toadies on the left. Since American fundamentalism is primarily associated with the mainstream right, it probably shouldn't surprise anyone that the Bush administration has assiduously refused to frame the modern terrorist threat (including, notably, Al Qaeda) as primarily a right-wing phenomenon -- even though that is clearly what it is. And the ever-timid "moderate" leadership of the Democratic Party has been too polite to point it out.

Beinart, indeed, attacks the antiwar left as "the softs" who, like their counterparts of the early 1950s, tended to see the only potential threat to America as emanating from the right, blinding itself to communism. What he ignores, though, is the fact that Al Qaeda-style terrorism is in fact a radical right-wing movement. This is part of the reason why the "Islamofascism" label, while not entirely accurate in terms of what constitutes fascism, is nonetheless substantially close to the truth.

Beinart and Drum are right in pointing out that progressives have done a poor job of articulating a vision for a progressive war on terrorism. But blaming antiwar liberals is a convenient way of scapegoating the bloc that so far has been right in this whole debacle. The problem has been an utter lack of vision from the current Democratic leadership, and progressive leadership generally, including folks like Beinart, Drum, and the TNR. They have bought too readily into the right-wing paradigm of what a war on terror should be about.

They've also bought into the right-wing paradigm of what's wrong with liberalism: namely, the antiwar left. This is self-serving not just for those on the right but for the liberal hawks who now seem too chagrined to acknowledge that they were wrong and -- gulp -- Michael Moore was right.

Kevin Drum put the hypocrisy inherent in this position on display the other day responding to Atrios:
And evading the issue by constantly implying that no one who supported the Iraq war is morally qualified to criticize those who opposed it doesn't really help matters.

This has it exactly backwards. No one is saying the Beinarts and Drums of the world don't have anything to contribute. What Beinart is explicitly saying is the reverse: That the Michael Moores and MoveOn folks have no value to the party.

So really, what doesn't help matters is evading the issue by implying the people who opposed the Iraq war -- that is, the people who were right -- not only are unqualified to contribute, but must be evicted from the ranks of liberalism. That, in fact, is the opposite of an honest conversation.

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