Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 23, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING TERRORISM....PART 1....I got into a minor skirmish with my friend Armed Liberal a few weeks ago that ended up producing this post over at Winds of Change in which he listed six ideas about the war on terrorism that he thought Democrats ought to support. They mostly looked fine to me, which caused me to wonder if we really disagreed with each other at all.

A bunch of emails later, we agreed to find out by expanding on each of the six items in a cross-blog discussion. Will it be really boring, as AL explains each of his points and I just nod my head and say "Sounds good to me"? Or will we find something really meaty to argue about? It's time to find out.

Here's point #1:

We're not going anywhere in Afghanistan or Iraq until we're done. Afghanistan will not turn into Vermont any time soon, but we will make sure that the power of the warlords is checked, and that it doesn't collapse again. Iraq could be the leader of the Middle east, and we intend to help build it into that.

And here is AL's expanded version. If you're interested in following this, go ahead and read it and then come back.

(Dum de dum....)

Now, if I understand his post correctly, his main argument isn't so much that Iraq and Afghanistan are important per se, but rather that they're important symbols of our willingness to continue the broader war against terrorism for as long as it takes:

The way to win is simply to sit on them and make it clear that you will sit on them until they have really and truly given up until their will is broken to yours.

....By taking this position, by making it clear that we will stay as long at it takes, spend the treasure and blood required to break the wave of Islamist rage, in my view we will reduce the amount of actual violence we will ultimately have to impose.

So: if we leave Iraq, we're admitting to the terrorists that hitting us hard will get rid of us. In the end, this just encourages more terrorism since we've shown them that it can be successful.

Regardless of how it sounds to liberal ears, this is a compelling argument. But let's take a look at a few counterarguments:

  • Iraq is tangential to the war on terror. In fact, putting an enormous American army in the center of the Arab world will do nothing except spur on the terrorists and earn the enmity of the general population. If we want to make sure the terrorists know we're serious, we should be fighting them, not a bunch of Ba'ath nationalists.

  • We can't win. Max Sawicky makes the canonical version of this argument here, and it's worth listening to. Regardless of anything else, if victory truly isn't possible then we should just get out.

  • This is the wrong fight. Fighting al-Qaeda style terrorists with a conventional army is suicidal. We need to get out of Iraq and put together a genuine counter-terrorism force.

Although as we'll see I agree with AL's conclusions about staying in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's enough truth in all of these arguments to make me disagree with his reasons. The problem is that while sticking around in order to send a message seems like a sound show of resolve, the sad fact is that it usually accomplishes little except convincing the other guy that he needs to show more resolve too as the French in Algeria or the Israelis in the West Bank can attest.

This is not the way to win wars. As AL acknowledges, symbolic shows of resolve won't deter al-Qaeda they are, after all, fanatics and they also won't retain the support of the American public, which is generally smart enough to distinguish between symbolic actions and those that are genuinely critical to American security.

No, the way to win wars is to fight the right battles and avoid the wrong ones, and this sometimes means acknowledging an error and moving the fight elsewhere a tactic that may be less satisfying than a display of Alamo-style grit, but also one that's a lot more likely to end in victory. So while I don't entirely share Max's pessimism about our ability to win in Iraq, I do agree that Iraq is tangential to the war on terrorism and is quite likely the wrong fight. Getting out might be taken as a symbol of weakness by some, but in reality it would make us stronger by allowing us to redeploy our resources where they really belong and where they can make a real difference.

Having said all that, however, I think it's right to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan anyway. This is partly because I think we owe it to them we did invade their countries, after all and partly because I think it's possible for us to make a positive difference there. As AL says, we won't turn them into Vermont, but perhaps we can nudge them toward something better than they were before, which is both good for them and good for us.

So: yes, stay in Iraq and Afghanistan. But: do it with our eyes open and with the right goals in mind. When it comes to fighting terrorists, military force is a pretty good option, but when it comes to promoting liberal culture in foreign lands it's not. That's a lesson we need to keep our eyes on.

Kevin Drum 10:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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