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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Al Qaeda in Yenemsvelt

posted by on July 10 at 11:16 AM

Yenemsvelt is Yiddish for nowheresville.

The Right needs Al Qaeda to be an ominous threat to justify Bush’s combat-heavy foreign policy. The Left needs Al Qaeda to be an ominous threat to proclaim that Bush has failed.

They’re both wrong. Despite the scary Afghanistan 2000/Western Pakistan 2008 analogy, Al Qeada is on the run, sequestered in the hinterlands of Pakistan while the rest of that country just voted for the secular Pakistan People’s Party to take the majority position in parliament.

Al Qaeda’s set up in nowheresville is a metaphor. Remember: The Viet Cong had massive urban support (hello Tet offfensive), while Al Qaeda throws tantrums—suicide bombings—from the hinterlands.

I’m trying to say this: Let’s stop fetishizing Al Qaeda to the point where it’s sucking up billions of dollars and pushing us—the Left—to launch an attack on Pakistan. We need to think more about containment (and Al Qaeda’s making that choice easier for us by sequestering themselves in southern Somalia and Western Pakistan) while we delegitimize them with political and financial support for the democratic alternatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan—places that are already weary of and intimidated by Taliban-style operations.

I’m stealing all of this. There’s a great mind-shifting essay in Newsweek which belittles Bush’s eight years of hot war thinking as the problem (although does give him credit for derailing Al Qaeda through the more conventional counterterrorism-style maneuvers) and should serve to ward the Left away from its now-fashionable chest-beating anti-Qaeda belligerence.

From the lead:

It is by now overwhelmingly clear that Al Qaeda and its philosophy are not the worldwide leviathan that they were once portrayed to be. Both have been losing support over the last seven years. The terrorist organization’s ability to plan large-scale operations has crumbled, their funding streams are smaller and more closely tracked. Of course, small groups of people can still cause great havoc, but is this movement an “existential threat” to the United States or the Western world? No, because it is fundamentally weak. Al Qaeda and its ilk comprise a few thousand jihadists, with no country as a base, almost no territory and limited funds. Most crucially, they lack an ideology that has mass appeal. They are fighting not just America but the vast majority of the Muslim world. In fact, they are fighting modernity itself.

In fact, the article is worth quoting at length. I’ve done so below the jump.

These writings never really changed the debate because they fell into a political vacuum. The right wanted to argue that we lived in scary times and that this justified the aggressive unilateralism of George W. Bush. And the left was wedded to the idea that Bush had screwed everything up and created a frighteningly dangerous world in which the ranks of jihadists had grown. But these days, the director of the CIA himself has testified that Al Qaeda is on the ropes. The journalist Peter Bergen, who in 2007 wrote a cover essay in The New Republic titled “The Return of Al Qaeda,” recently wrote another cover essay, “The Unraveling,” about the group’s decline. The neoconservative Weekly Standard finally recognizes that “the enemy,” as it likes to say ominously, is much weaker now, but quickly notes that Bush deserves all the credit. Terrorism is down in virtually every country, including ones that took a much less militaristic approach to the struggle. (Ironically, the two countries where terrorism persists and in some cases has grown as a threat are Iraq and Afghanistan.)

The administration does deserve some credit for its counterterrorism activities. The combined efforts of most governments since 9/11—busting cells in Europe and Asia, tracking money, hunting down jihadist groups—have been extremely effective. But how you see the world determines how you will respond, and the administration has greatly inflated the threat, casting it as an existential and imminent danger. As a result, we’ve massively overreacted. Bush and his circle have conceived of the problem as military and urgent when it’s more of a long-term political and cultural problem. The massive expansion of the military budget, the unilateral rush to war in Iraq, the creation of the cumbersome Department of Homeland Security, the new restrictions on visas and travel can all be chalked up to this sense that we are at war. No cost-benefit analysis has been done. John Mueller points out that in response to a total of five deaths from anthrax, the U.S. government has spent $5 billion on new security procedures.

Of course, this is actually what Osama bin Laden hoped for. Despite his current weakness, he has always been an extremely shrewd strategist. In explaining the goal of the 9/11 attacks, he pointed out that they inflicted about $500 billion worth of damage to the American economy and yet cost only $500,000. He was describing an LTA, a leveraged terrorist attack. But by the same token, the 9/11 attacks caused an economic swoon because of their scope, and because they were the first of their kind. Since then, each successive terrorist attack—in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Britain—has had a much smaller effect on the world economy.

We are in a struggle against Islamic extremism, but it is more like the cold war than a hot war—a long, mostly peacetime challenge in which a leader must be willing to use military power but also know when not to do so. Perhaps the wisest American president during the cold war was Dwight Eisenhower, and his greatest virtues were those of balance, judgment and restraint. He knew we were in a contest with the Soviet Union, but—at a time when the rest of the country was vastly inflating the threat—he put it in considerable perspective. Eisenhower refused to follow the French into Vietnam or support the British at Suez. He turned down several requests for new weapons systems and missiles, and instead used defense dollars to build the interstate highway system and make other investments in improving America’s economic competitiveness. Those are the kinds of challenges that the next president truly needs to address.

RSS icon Comments


The Left? or Obama's hawkish foreign policy advisors?

(Don't bring up the tired "Hillary would be worse/the same!", she's not the nominee. As Barry would say, Get Over It.)

Posted by ae | July 10, 2008 11:37 AM

@1 dude, you are waaayyy off topic.

Posted by blank12357 | July 10, 2008 11:58 AM

"The Left needs Al Qaeda to be an ominous threat to proclaim that Bush has failed."

Wrong. The left should want the US to stop occupying other countries, and to shift our permanent war economy into a peace economy. It benefits from Al Queda not being a threat.

Posted by Trevor | July 10, 2008 12:55 PM

The real reason Al Q is not a major threat is because they've worn out their welcome with their fellow Arabs and other Muslims. They're under increasing philosophical attack from their former jihadi supporters (see the New Yorker article last month), and they've thoroughly pissed off even their most sympathetic supporters in places like Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Everyone knows that their sudden infatuation with the Palestinian cause is pure opportunism. Jihadis everywhere are starting to realize what a loser their tactics have been; as one guy in that article said, "I we hadn't assassinated Sadat there would be a Palestinian state today".

Posted by Fnarf | July 10, 2008 1:36 PM

Violence appears to manifest in all socities undergoing large cultural shifts. It's happened here as well; the sixties being a good example. The Arab world is going through intense change brought about by technology and globalisation. Add to that the Gulf war in the 90's and the rush of American influence that followed and you have a recipe for violence. It is the only way some have to express their resistance especially when it can't be expressed through democracy. That's the way I see it anyway. Time will quell the upheavel. If bombing innocent civilians is their answer, they're doomed to fail anyway.

Posted by Vince | July 10, 2008 2:01 PM

Yenemsvelt? Isn't that in Skamania?!?


Posted by NapoleonXIV | July 10, 2008 2:15 PM

Sorry for the allcaps, by the way.

I was shouting.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | July 10, 2008 2:17 PM

News flash: More than 90 percent of al-Qaeda's support - in real terms of MONEY and VOLUNTEERS is from one country and one country only - Saudi Arabia.

Get the nation off of oil and they die on the vine.


Posted by Will in Seattle | July 10, 2008 2:18 PM

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