September 16, 2012
Appeasement and BlowbackBy G. Murphy Donovan
Too much honesty in military politics is kin to tinkering with an improvised explosive device. Take the recent incendiary essay, Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan, by Colonel Daniel L. Davis that appeared in the Armed Forces Journal earlier this year. The AFJ article is a summary of a longer report released to the press in January 2012. Davis claims that the US military leadership, and the administration by extension, lied to taxpayers and the troops about our progress and prospects in Afghanistan.
The Davis report deals only with Afghanistan, but events in Egypt and Libya also put the lie to any notions of Arab Spring, Jasmine Revolutions, and other pretentions of peace or democracy in the Arab world and the Middle East. American embassies are being put to the torch and the Obama administration still insists that we are not at war with Arabs or Muslims. The question now for this administration and the next is; how much is enough?
Lack of candor about war has deep historical roots. US and allied troops have been at the ready, or engaged with one "ism" or other, for a hundred years or more. First there was German revanchism, then imperial Communism, followed by National Socialism and Fascism, and then a series of lesser wars with Communist regimes in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. And today there seems to be an endless string of small wars in the Muslim world. Combat has become a kind of permanent coda for American foreign policy, where euphemism is part of the art.
Take the "war of necessity." Not as imperative today as it was yesterday -- before the last presidential election. According to Colonel Davis, America is headed for the exits in South Asia under a smoke screen of optimism; in short, the longest war in American history is being lost in slow motion.
The Davis charges may be too generous. While lying, at first glance seems to be a serious allegation; ground truth may be worse. Patraeus, now at CIA, theater commanders, the Joint Chiefs, and the State Department, may actually believe what they say to each other, to the president, and to the public.
Surely strategic illusions are more dangerous than lies. And killing Osama bin Laden may not have been a military capstone as advertised; it might just be a convenient point to declare victory and proceed with an orderly retreat. If all of this is true, delusions of success with Islamism may be more dangerous than any tactical defeat in the Afghan theater.
Nonetheless, Colonel Davis has energized a conversation that has been begging since the end of the Cold War. While America and Europe were preoccupied with Communism and the Soviets, strategic necrosis in the Muslim world flared anew.
So before stealth retreat in Afghanistan and the middle East turns into an indignity like the Russian rout of 1989, it might be useful to examine, not just the Afghan campaign, but the larger conflict with Islam; that war whose name we dare not speak, the global clash. As a cautionary tale, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the entire Soviet system were not unrelated to Russian misadventures in places like Afghanistan.
Literature on the sources of modern Muslim rage is voluminous. Schools might be divided into two untidy camps: Paradigm Alpha, a majority view and Paradigm Baker, the minority opinion. Alpha theory holds that Muslims are historical victims of colonialism, cultural imperialism, and racism. Scholars with this view would include Arnold Toynbee, Edward Said, Joseph Esposito, Sayyid Qutb, Tariq Ramadan, and Yusef Qaradawi.
Paradigm Baker argues that totalitarian governments and repressive religious dogma are the roots of Muslim pathology; in combination, leavening an irredentist Islam and stimulating terror. Typical advocates might include Elie Kedourie, Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Paul Berman, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations, a volume whose title speaks for his thesis.
At the end of the 20th Century, many scholars were anxious to celebrate the Russian defeat in Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet collapse. Indeed, Frank Fukuyama's declaration of victory over the "isms" (Nazism, Fascism, and Communism) in The End of History (1989) was quickly embraced as bedrock political science. Social democracy was thought to be the logical outcome of 20th Century military and political dialectics.
This rosy picture did not account for events like 9/11 a decade later -- or irredentism. At the time, a war weary Europe and America had little patience with yet another "ism." From the beginning, there was little interest in examining a growing political religiosity.
Thus we begin here with a definition of that "ism;" and the assumptions that underwrite what policymakers and generals appear to believe about these matters.
What is Islamism?
Partisans across the American political spectrum are reluctant to associate Islam with religious imperialism, terror, or insurgency. Indeed, such links are proscribed on White House stationary. Sponsored research underwrites the official line. How Terrorist Groups End, a RAND Corporation report, is a prominent example.
The terrorist as criminal is part of the Paradigm Alpha thesis; yet, how the West defines terror is irrelevant. For too many Muslims, the jihadist is a martyr, hero, or holy warrior. And global Muslim attitudes overwhelming support the primacy of religious law.
Speculating about terror and small wars without examining religio-political motives is a little like studying malaria without mosquitoes. If terror tactics are criminal; we might have sent Arizona sheriffs instead of US Navy SEALs to arrest, not assassinate, Osama bin Laden. Alas, RPV's and gunships are blunt instruments if the problem is simply better police work.
In spite of evasions, we must have a fairly clear definition of the threat. We must give a name to the enemy and the war. Euphemisms like "criminals," radicals, extremists, or zealots will not do.
The enemy has a name and that name is Islamist. The enemy has an ideology and that ideology is Islamism. Not all Muslims are Islamists, but just as surely bomb makers act for a vision of imperial Islam. Indeed, the meaning of Islam is literally "submission," a cognate that has personal and martial significance.
Simply stated, Islamism is a belief in theocracy. Advisory groups exist; capable of influence, but they are not legislators. Authority resides with tribal leaders, clergy, or religious scholars. Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Afghanistan (under the Taliban), are modern examples, if not models.
Assumptions about Islamism
Assumptions about militancy, imperialism to some, have been as troublesome as attempts to define the threat. When assumptions are miscast, then beliefs are flawed. Beliefs about Muslims in general seem to stand on three a priori legs:
- Israel is the root of Muslim angst,
- the vast majority of Muslims are "moderates,"
- the Islamic world is the moral equivalent of any other culture.
The belief that an Israel/Palestinian settlement is the key to pacifying Muslims has a venerable pedigree. A recent manifestation is contained in a CENTCOM survey of Arab "opinion" commissioned when General David Patraeus held that command. Never mind that CENTCOM has no geographic responsibility for the Levant or Israel, the Patreaus brief made the rounds in Washington anyway, reaching the vice-president.
Blame Israel argues from a limited set of particulars to an implausible general conclusion. Palestine is, in fact, a regional problem commonly used as an excuse for all manner of global mischief. Were it not, Israel might be flying airliners into skyscrapers to make their case also.
And any erosion of support for Israel may serve as a disincentive for settlement and a stimulus for terror. What message do jihadists get from a president who visits Muslim capitals, but studiously avoids Israel? Remember the global apology tour that included Muslims but not Jews? Does Islam need to be patronized about a threat that originates exclusively in Muslim communities?
Judaism is a shopworn historical scapegoat. In those Islamic countries where PEW surveys are possible, attitudes towards Jews and Israel are overwhelmingly (90% +) hostile. The targets are Jews not Zionists -- as if jihadists would know the difference. Terror in Bali, Mumbai, Beslan, and French schoolyards, and Benghazi has little to do with Palestinian real estate.
How does a Moroccan shooting a Jewish girl in France advance a two-state solution? Islamic shooters outside of the Levant, couldn't find the West Bank or Gaza on a map. Anti-Jewish sentiment is more likely to be cultural envy or viral bigotry; each featured on the internet and at mosques worldwide.
Israel is a beacon of art, science, and democracy on a primitive frontier. The Jewish state is to contemporary civilization as Austria was to early Europe. Defense of Vienna broke the Ottoman advance in 1689; defense of Israel today is surely analogous.
The Alpha's are loath to assess the comparative merits of religion in western and Islamic cultures. Nonetheless, the differences are profound. For the West and Israel, religion is not an ideology of arbitrary control; but, faith that is value added. For much of the Muslim world, religion is the heavy hand suppressing the arts, sciences, capitalism, and democracy.
A Moderate Muslim Majority?
Statistics on attitudes towards Jews would not be the only evidence to disprove assertions about Muslim beliefs. Assertions about moderation provide a related example.
Assume for a moment, that Islamism is a minority sentiment. Do not such beliefs beg the question? Indeed, out of 1.5 billion souls, what is the necrotic minority? If it's only 33 percent, then the number is 500 million! And the primary targets of the irredentist movement, while decentralized, are secular (or apostate) Muslim governments. Where there are no good measurements; there is no good science.
Even if data were available, the net number of Muslims with hostile or belligerent intentions might be irrelevant. Historical records here are clear. Ideology and zeal may triumph, no matter the numbers. Less may be more.
The Marxist revolution in Russia, the National Socialist putsch in Germany, and more recently, the theocratic coup in Persia, the electoral coups in Turkey and Egypt, and the political trends in Tunisia and Libya are all but a few cautionary tales. Majority apathy is ever the ally of minority activism.
And recall that exiled fanatics like Lenin, Qutb, Khomeini, or Qaradawi are made possible by the indulgence of democracies.
Suggestions that the West will enlighten or reform Islam are delusional. As Bernard Lewis and Paul Berman remind us; if the Muslim world has been immune to meaningful reform for 1400 years, the prospects are even dimmer today. The same internet that is supposed to be spreading "jasmine" revolutions is also distributing hate, terror, and intolerance. Syria, the Sudan, Bahrain, Somalia, and Yemen, if not most of Arab Africa, are object lessons in progress.
Most declarations about Muslim moderation, or the space between Islam and politics in the Ummah are projections or asserted conclusions. Evidence to support the moderation spin is invariably anecdotal as is analysis that claims that the West can do business with the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salifist. Again, where there are no good measurements, there is no good science.
Political and social studies are dicey enough in open societies; in closed societies, they amount to educated guesses or wishful thinking. And how do we account for the beliefs of the illiterate tribesmen under such conditions? The State Department and the Pentagon may get to know the truth of the likes of Mullah Omar when the Taliban controls the Loya Jirga again. In spite of these facts, our political and military leaders may have been captured by Paradigm Alpha, the Muslim victim trope.
Surely the historical schism between Sunni and Shia is significant for Muslims; but, both sects have similar views of non-Muslims. And notions that any Islamic fissures might be exploited are illusory. Nothing unites apostates like guilt-ridden or pandering infidels. Appeasement isn't working.
Iran set the theocratic standard for contemporary Islam. Now populous Sunni nations are tripping over each other in the race backwards. Since the fall of Tehran, almost every regime change in the Sunni world, starting with Tunisia, has irredentist overtones. The dominoes are indeed falling -- backwards.
Moral equivalency is the third rail of international politics. Contemporary Islam has been granted equality by default. Here again apathy in the West may have led to a kind of unilateral disarmament in the world of ideals. Surely none of the civil or human rights abuses extant in the Muslim world today would be tolerated in any western democracy. The press reports that the American ambassador to Libya was sodomized before being dragged though the streets of Benghazi several days ago.
The most difficult idea for Western observers to grasp is that there is no ideological schizophrenia for much of Islam. Politics and religion are increasingly joined. This single distinction separates Islamic culture and politics from the democratic West. No digressions about poverty, colonialism, or criminality are likely to alter that indigestible fact. When Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon agree that the West must learn to live with religious parties like the Taliban or al-Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), appeasement, not prudence, is the agenda.
Do American diplomats and generals not recall the first incarnation of the Taliban where female adulterers and homosexuals were summarily executed in a soccer stadium (built with US funds, we could add)? Twentieth Century National Socialists were genocidal, but there is no evidence that Germans ever used atrocities as weekly public amusements. Nazis actually took great pains to hide the Holocaust because they had a residue of moral probity -- or knew a harsh judgment was imminent.
And the influence and hegemony of imperial Islam is a growth business by any measure. Islamists think they are winning and they may be correct. Most of the secular casualties to date are in the Muslim world. Developments in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Yemen, Somalia and others are symptoms of a kind of decentralized global theocratic coup. Polite scholars rationalize the same demographic phenomenon, in America and Europe, as "browning;" but the quest of, and quarrel within Islam is religious and political, not racial or ethnic.
Turkey, Egypt, and Libya and other erstwhile allies, represent special hazards where elections might be confused with democracy. Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdel Nasser separated church from state with force. And now religion comes back to Turkish and Egyptian politics through elections. No election is ever synonymous with democracy or reform.
Ironically, Paradigm Alpha in the West is often on the same page as Islamists when it comes to rationalizing some of the more egregious civil and human rights depredations. Just a few abuses would include: support (moral and financial) for terrorism, crucifixions, amputations, honor killings, kidnapping, imprisonment without trial, polygamy, consanguinity, slavery, religious intolerance, misogyny, child abuse, and lethal homophobia; just to name the obvious. We might also recall that Daniel Pearl, a Jewish American journalist, was beheaded on camera.
And what difference does it make that genital mutilation of women might be a cultural practice? How does that help the majority of girls in Egypt so brutalized? And how is polygamy justified in societies that can't provide potable water or a flush toilet? And how is any of this classified as equivalence?
As a general proposition, Islam is only moderate where it is a minority. Where Islam is a majority, with few exceptions, religious and many other varieties of moderation are often the first casualties. Multi-culture does not become monoculture without absolutism and coercion.
Many observers rationalize the political and social pathologies of the Muslim world as the products of poverty, ignorance, or exploitation. If PEW surveys are accurate, most Muslims agree, blaming backwardness on outsiders. The victim posture is cultivated by Islamic clerics for obvious reasons. The analytical spin in the West has darker roots.
Surely, considerations like energy, debt, and migration patterns are relevant. Demographic vectors, immigration and birth rates, seem to be the most ominous. Terrorism gets more press, but military tactics do not represent the totality of the menace. The underlying factors, fears if you will, of the Islamist threat are cultural; political and religious. Pathological practices and behaviors, excused in the name of culture, are the very evidence that undermines any argument for moral equivalence.
What is to be Done?
Alas, Islamism, in many ways, is no different than other totalitarian schemes of recent history; a quixotic, intolerant, oppressive quest for a kind of Utopia. But, modern jihad is not just another variant of historical imperialism.
Martial Islam began with Mohammed and eventually hit the wall of Ottoman decay. Sultanic corruption was replaced by Turkish, Persian and then Arabic secular nationalism. These janissaries eventually fell to excess also -- a bizarre nexus of post-WWII oil wealth and martyr/philosophers like Sayyid Qutb, ideological godfather of al Ikwan. The union of new money and religious passion was facilitated, as Kedourie warned, by the hasty European colonial retreat. Islamism was the best organized and best financed alternative to fill the post-colonial, post-fascist, political vacuum.
So how is the Islamist threat different today, and what is to be done?
Religious or political missionary goals, submission and Sharia (religious law), are constants for militants of both Muslim sects. Yet, there are exceptions to xenophobia and pervasive hostility. Sufis and modern Kurds are numerically small examples. Yet, the vector of global Islamic politics is anything but secular, tolerant, or progressive.
The Muslim base now represents one fourth of the world's population. Numbers are compounded by a toleration of aberrant behaviors in the name of religion; a deference that would not be granted to a secular ideology. Just two issues might make the case; religious freedom and women's rights in Turkey, Egypt, or Afghanistan -- to name a few states we think of as moderate. And today's Islamism is also different because Europe and America have little to offer dar al Islam except submission.
Small wonder, then, that the fire breathers are optimistic. Islamic assessments of American and European decline are very prescient. Charges of corruption have more than a little merit; the West seems to be unable to defend the values that made commerce, creativity, and science possible. Values like freedom, democracy, and tolerance are also at risk. Evolved religious immunities in the West protect a political Islam which grants no such quarter. How such a clash ends should not be difficult to imagine.
The enemy in South Asia, and the Middle East, has always been the Taliban and like-minded religious parties. Arab al Qaeda is a bit player in South Asia. And now after two decades, the Taliban may come back to power (like the Turkish AKP and the Egyptian al Ikwan) through the front door with a promise of US and European subsidies! It's hard to believe that we think of any of this as a "clash of civilizations;" when a more apt description might be "confederacy of dunces."
We think we know all we need to know about Islam and activist Muslims. Not much, but enough it seems; enough to stop any questions.
So what now?
Islamism is a global problem that requires a global strategy. The threat is ideology and kinetics. Dogma sanctuaries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, the Emirates, and Pakistan need to clean house, starting with the pulpits. The passive aggressor states either draw a bright line for clerics and the jihadists -- or else. If the cities of Europe, America, and Israel are to be continually at risk, then maybe it's time to put state-sponsored Islamist sanctuaries at risk.
We might also break camp at all those city-sized embassies and over-priced "green zones" in the Levant and South Asia. Large permanent diplomatic "missions" and permanent military bases are honey pots that corrupt our putative "allies" and simplify the jihadist targeting problem. We might consider withdrawing our diplomats and advisors and withhold any aid until the madness ends.
And the so-called "war on terror" needs to be given to the 22 nations of the Arab League and the 57 some odd nations of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. For the most part, terror, with political or religious motives, originates in the Muslim world. NATO cannot save Islam from itself. If a nation-state crusade then turns west, so be it. Thus might the allied target set be simplified!
The West needs to be crystal clear with Muslim expatriates too. Islamist activists should have their visas, green cards, passports, and even citizenship suspended or forfeited. Europe and America can not afford to grant a bill of personal rights to a fifth column that has no respect for human rights. Tolerance in the West must end until tolerance in the East begins.
And finally, we are back to the issue of candor. How is it that an armor officer can write an insightful, honest assessment of a failed national strategy, when the US Intelligence Community cannot provide an honest assessment of the global threat? What does it profit America to have the best collection and targeting systems in the world and the worst strategic analysis? National security analysts now resemble a cabal of pandering underachievers. The Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, and CIA's David Patraeus need to reform strategic analysis - or resign.
No nation can afford to be delusional, incompetent, and broke at the same time for very long. Our embassies are burning, Mr. Obama. What is the plan?
G. Murphy Donovan is a Vietnam veteran, a former USAF Intelligence officer, and a former senior research fellow for Intelligence at the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica.
FOLLOW US ON