Saturday, May 16, 2009

Strategy for the War on Extremism

A war between two opposing camps of fundamentalist extremists for mastery over the international political system is now being fought. Those who reject extremist, faith-based ideologies and, even more, the moral right to impose such philosophies by force, are left out of this battle, except to the degree that they are of course the innocent victims or the naïve supporters. In either case, the war is being fought not on their behalf but for the purpose of forcing one faith or another down their throats, so, to them, it matters little which group of extremists wins. Hence, ultimately, it follows that the “real” war, i.e., the ultimate conflict, lies between “rational” (in the sense of calculating on the basis of analysis rather than faith), conciliatory people and extremists. The enemy of peace and progress is extremism. The particular strain of extremism is a secondary issue.

If that thesis be accepted, then the question arises:

what should be the strategy of those who reject extremism?

The challenge for moderates is to determine a way of simultaneously defending themselves against a very real physical threat to both their way of life and their very existence while avoiding the trap of allowing themselves to be sucked into either of the extremist camps. Moderates need to keep foremost in their minds at all times that being pulled into one of the extremist camps—either camp(!)—is the extremists’ fondest desire: when an extremist gains the allegiance of a moderate, he has strengthened his ranks and wins; when an extremist sees a moderate join the enemy extremist camp, he uses that to justify his own extremist behavior and again wins. Radicalization of society helps the extremists (and the worldly fellow travelers exploiting extremism). Two critical components of any moderate policy to undermine extremist influence are 1) denying extremists the nationalist flag and 2) supporting, not victimizing, the population.

Denying Extremists the Nationalist Flag

A profound danger in this situation is the ease with which the emotions of war can suck moderates into supporting “our” extremists (who naturally pose as superpatriots) against “their” extremists.

Pashtun Nationalism & the Taliban. Westerners should, for example, consider the case of Pakistan, where Islamic extremists pose with ever-increasing success as the champions of Pashtun nationalism and even as the champions of overall Pakistani nationalism. Their argument is easy to make at present: every Predator attack and every Pakistani army jet bomber that kills an innocent civilian demonstrates that al Qua’ida and the Taliban are defenders rather than aggressors. That obviously serves their purpose nicely.

It follows that moderates in the West who hope to live in a peaceful world should support policies that make it as difficult as possible for Islamic extremists to make such an argument. The more Islamic extremists can point to the deaths of innocents at Western hands, the more power accrues to them. Avoiding civilian casualties will not directly address the extremist threat. Some other method must be devised for dealing with that. But avoiding civilian casualties will minimize moderate Pakistani support for Islamic extremism. An implacable enemy may exist in any case; still, a weak enemy is better than a strong one.

Israeli Nationalism & Zionist Expansion. Although Washington understood in 1948 the distinction between supporting Israeli independence and supporting the specific policies of the Zionist movement, this distinction has in recent decades become so blurred in the minds of almost all Americans that the Zionist ambition for an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel has been equated by many with Israeli security. Unfortunately for Israelis, this only provokes greater hatred because Israel’s victims also equate the two, and those who seek to exploit Israeli-Palestinian tensions find equating the two highly convenient. In addition, Israeli moderates become marginalized to the (great) degree that the Zionist movement gains control of all major Israeli political parties. This has reached the point that despite the visibility of Israeli moderates in the Israeli media—which is more open than the self-censored U.S. media, today they have no major political party presence and are effectively removed from Israeli politics. That, in turn, undermines Israeli security by making Israeli foreign policy unnecessarily rigid since there is no major party in Israel presenting a genuine policy option that offers Israel’s neighbors the option of living in peace with an Israeli democracy that rejects the policy of security through force.

Persian Nationalism & Iranian Democracy. “Containment” of Iran that denies Iran its natural place as a major regional power both by discriminating against it in terms of nuclear issues and trying to exclude it from regional diplomacy nicely serves the purposes of both Iranian Shi’ite zealots and advocates of a “Greater Persia.” Moderate Iranians hoping for economic development, regional peace, and improved civil rights are marginalized to the degree that the Shi’ite clergy and their anti-Saddam war generation allies in the military can seize the nationalist flag and claim only they can protect the nation against the threat of foreign aggression. It is in the interests of American, Israeli, and Iranian moderates to take this nationalist flag from the hands of Iranian extremists by offering Iran a genuine option of participation in the international political system.

Supporting, Not Victimizing, the Population

Extremists win by tricking regimes into victimizing society. If the regime under attack happens to have an agenda of its own that it desires to implement at the expense of the society it is supposed to be protecting, then the extremists will of course have little trouble achieving their goal. Whatever one may think of Hamas, Israel’s collective punishment policy plays into Hamas’ hands, making them the defender of the people. Israel has this policy because it is ruled by a Zionist clique whose legitimacy rests on continued denial of its ethnic cleansing policy and which cares more for expansion than the security of the Israeli people. A moderate Israeli regime with its eye on the quality of Israeli democracy rather than the fulfillment of Zionist goals could easily undercut Hamas, but that would require recognizing and apologizing for the Nakba, returning to Israel’s internationally recognized 1967 borders or creating a multi-ethnic, non-religious, integrated society and is thus hardly conceivable without the fall from power of the Zionist group that has controlled Israel since ben Gurion’s rise even before independence.

In Pakistan, the recent widespread fighting has made care of refugees the critical test of the Pakistani regime. Success for Islamabad must surely depend ultimately upon its ability to govern Pakistani society, but at the moment nothing defines Islamabad’s challenge more clearly than the enormous flow of refugees fleeing both the Taliban’s oppression and Islamabad’s retaliatory bombing. Refugees from last summer’s fighting in Bajaur remain in camps even as the new wave out of Swat arrives to join them. The longer these refugees remain in tents, denied permanent homes, lives ruined, the closer will come Taliban victory. A government that cannot house its citizens is a failed government.


An internationalist coalition of moderates will be a difficult policy to implement because those desiring to exploit the conflict for personal profit will always be quick to charge moderates with lack of patriotism. Indeed, if patriotism is an unjustifiable bias in favor of one’s own country even if wrong, then replacing patriotism with a concern for mankind is precisely what is needed to help one’s own country. Patriotism has these past three centuries been an excellent organization motive, but it is becoming a bit dated in this shrinking world of globalization (whether the Western kind or the global jihad kind). The fact is that patriotism in our tightly interconnected world is a pointlessly zero-sum perspective: my country gains at your country’s expense and mankind ends up right where it started (unless one pushes the conflict to war, which one of course tends to do, in which case mankind ends up worse off than before). Mankind may end up worse off because war leads to recession or refugee flows or collateral damage. Regardless, in the type of world we now have, patriotism can easily be an extremely expensive luxury…and one ready-made for exploitation by the power-hungry.

The nationality of the actor killing innocent civilians is not the issue: the issue is the killing of innocent bystanders. Extremists are a tiny minority. They achieve power by making their bid for control appear to be an attempt to defend society against an external enemy. The strategy of moderates should be to expose and thereby isolate the extremist minority as the enemy of democratic society (without reference to ethnicity or nationality). It is highly unlikely that the moderates of any single society can succeed in such a policy on their own. Just as extremists of one society depend on extremism by their opponents, so must moderates in one society coordinate their policies with moderates in other societies, rejecting the calls of extremists to pit societies against each other.

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