Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lessons From Washington's Confrontation With Islam: The Sucker Play

When you don't know your enemy, you make yourself an irresistible target for the sucker play: "Lesson One" in How to Manipulate a Superpower. To reverse the U.S. decline, Washington national security thinkers need to learn this lesson.

The powerful like to make rules that favor themselves. During the heyday of the Empire, the British, whose well-drilled armies in bright red coats liked highly formalized frontal confrontations, had a rule: if you hid behind trees or otherwise engaged in military maneuvers not included in the British manual of war, you were a terrorist. That was the actual word they used to describe the American colonial freedom fighters. The British by then had long forgotten how their ancestors had fought from behind trees, in the end successfully, to repel an earlier empire, which reached their shores with Julius legions. The weak and the strong each favor the type of fighting that gives them an advantage. And so, today, some call the soldier dropping a bomb on a village he can barely see a brave fighter but the man on the ground putting a bomb in a hole under the street to stop invaders a terrorist.

Both sides try to make the moral issues seem clear. If the fighter in the jet were flying over his own country and killing only invaders, and if the fighter on the ground set bombs to kill only invaders (avoiding harm to local residents), then moral judgments would in fact be much clearer. But the bottom line remains: there is no moral requirement for the weak to play by the rules of the strong.

In fact, for the weak to do so would simply be suicide, and it is pure hypocrisy for the strong to insist that they should and are morally compromised if they do not.

The weak can of course perfectly well see all this and will surely persist in searching for tactics to balance the power of the strong. Ironically, that very power hands to the weak an enormously effective tactic: the sucker play. Be it Native Americans tricking unstoppable buffalo herds into running off a cliff or Chechens trapping Russians on the streets of Grozniy or Hezbollah waiting on hillsides to ambush Israeli tank columns driving up narrow mountain roads or bin Laden tricking a superpower into wasting its blood and treasure in some mountain land or desert, being suckered is the ever-present threat to the powerful.

It is bad enough when one falls into a trap set by the adversary one is confronting; it is even more dangerous when the trap is set by a third party, whoas the Chinese have long put itcan then sit on a hill watching two tigers fight. Unfortunately, bin Laden was never brought to trial, so we may never know the degree to which he consciously planned the Iraqi trap into which Washington fell to the enormous advantage of al Quaida. A weakened and chastened U.S. has yet to count its losses.

One of the primary lessons that Americans should but almost certainly will not learn from the history of the confrontation between political Islam and the West is the need to understand the political forces active in societies we confront. Education is the best defense. A Taliban sheep herder defending his village is not the same as a Salafi crusader leading a global revolution; pushing them into each others arms only aids the crusader. Someone opposed to our behavior does not automatically oppose our lifestyle.

These points are, I trust, blindingly obvious to anyone who would bother to read this article, but if they are so obvious, then here is the question:

Why has the U.S. not launched a campaign to broaden understanding of Muslim societies?

Why are we not funding an explosion of Islamic study institutes and paying premiums for Arabic speakers with degrees in Muslim cultural and political studies (rather than paying premiums to Blackwater mercenaries doing jobs that should, if done at all, either be done by locals or U.S. civil servants)? The funds are clearly available or we would not choose the most expensive imaginable mode of warfare. Were there a shortage of taxpayer contributions, we could fund competitive contracts rather than scandalously huge sole source contracts. Alternatively, we could pay civil servants with an interest in serving the nations interests a modest wage instead of paying private corporations with an interest in making a profit. Alternatively, we could hire the poor locals whom our wars have put on the unemployment roles (making them angry at us) to do the jobs (making them grateful to us). But all these are short-term solutions that fail to answer the underlying question of whether or not we have correctly identified our opponent. All the generous taxpayer contributions in the world will not solve the problem, if our policy is based on ignorance of our enemy and is itself the source of the hostility we face in the world. All the weapons in the world will not bring victory if we cannot identify the enemy. But without understanding the societies from which attackers emerge, the societies which we attack, we will never know. We will blunder from one mistake to another, always baffled by the hostility that seems to come out of the blue.

When I see a flood of investment in education about the Muslim world and salaries for those so educated, then I will begin to believe that we have learned this lesson of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan: either know thine enemy or set thyself up for the sucker play.

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