Before We Were Interrupted...

I thought I’d relay a conversation I had, recently, with James DiBenedetto regarding the Bush Administration and the invasion of Iraq. I try to avoid the echo chambers where I can, but it’s hard. Somebody whose views can be interpreted as liberal really sticks one’s neck out when one tries to raise points in a primarily conservative blog or forum. I’m pretty sure that conservatives feel the same way venturing onto liberal blogs; trolls on both sides really ruin the discussion for everyone, and as a result we’re sorely tempted to stick our fingers in our ears and only listen to the people who don’t challenge us.

Jim’s blog, the Eleven Day Empire is different. However much I may disagree with Jim’s stance, he writes well and from the heart. It’s not like I’m arguing against Rush Limbaugh, here. Here, we’re actually capable of having an argument. It doesn’t mean that things can’t get heated, though.

Jim starts the discussion by this post, commenting on Canadian Mark Steyn’s take on the War on Terror:

The Only Issue to Consider This November

Mark Steyn lays it out very clearly:

What did 9/11 cost its perpetrators? Flight lessons would be below $5,000 depending on how impatient the hijackers were (as Zac Massaoui told his instructors, he didn’t need to learn how to land), boxcutters cost a couple of bucks, add in a couple of rental cars and hotel accommodation, and that’s it: For somewhere around $150,000, the 19 terrorists killed more than 3,000 people and caused immediate economic damage of $27 billion, with the final tab yet to be calculated. That makes it surely the biggest bang for the buck in world history.

(snip!)

So we’re living through a period of extraordinarily rapid demographic and cultural change that broadly favors the Islamists’ stated objectives, a period of rapid technological advance that greatly facilitates the Islamists’ objectives, and a period of rapid nuclear dissemination that will add serious heft to the realization of their objectives. If the West — and I use the term in the widest sense to mean not just swaggering Texas cowboys but sensitive left-wing feminists in favor of gay marriage — is to survive, it will only be after a long struggle lasting many decades.

The only question to consider in the upcoming election, from where I sit, is: do the candidates “get” that, or not? President Bush does, and I don’t believe that John Kerry does.

I don’t think that John Kerry believes that the U.S. - and, more, the West generally - is in a contest for its very survival. I do believe it, and I don’t believe we can afford a President who doesn’t. There are many, many other reasons why I don’t like John Kerry and could never vote for him, but they all pale next to this one.

I responded with:

This is silly. The world didn’t suddenly become more dangerous on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attack itself was in planning stages for more than two years. The factors that contributed to the terror attack on that day were in play a decade before.

You may say that September 11 was a gigantic wakeup call. But wakeup calls have existed before. Remember the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995? Remember the big scare over the millennium? Other than scale, what is so different about the attacks of September 11 that demands such a different response to the attacks of April 19, 1995? Or the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole? Or the attacks on the American embassy in Kenya? Were we all complacent at that time? Or, rather, did we actually have the more rational response? War wasn’t declared against the United States on September 11, 2001, it was declared long beforehand. And up to that day, the terrorists’ war against us took surprisingly few casualties. And one casualty they didn’t take was our ability to act rationally.

Since September 11, however, we have taken a more proactive response, and I don’t believe we’re being markedly more successful than before. We failed to follow through in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. We diverted ourselves with Iraq and failed to follow through in the rebuilding of that nation (precisely the course of action Al Queda wanted). The world is no more safer now than on the days after September 11 when we supposedly took this bold new step of seeing terrorism as a war rather than a police action.

I put it to you that we could let ourselves be ruled by fear. We could impose measures that cut back on our freedoms without really improving our security (see the Patriot Act). We can change ourselves away from being less of a society of freedom that we claim to be. We can launch wars against other nations without first considering how to handle the aftermath. We can shake ourselves about like a beast in a blind rage and cause some of the very destruction that drove us into this blind rage in the first place.

Or we can step back, and refuse to be ruled by fear.

In my view, the Bush Administration’s response has appealed to the visceral desire for revenge and action, but not for rational, thought-out response. The Bush Administration benefits from a response based in fear.

If we understand that, though the terrorists are still out there (and they always will be out there), we are as safe as we ever were. Nothing is going to seriously threaten America’s ability to survive as a free nation unless Americans themselves abandon their own freedom. No amount of terrorist bombs will do that to you. But, in my opinion, more of the Bush Administration’s incompetent foreign policy is going to make for a rougher future for all of us.

As a result, John Kerry seems to me to be a much more sensible choice. Indeed, just about anybody but Bush.

Jim responded:

You say:

“what is so different about the attacks of September 11 that demands such a different response to the attacks of April 19, 1995? Or the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole? Or the attacks on the American embassy in Kenya? Were we all complacent at that time? Or, rather, did we actually have the more rational response? War wasn’t declared against the United States on September 11, 2001, it was declared long beforehand.”

I agree, and I would say that our response throughout the 1990s was not rational at all. Treating international terror as a police matter, as a question of small groups that can be hunted and captured, misses the point.

Al Qaeda and its brethren cannot exist without the support of nations. Not necessarily direct funding, but certainly moral support, governments turning a blind eye to training camps, corrupt officials helping to provide identity papers, ministries of education pumping out incredibly hateful anti-Western propaganda and funding radical Islamist schools, and so forth.

It isn’t just Al Qaeda that’s the enemy. Frankly, the former government of Iraq was an enemy, and the current governments of Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and, for the most part Egypt, and others as well.

Now we can’t go to war and remove them all by force, but that is going to be part of the answer. You talk about “what changed on September 11, 2001?”, and I say that the change happened at the end of the Cold War, and during the 1990s, botu Bush Senior and Clinton failed to really do anything to consider the new world, and that old alliances and old attitudes, and tolerance of (or even active support for) ugly regimes because they were useful against the USSR was no longer a rational foreign policy. This should have been clear back in the early 90s, but it took until 9/11 for us to really realize it - and a lot of people still don’t accept it.

And I simply don’t accept that “the terrorists will always be out there.” Yes, there will always be people who don’t like us, who are willing to do violence, or to die for their cause. But we DON’T have to live in a world where they are openly supported by hostile foreign governments and their populace.

You’ve talked about a “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East before, as one way to remove popular support from terrorists and influence Middle Eastern governments towards better behavior. But both carrot AND stick are needed, and the governments themselves are the problem. Without the constant pushing of anti-American (and anti-Israeli) propaganda, both from the governments themselves, and from popular Arab media, and the winking and nodding at same from the West, there would be far less support for Al Qaeda et all in the Middle East, and they would pose far less of a threat to us. And that’s what the war is about. That’s one of the reasons that the Iraqi regime was removed. And I go back to my initial statement: John Kerry doesn’t get that, and whatever he’s done wrong, President Bush does.

And I replied with:

I don’t disagree with the carrot and the stick approach. If you’ll notice, while I criticized the West for its failure to follow through on Afghanistan, I didn’t criticize the invasion in principle. And while I don’t believe that the invasion of Iraq was a legitimate front of the War on Terror (another long argument), I acknowledge that war with Saddam was probably inevitable. Again, for the purposes of this argument, the greatest flaw of the invasion of Iraq was that the Bush Administration failed to properly plan out the aftermath. It may come to pass that similar action will be needed in the Sudan, and given what’s happening there, it’s more than likely that I and others questioning the invasion of Iraq will accept action in the Sudan. However, given the Bush Administration’s history in Iraq and Afghanistan, my great fear is that the aftermath of an attack against the Sudan will be botched as well.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Yes, it’s good that Saddam Hussein is gone, but what we’ve replaced Saddam with is not much better over the short term, and we have to see that as a failure. Why is America hated by fanatics around the world? Yes, a lot of it is false anti-American rhetoric by dictators trying to distract the public from the flaws of their own administrations. But since September 11, the Bush Administration has remarkably contributed to that rhetoric through pure incompetence.

The invasions themselves were as precise as one could hope such military campaigns could be, but the lack of stability in Afghanistan, the fact that the power is still out daily in Iraq, gives considerable weight to those attacking the ideals of democracy. Crime in Iraq is higher now than it has ever been under Saddam’s regime. It is simply not safe for people to walk the streets of Bagdhad at night, and for some, this prompts them to look back on Saddam’s rule with fondness. He may have been a brutal dictator, but at least the streets were safe, they’d say. At least the trains ran on time.

And it’s not the fact that I’m ignoring the good news that is coming out of Iraq. Yes, the country is more stable than some give it credit for, but America’s credibility in the Middle East is being harmed day-to-day by the mess that still exists on the streets. Simply put, you would not tolerate it if Newark were as bad as painted by Chris Albritton, who is reporting from the scene. Why should Iraqis?

This is over and above the serious abuses that were uncovered in Alu Gharib, which Iraqi’s on the street knew about long before the news hit the American media. Responsibility for these terrible pictures, which are perfect recruiting material for Al Queda, and are a major reason why the U.S. has to pull out now, before its job is fully done, is slowly heading up the chain of command.

So, it doesn’t matter if George W. Bush is running against a block of wood. How can any American reasonably tolerate the fact that these blunders happened? These are serious setbacks in the global war on terror. These have increased the threat of terrorism against the West. It calls into question Bush’s competence and his integrity, and anybody else in any other position would be fired if they did a job this bad.

Bush’s response to the war on terror is actually remarkably similar to that of Bill Clinton during his term in office. And, disturbingly, it may well be what Al Queda wants. I refer you to this article by Gwynne Dyer in assessing Al Queda’s response to Bill Clinton’s response to the bombing of the American embassy in Kenya:

“In 1998, bombs outside the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 240 people, mostly Africans in the street, and 24 Americans. About 5,000 were injured. Bill Clinton, not really knowing who to punish, unleashed 70 cruise missiles “into the blue,” destroying, among other things, a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum that supplied half of Sudan’s medicines.

“Al-Quida looks at the sequence of events…24 Americans, 70 cruise missiles fired essentially at random, and says, ‘We can work with that. What we have to do is go to the U.S., kill thousands of Americans, and they’ll go berserk. They’ll get some of us — but we’re ready to die — and thousands of civilians. And if we sucker them into doing that, we’ll win’.”

Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9-11 may be a tirade; it may be spinning like a top; it’s certainly a work of visceral anger instead of one designed to bring about rational discourse, but one thing he does well is illustrate (without words) the birth of new terrorists out of the rubble of Iraq. The United States, under Clinton, did little to enhance the security of the country with random cruise missile attacks. The random destruction of these missile attacks destroyed homes and hurt civilians and certainly raised the level of antipathy towards the United States in the Muslim countries. The Bush Administration may have killed a lot of terrorists, but their un-nuanced response has caused a lot of widespread destruction, and has certainly ratcheted antipathy levels so much higher, I think those dead terrorists have been replaced.

And why has this happened? In a word, I think it comes down to laziness. The Bush Administration could have fixed postwar Iraq much more quickly and effectively if, as some commentators have claimed, they committed 500,000 troops instead of 100,000. If the commitment to rebuild postwar Afghanistan and Iraq had been stronger, the countries would be stable and democratic. You may be right that I tend to favour a carrot above a stick, but the Bush Administration seems fresh out of carrots.

To supply those carrots, the Bush Administration would have had to go back on some of its key policies. For instance, committing half a million troops and more money for Iraq and Afghanistan probably would have had to negate the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and that, to the Bush Administration, is absolutely untenable. In the era when Americans are more willing than ever to sacrifice a little in this war, he encouraged Americans to spend. He has made few moves to reduce American dependence on Arabian oil. He seems interested in committing the barest minimum he can get away with. He doesn’t pay attention to details.

To my mind, this means that it is the Bush Administration doesn’t “get” it. What others “get” is that there are no easy answers to making the world a more stable, peaceful and democratic place. It would be lovely to bring about a world where anti-American rhetoric is spouted by only the barest fringes of society, where Isreal doesn’t live amongst a sea of enemies, and where the Middle East is democratic. And no, neither John Kerry nor I have easy answers on how to bring this about, despite my suggestion of a Marshall Plan of the Middle East as a starting point. But I do know that the Bush Administration’s approach is working about as well as that of Bill Clinton’s cruise missiles. And unless the Bush Administration acknowledges its own failures and makes changes, it’s time for them to go.

And if we are so dominated by our own fears of another terrorist attack on the horizon that we don’t stop to think about this for a second, we may bring about the very future that we fear the most.

We could have argued this further, but then somebody chimed in and attacked both of us, bringing up Israel and Hitler and other irrelevant information. It serves to highlight, I suppose, the difficulty of arguing anything on the public internet.

To add to what I’ve said, I think my greatest objection is to Mark Steyn’s original assertion that, essentially, a vote against the Bush Administration is a vote for the terrorists. This is a charged statement, to say the least, and one that’s hardly unchallengable. Back when the Spaniards turfed out their incumbent government following the March 11 attacks in Madrid, a few people said that the terrorists had won. I don’t agree. Terrorists cannot win as long as democracy continues. If Americans can no longer rationally choose between Bush and Kerry for fear of what the terrorists think (and note that I don’t condemn Americans who, for rational reasons, choose Bush), then the terrorists really would have won.

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