Dialogues

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

OK, Bob, I’ll give you a rain check on unveiling your long-term plan for fighting terrorism. Let’s let the drama build for a few days. Meanwhile, I’ll pass the time by complaining that your analysis doesn’t take my analysis seriously enough.

I’m referring to those three premises of mine that you claim to accept (whose upshot was that technology is empowering terrorists). Now, let me admit that I should have been clearer. I said that information technology would help “terrorists mobilize a base of popular support.” But that’s only half of the story. The other half is that popular movements—including Islamic separatist movements—will get better at mobilizing themselves,even if terrorists aren’t manipulating them. (In past writings, I’ve compared this effect of microelectronics to the way an earlier information technology—the printing press— empowered first Protestants and later nationalists, complicating life for the Catholic Church and the Hapsburg empire.)

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In this view, Islamic separatists in, e.g., Kashmir and western China will probably get stronger as electronic technology spreads. What’s more, in some cases (including these two) the grievances will be at least arguably legitimate. So for the United States to oppose these movements—on grounds that there’s some link to terrorism—may be to get on the wrong side of history. Yet so far Bush shows signs of doing that. He doesn’t seem to care whether terrorists are driving a separatist movement, marginally assisting it, or just parasitizing it; the taint is pervasive regardless. Has anyone in the administration even nodded in the direction of Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf’s point that beneath Kashmiri terrorism is an old and valid grievance?

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Note that in both Kashmir and western China these movements have the support of moderate Muslims—and have an ethnic and nationalist dimension, not just a religious one. But if the movements are thwarted, and their grievances fester, Islamic extremism could move closer to their center (rather as the Palestinian cause has gotten less secular, more jihadish). And if the United States is an enemy of these movements, that’s going to mean more Islamic extremism directed at us.

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It’s too soon to say for sure that Bush is really blind to the distinctions I’m making, but in any event you almost seem to encourage such blindness. You applaud Bush for “recognizing the civilizational aspect of this war”—a reference to Samuel Huntington’s claim of inherent tensions between the West and Islamic civilization broadly. In 1996, when I reviewed Huntington’s book for Slate, I warned that his worldview, if adopted by policy-makers, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That may now happen. If Bush starts to define any political movement involving Muslims and some link with terrorism as part of global “Islamic extremism,” and attacks it as such, then global Islamic extremism is what he’ll probably wind up with. This is just what Osama Bin Laden wanted.

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This leads to rule No. 1 in my long-term plan for fighting terrorism: Avoid Huntingtonism. Governments with a Muslim separatist problem will try to get the United States to support, and in some cases fight, their wars. China has already started this PR campaign, claiming a strong al-Qaida link to its troubles. I haven’t done enough homework to say which of the various Islamic movements we should fiercely oppose, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t all of them. And some of the grievances we should support, even as we condemn any terrorism accompanying them.

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In your postings so far, I don’t see you grappling with this sort of complexity. In fact, your prescriptions almost have a pre-9/11 tenor. They sound like the kinds of things you and your fellow “realists” (a term I hate, but that’s another story) have been saying for decades. You say the United States must “project brute force”—as if our past projections of brute force didn’t help get us into the mess we’re in. (I’ve noted before that if we hadn’t stationed troops in Saudi Arabia 10 years ago, the Twin Towers would still be standing.) You celebrate the fact that Egypt just instigated “a ferocious crackdown on extremists”—as if such crackdowns by authoritarian Arab governments we support hadn’t already helped fuel rabid anti-Americanism. I’m not saying that either the projection of U.S. power or these crackdowns don’t have upsides. (I can well imagine war with Iraq being necessary, if Saddam doesn’t allow a new—and much more intrusive and robust—round of weapons inspections.) I’m just saying the downsides are much more evident in light of 9/11, yet you don’t acknowledge them.

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But, as usual, your take on contemporary politics is interesting. Your idea that India will keep “raising the bar” on Musharraf seems plausible—and reinforces my point that we shouldn’t let ourselves be cast as India’s ally against Kashmir’s separatists. Also interesting is your scenario of Palestinian governance devolving into warlordships. But it bothers me to hear you call that the “optimistic” scenario. If you really accepted my three premises, I think you’d agree that we can’t afford for that to be the “optimistic” scenario. We simply can’t let these issues—Kashmiri, Palestinian, etc.—fester indefinitely, because time (given the direction of technological evolution) is on the side of terrorism.

I feel that you and I have made little progress so far—that we’ve largely been talking past each other. If you’d like to extend the “Dialogue” one more round in hopes of doing better, that would be fine with me. Otherwise, I’m afraid the time has come for you to unveil your long-awaited long-term plan to fight terrorism—a plan that will hold up even in light of my three grim premises about technological evolution. I’ll then close the Dialogue with my own plan. Drum roll, please …

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