September 08, 2003

"An Abandonment of Reason, Ethics, and Pragmatism"

I can accept a skeptic who wearily, resignedly argues that because the President represents the United States and because he’s committed us as he has in Iraq, we have no choice but to look for the best possible long-term resolution of that commitment. I can accept someone who reminds me that there were many people whose motives for supporting the war before it began were well-intentioned, reasonable or potentially legitimate. I continue to feel, as many do, that unseating Saddam Hussein is something that anyone ought to recognize as a positive good. I can even accept, as I noted some time ago on this blog, that there are many within the Bush Administration who may have had good intentions or reasonable opinions in promoting an attack on Iraq.

I am not prepared to cut any slack to anyone who thinks that supporting the current policy as it has been shaped by the President and his advisors is sensible, effective or ethical. I’m not interested in the outrageous hair-splitting and relativist, deeply postmodernist nonsense being spewed out by many conservative commentators, the knowing utterance of lies and half-truths, the evasions, the excuses, the total disinterest in the hard questions that now confront us and the total inability to concede even minimally that many of the critics of the attack on Iraq predicted much of what has come to pass.

-- Timothy Burke, Operation Meatshield

Timothy Burke takes on the moral relativism and pomo cynicism of those who endorse a strategy (if we may dignify it with that term) whereby American troops are to serve as "flypaper" for terrorists.

As Henry Farrell has argued,

the ‘flypaper’ theory implicitly assumes that there’s a fixed amount of al Qaeda terrorism sloshing around in the international system, so that it’s a good idea to divert it from the US to Iraq - more terrorists attacking troops in Iraq would mean less terrorists attacking the homeland. But there isn’t a fixed amount - instead, US actions in Iraq are almost certain to affect the ‘supply’ of al Qaeda terrorists. Indeed, the WP article suggests that the US occupation is leading to a substantial increase in the willingness of potential fighters to take up arms, so that the invasion isn’t just drawing existing al Qaeda combatants to Iraq; it’s creating new recruits.

(Farrell, by the way, usefully compares the assumption that there is a fixed amount of terrorism in the international system to the neo-mercantilist assumption that there is a fixed amount of labor to be performed in any given economy).

Like Burke, I believe "there is a sound argument for the judicious use of force in pursuit of a legitimate war on terrorism." But while I supported the war in Afghanistan, I remain convinced that the war in Iraq is the very opposite of anything that might fairly be described as "sound" or "judicious." Now that we are there, however, I don't see any other option than to stick it out and see it through. We are in for a long haul.

I also agree that "there is a war on terror, and that we are losing it." For a variety of complex reasons, we can't really afford to acknowledge the most significant sources of the terror against which we are at war: for example, what Malise Ruthven calls the "Islamic imperialism" of Saudi Arabia.


Burke follows up with Armchair Generals R Us.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at September 8, 2003 07:45 PM

Why do you argue that we are losing the war on terror? We haven't eliminated terrorism, but haven't we made strides? I think of the capture of so many of al Qaeda's leaders, the EU finally agreeing to treat Hamas's political wing as a terrorist organization, increasing international coordination to hamper the money laundering machines that fuel the terrorists, and the fact that there has not been a major terrorist attack in the US in the last (fingers crossed) almost two years.

Islamist terrorists are killing innocents in Indonesia, India & Saudi Arabia. We should work harder against the international networks supporting those efforts. But I don't think it's reasonable to think that we can prevent every terrorist act everywhere.


Posted by: Magik Johnson at September 9, 2003 12:12 AM

First, the secret handshake: I don't like George Bush; I think he's a moron; I think the planning for post-war Iraq has been atrocious.

And, as far as I can tell, "flypaper" was a figment of somebody's imagination that has retroactively become the justification for what could become the Debacle in the Desert. That said, I have a couple of nits to pick with Tim Burke and Henry Farrell.

Tim writes,

There are even some conservatives who have been brazen enough to say that this is a really good idea, that US troops are “flypaper” for terrorists. Who is the political constituency betraying our soldiers? Who is failing to support U.S. servicemen? Anybody who calls for them to be “flypaper”, to be meatshields, who asks them to serve as impotent human targets, that’s who. I don't think it's possible to be more cynical than that, to be a more callous armchair general.

That's a bit slick. There are too few troops in Iraq and the troops that are there are consequently impotent human targets. Maybe. But, even so, that issue is distinct from whether having the troops there to draw terrorist to themselves and away from the US is a good idea. Of course it sounds horribly callous to say that we want the terrorists to attack our troops, but the full meaning of that statement is that we would rather let them attack our troops far away from the mainland than attack civilians here. That, properly executed, seems like a reasonable use of the military.

Henry, echoing an earlier post by Kieran here, makes a version of the "for every one you kill, ten more spring up" argument. But I fail to see how flypaper "is based on a fundamental error of logic." Proponents of flypaper don't have to assume that the supply of terrorists is finite, they just have to figure that the supply is a) not infinite b) manageable and c) not likely to be made unmanageable by our actions. These are considerations of the facts (as we know them). And I think we should admit that we don't know them, not yet.

In any event, the Washington Post article to which Henry links could easily be read as support for “flypaper.” The first paragraph reads, in part,

Osama bin Laden's leadership cadre has been isolated and weakened and is increasingly reliant on the violent actions of local radicals around the world to maintain its profile. But the al Qaeda network is determined to open a new front in Iraq to sustain itself as the vanguard of radical Islamic groups fighting holy war....

Weaken Al Qaeda…check. Draw them away from the US…check. Crush them once and for all in Iraq…we’ll see.

Coincidentally, as I was typing this, a friend sent me a link to a longer treatment of “flypaper,” by everyone’s favorite, Andrew Sullivan.

Posted by: ogged at September 9, 2003 12:33 AM

Its really late. I just finished watching the Ken burns special on the World Trade Center, and I am really upset. The I read this.

Tim -- You are wrong. You do not know what you are talking about. Really. Now go out and buy yourself a really good atlas and spend some time studying it. Also the games of chess and go. A few books on military history and strategy wouldn't hurt either.

Never Forget.
Never Forgive.

Posted by: Robert schwartz at September 9, 2003 12:59 AM

Robert, perhaps a few books would benefit you.
I suggest 'On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War' by Col Harry G. Summers

and the sequel:
"On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the
Gulf War"

Posted by: Barry at September 9, 2003 09:49 AM

Ogged, assumptions B and C are not well-justified by the actions of the Bush administration.

And retroactively spinning failure as a success story isn't justification.

Posted by: Barry at September 9, 2003 09:50 AM

You can question the easier rebukes of the flypaper thesis, the idea that everything we do creates more terrorists. To some extent that rests on a flawed hypothesis, I think, which is that terrorism grows from economic deprivation. This, I think, has been amply demonstrated to be false in a great many ways.

But what a good many studies *have* done is link terrorism in general and suicide bombing in specific with political deprivation, with unresolved political conditions where sovereignity or a lack of political representation for some categorical class of citizens hangs semi-permanently out of reach. Sound familiar?

It's at that point that the flypaper thesis becomes actively noxious to me, a mere cover story for deeper failure. There is not even a ghost of a theory of how to create a liberal democracy through military occupation within the Administration now, and that absence is echoed off at Andrew Sullivan et al's corner of blogdom. The best you get is a kind of feeble invocation of postwar Germany and Japan as if mere example suffices for a programmatic policy design. The neocon geniuses think that liberal democracy is the vacuum of tyranny, that if you kill or remove a tyrant, liberal democracy inrushes into his absence naturally.

To create it, you'd have to have the capacity to speak persuasively to diverse Iraqi publics, to build off of actually existing forms of civil society in Iraqi communities, to understand the historical and cultural referents that can provide a new government its legitimacy, to let it grow from the bottom-up while pruning, quietly, those branches which lead back to tyranny. None of that is happening; the admission that this is what the mission involves isn't even there.

What's going to happen instead is we're going to round-up a bunch of aspirant authoritarians that got frozen out of the Ba'athist game and maybe a few tentative or shallow-roots liberal democrats like Bani Sadr in the early days of the Islamic Republic in Iran who can't legitimate themselves more widely, and we're going to anoint them the government and it's not going to work, because there's going to be no one on the American side who has even the faintest idea how to legitimate the new order on the ground level *except* maybe the more sensitive grunts who've spent time at that level and have begun to grasp what Iraqi society and its diverse peoples are like.

So flypaper is bunk, at least in terms of the current people in charge. It amounts to sitting in the trenches in World War I, providing a static target in a kill zone that gains you no ground worth holding, with no real vision of what to do next.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at September 9, 2003 11:22 AM

Well, if you'd said "bunk" from the start...

I agree that flypaper is bunk: lame as a cover story and myopic as a strategy. I just don't find it callous or illogical.

And I agree, for the most part, with what you say about building a viable democracy in Iraq. My hope had been that pure self-interest on the part of the Bushies would force a good outcome for Iraqis; I may have given incompetence too little consideration. Even so, it seems to me too early to declare the mission a failure, or the situation hopeless.

Posted by: ogged at September 9, 2003 12:31 PM

With the additional problem that the terrorists win in a stalemate. In a WWI situation, one could win by staying largely defensive, and hoping that the enemy would bleed himself out. In this situation, the US only wins with a successful offensive campaign.

And at the end of such a successful campaign, the US will have spent much blood, money, and reputation (both as ally and enemy) to, *at best*, secure one country. Probably at the cost of losing several.

Posted by: Barry at September 9, 2003 12:51 PM

Warning: rambling ahead! We are now committed to an endless war, brought to you by the Chickenhawks of America. Note that many of the hawks have not themselves served in combat (Cheney had 5 deferments, for example) yet they push a miltarization of the entire globe. This endless war means endless profits for major corporations, Haliburton, etc. Better for them if they can create enough fear of potential terrorist attacks (what are we at now, level yellow?), then they can more easily pass and justify restrictions on civil liberties. Then, bring in the notion that patriotism equals cheerleading, not dissent. If you argue with a chickenhawk, you are seen as not being "with us." Is this not the making of fascism?
Now I am the first to agree that dictators such as Hussein need to be controlled. This is not just a simple issue of one ruler "doing his own thing." But it needs to be a world-wide agreement, not just coming from the U.S. Problem is, countries like the perpetually annoying France were buddies with Iraq, who owed them big bucks. Money has corrupted everything, so there is little hope of world-wide consensus. I am skeptical of the outcome of Iraq's gov't because of past U.S. efforts at "setting up" interim governments in South America, for example, that were no more than right-wing enclaves.
The chickenhawks planned the push for democracy into the middle east long ago in the early 1990's. The document was leaked, then forgotten. September 11th came, a boon for the Bush administration. Somehow, some way, a link had to be made between September 11th and Iraq, in order to garner support for the "war" which is mostly about oil and gaining access to what the middle east has to offer.
What is going to backfire is the chickenhawk misreading of the mindset of many middle easterners. Unlike their scenario of being welcomed to Iraq with open arms, we are now seeing soldiers, many of whom come from poor and working class backgrounds, being picked off daily. Of course, the media portrays the whole scenario as if these attacks are so "suprising." Right. Welcome to the world of guerilla warfare.

Posted by: Cat at September 9, 2003 03:14 PM

Nothing makes me stop reading a comment or blogpost faster than the word Chickenhawk. Stop.

Posted by: kb at September 9, 2003 03:17 PM


I might agree with you, had not the same group of people often referred to by the term lent their support to an ad campaign impugning the patriotism of a double-amputee Vietnam vet for criticizing their own authoritarian militarism. After such behavior, whatever uneasy suggestions of pedophilia or dubious larger implications (such that only people with military service should be allowed to comment on military affairs) brought to mind by the term become negated by the negation.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at September 9, 2003 05:32 PM

Thought experiment: Suppose that the senior policy officials of the Administration had all served in the military, mostly in combat roles. Cheney was a platoon commander in Vietnam. Condi Rice flew attack helicopters in the First Gulf War, and was credited with knocking out several enemy tanks.

I bet that the most of the same people who now denounce these individuals as "chickenhawks" would instead be denouncing them as "militarists."

Posted by: David Foster at September 10, 2003 12:40 AM

The most interesting point about your thought experiment is that Cheney and Rice would not even remotely resemble their current incarnations had they had these experiences, which is the substance of the "chickenhawk" argument.

An important corollary is that the armed forces are no more voluntary than before, but now they rely economic conscription.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at September 10, 2003 02:15 AM

Chun, I think you are arguing that if Cheney and Rice had military experience, they would be less likely to support the war in Iraq. But my own anecdotal evidence suggests that people who have served in the military are in general *more* likely to support military action, not less. I think I've seen survey research that shows the same. And there are many high-profile cases that are consistent with this: President Kennedy, for instance, had combat experience, and he was pretty hawkish.

Posted by: David Foster at September 10, 2003 11:00 AM

I didn't realize the term "chickenhawk" or "hawk" was provincial or overused. I tend to have pretty strong feelings about what is happening in Iraq and the policies that are supporting these actions. Should we use "more acceptable and balanced" terminology, perhaps "vigilant man of ambition" to replace "hawk"? Or I guess we aren't to be so "mean" or "predictable" in criticizing this administration. Whatever. The United States has been in a preemptive strike mode since the Cold War (the Pinochet takeover comes to mind, for example) so this isn't just a republican thing. However, I can honestly say I have not witnessed such fascist ideas as I am seeing now, coupled with an unquestioning acceptance of corporate involvement in every aspect of human existence. Human beings have been transformed into human capital, and it's a race to find the next cheap labor pool and the oil to fill the SUV's middle America feels they have a right to own. It's hard to put this into words without coming off as sounding uneducated or worse yet, emotional. I just don't see any way to be "fair and balanced" about what is happening, sorry.

Posted by: Cat at September 10, 2003 11:19 AM

"Robert, perhaps a few books would benefit you.
I suggest 'On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War' by Col Harry G. Summers"

Oh, Vietnam. How Brilliant! Its just like Vietnam!
Quagmire, Quagmire, Quagmire, Quagmire. Oh the Humanity! Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.

Give Me A Break Dude.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 11, 2003 01:19 AM

I guess only supporters of the president give advice. Reminds me of my old USENET days, when I found that quoting econ textbooks to libertarians shocked them.

Robert, I didn't tell you to go out and read some history books, an atlas, and to learn some games. I suggest two very specific books, one them actually discussing an actual war betwen the actual two countries in question.

As for the Vietnam analogies, they are relevant. I think that it would be good for the USA if historians in fifty years aren't publishing dissertations with titles like 'Vietnam II: Deja Vu in Arabic'.

Some of the comments in the books are achingly relevant, such as the comparison of Saddam's situation with Russia to Thieu's comments about S. Vietnam's situation with the USA in 1973-5.

And many of this administration's actions, attitudes and remarks are very reminiscent of Vietnam. From 'vast stockpiles' which didn't exist, to optimistism about the war to blaming problems on critics to using starting something as justification for it continuing.

Another cite: Ever read Dan Rather's comment on early Vietnam in his autobiography? He mentioned that at one point, he and many other reporters were pestering their editors, wanting to go to Vietnam Right NOW. They expected US airborne troopers to clean the place up in a few months, so the window of opportunity to report on the war was closing fast.

Posted by: Barry at September 12, 2003 10:05 AM

'Vietnam II: Deja Vu in Arabic'.

"Dan Rather's comment on early Vietnam in his autobiography?"

Very funny. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. Not that I would want to. Dan Rather. Wow!

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 12, 2003 01:30 PM

Good dodge. You offer content-free BS, I offer actual information, you dodge again, feigning laughter.

BTW - the next classical step is you post something like " . Gee, why are you worked up about this? Go and get a life."

To save us both time, I'll do it:

Robert, why are you so worked up about this? It's a lovely day. Go take a walk. See a movie.

Posted by: Barry at September 13, 2003 08:53 AM

Dan Rather does not count as actual information.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 13, 2003 09:45 PM

Robert, I can understand if you're not a fan of Dan Rather for whatever reason. He's certainly become considerably daffier as he has aged. But Barry's mention doesn't have anything to do with Rather's liberal views or strange behavior. He's noting Rather's contention that in the early stages of Vietnam, he and other reporters thought the war would end quickly. That turned out not to be the case. That's all.

One can quibble about whether Vietnam is a fair analogy; certainly the mere mention of Vietnam is such a loaded thing that some might say it's best avoided. I disagree with that. I think that as long as you keep the proper caveats in mind (to wit: Iraq obviously isn't Vietnam right now, but the current stage of the involvement bears some resemblance to the early stages of the Vietnam conflict), it's a topic worth reasoned discussion. I have to say, I haven't seen any arguments or comments from you that match Barry's in content or tone.

Posted by: John Edwards at September 15, 2003 11:59 AM

And you wont

To sum up. First Dan Rather has no credibility. If he says its 7:00, check your watch.

The problem with the Vietnam as an analogy is that the only facts Vietnam and Iraq have in common are that both are wars and both countries are in the eastern hemisphere. Otherwise, Vietnam resembles Iraq the same way that Calvin Coolidge resembles the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Lion.

Why are the pandits pushing the idea? I think the odious Jonathan Schell: "The United States must learn to lose this war" tips their hand. Its nostalgia, its the March on Washington, the 68 Denocratic convention, the drugs, the music, the sex. "This time" they say to themselves, "this time we wiil gather the power we had then, and use it to make a real revolution."

It almost makes me teary eyed (I was in my salad days then), but wishing won't make it so. The United States "lost" in Vietnam, but the cost of that failure was mainly born by the Vietnamiese and their neighbors. If we "lose" in Iraq, we shall bear the cost. And the cost is too high.

Imagine, if you will, terror attacks in American cities as frequent as they are in Israel. Can we respond? Nuclear weapons? Mercenaries? Concentration camps? Make a desert call it peace. Kill them all, God will know his own. That's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not "A world become one, of salads and sun." Nope, only a fool would say that.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 17, 2003 08:25 PM