Dec 4, 2007

Winning The Right War

The Brookings Institute has been kind enough to retrieve a new article on the "War on Terror" by one of their Senior Fellows from behind the paid firewall of The International Institute For Strategic Studies.

Never ones to fail to take advantage of an exploit, we hereby present an excerpt (and more valuably -- a link).

From Winning the Right War by Philip H. Gordon (30-page pdf):

Bush ... argues that, even though the terrorists hate freedom, it is the lack of freedom in their own countries that drives them to support terror­ism. The picture painted is thus one of some fixed set of ‘evildoers’, driven to terrorism by the absence of democracy in their homelands, who attack America and its allies because they hate the freedoms symbolised by those countries. As a basis for understanding – and therefore dealing with – the terrorist threat, this is a partial and exceedingly misleading explanation.

The idea that terrorists attack because they hate freedom is particularly mis­guided. The explanation is convenient, because it suggests that there is nothing we can do about it (since they hate ‘who we are’ rather than ‘what we do’), and it is harmful because it suggests that the only way to defeat such terrorists is to kill or capture them all, since we’re obviously not prepared to sacrifice our freedom to appease them. But there is little evidence to suggest that hatred of freedom is in fact a primary cause of terrorism, and much to suggest that it is not.

At the most superficial level, if freedom were the main target for terror­ists, they would be just as likely to attack Switzerland, Canada, Costa Rica or Sweden as the United States, which is clearly not the case. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt have been much more frequent targets of attacks than the United States, and it is surely not because the terrorists hate the individual liber­ties and elected governments in those countries.

Extensive polling in the Muslim world also challenges the notion of a sig­nificant link between terrorism and a hatred for freedom. While many Islamist ideologues do often express revulsion with the personal liberties and sexual freedom enjoyed in Western countries, it turns out that even most of the Muslims who support terrorism and trust Osama bin Laden favour elected government, personal liberty, educational opportunity and economic choice. Some Muslim extremists may not like American-style democracy, but that is not why they become terrorists, and not why others support them.


Even to the degree that stable democracy is part of the longer-term solu­tion to the terrorist problem, there remains the problem of how to promote it. Democracy seems to be the long-term trend among states based on historic national communities in Europe, North America and Latin America, but it is much harder to install where no strong ‘nation’ exists, which is sadly the case for most of the Muslim world. Only Iran, Turkey, Egypt and possibly Indonesia really meet the nationhood criterion, and even these countries are plagued by serious ethnic and religious divisions. Certainly Iraq – with artificial borders, diverse ethnic and religious groups, and unevenly dispersed natural resources – is not promising terrain for the establishment of democracy, notwithstanding the claims of some of the most prominent supporters of the war. In the long run, it is possible to imagine that economic development, social modernisation, a patient process of institution building, and more equitable distribution of resources among different ethnic, religious and social groups might create the conditions necessary for democracy to develop. But a counteterrorism strategy based on such uncertainties – the uncertain link between an absence of democ­racy and terrorism as well as the uncertainty that democracy can be implanted where the right conditions are not in place – will have very limited prospects for success.


The perception of foreign occupation of Muslim lands also seems to contrib­ute to terrorists’ decisions to carry out attacks. In fact, as scholar Robert Pape has demonstrated, suicide bombers are far more often motivated by a desire to fight against foreign military occupation and for self-determination rather than by a desire to promote democracy at home. Looking at Tamil, Palestinian, Chechen, and al-Qaeda suicide bombers, Pape found that what they most had in common was a perception that their communities were being humiliated by more power­ful outsiders, and that they could reverse that humiliation by inflicting pain on those countries and obliging them to withdraw.

None of this means that the United States should simply change its poli­cies to make potential terrorists happy. But to deny any link between political context and an individual’s decision to become a terrorist, or to wilfully mis­place blame on a vague hatred for freedom or lack of democracy, is to start the ‘war on terror’ with a huge disadvantage. It is hard to fight an enemy without being honest about its real nature.


There is nothing easy about confronting the murderous threat posed by Islamist extremists who use violence to achieve political goals. The Bush administra­tion’s ‘war on terror’ is failing, however, not only because the job is inherently difficult but because the president launched the wrong war. He misconstrued the nature of the threat, placed too much faith in the use of military force, paid too little attention to the importance of moral authority and ideological combat, conflated a diverse array of threats into a single monolith, failed to appreciate the importance of winning and maintaining friends and allies, and failed to supply the necessary resources for the kind of war he chose to fight.

In my book Winning the Right War, I argue that an alternative course of action is both possible and necessary. In such a new approach, the United States and its allies would approach the ‘war on terror’ as a long-term ideological struggle – in some ways like the fight against Communism during the Cold War – that we will win only when we have discredited the extremist ideas of our enemies.


In fighting the right war along these lines, we would demonstrate confidence that, in the long run, the hateful, repressive ideology we are fighting will collapse, like communism before it. Ultimately, violent Islamism is not likely to win enduring support. Terrorism is not a strategy with which Muslims will forever want to be associated, and it will create a backlash within Muslim societies. With time and experience, and if the United States and its allies make the right choices, Muslims will themselves turn against the extremists in their midst. They will seek to put their civilisation on a path that will restore its greatest era, when the Islamic world was a multicultural zone of tolerance and of intellectual, artistic and scientific achievement. The agents of this change might come from above – leaders fearful of losing their grip on power if they fail to change – or from below – citizens fed up both with secular autocracy and the fundamentalist alternative – but they will come as the inevita­ble if destructive effects of modernisation run their course. Islamist extremism, in other words, will end up on the same ash-heap of history as Communism did, so long as we do not play into the extremists’ hands and artificially prolong its life.


theBhc said...

Wow. These guys get paid -- quite handsomely -- to argue that the Bush administration rhetoric of "they hate our freedom" is a ... "misleading explanation."

I wish I could get a easy gig like that.

Meatball One said...

Buy a better suit, maybe your luck will turn. ;)

Speaking of "they hate our freedom", I saw this comment posted somewhere at SMC today.

"You go to war with the excuse you have, not necessarily the excuse you want. (I think it's the phraseology of Soob )

And how are you faring? Do you have an e-mail address these days?

theBhc said...


I'm well. And by "well," I mean reading a lot of grim things and wondering what it all means. Conclusions so far lack optimism.

Working up a new site, which I expect to introduce in the new year. I'll keep you posted and expect appropriate fanfare.

You can find my email on this site page, in the "Author" box. Check it out and drop me a line!

theBhc said...


It strikes me that I'm being needlessly cryptic with the email. Drop me a line:

ken AT