On London

I spent the evening of July 7th on the shores of the beautiful Clear Lake, a bucolic scene just a little north of California’s more famous Napa Valley. It wasn’t until late in the evening that I heard about the London bombings.

I’m not sure that there is much to say about these attacks, other than to acknowledge that they occurred, and to condemn them. These events are almost impossible to analyze, especially for somebody who knows people who are living in London and could have been in harm's way. I spent some time trying to figure out the logic that drives Al Qaeda to commit these atrocities. What strikes me is their signature precision and coordination: four bombs in the same city in just one hour. And while I’m amazed at how any group could use this kind of sophisticated and rational planning in the service of what often seems like irrational, if not incoherent, ideology, it’s certainly not humanity’s first example - both fascism and communism operated in much the same way. Both systems were often riddled with loopholes, even mutually exclusive ideas. But both systems also thrived on local order and precision, at least on paper.

That’s why I found William Saletan’s analysis of current terrorist strategy helpful. While each and every politician has tried to draw lessons from 9/11 and other attacks for the public (airport screeners should be government employees, we should remove Saddam Hussein from power, the attacks "changed the equation" for American foreign policy), Saletan deciphers Bin Laden’s strategy, more or less without bias: “Bin Laden's whole game plan is to turn the people of the democratic world against their governments. He thinks democracies are weak because their people, who are more easily frightened than their governments, can bring those governments down.” I think that people of almost any persuasion can stipulate to the above, succinct analysis. What unsettles me is the fact that this exact strategy has worked in the past. The Third Republic of France fell quickly and dejectedly to the Germans exactly because of a complete lack of popular will on the part of the French to support their politicians and homeland. America should hardly point fingers, though. Communists easily exploited the American public’s weakness of will and willingness to compromise to receive favorable settlement terms in Korea in 1953. And I think that everyone knows that Bin Laden was deeply impressed by the American public’s strong opposition to our intervention policy in Somalia, following the famous “Blackhawk Down” incident.

It’s an important point, however, that it’s not just democracies that are subject to divorce from their public’s views. Saddam’s forces have twice refused to stand and fight for his policies and power, and in North Korea, the conflict was, in practice, fought almost entirely with Chinese “volunteer” forces, while North Korean troops looked for chances to defect. In fact, regimes and groups that repress free ideas and discussion are more likely to suffer a violent reversal in public opinion. I emphasize this only because I think that Bin Laden’s strategy can work just as well for the United States. Al Qaeda understands that importance of psychological battles, while the Bush administration has been slow to advance its front. For all his talk about liberty, Bush has chosen to preach to the choir – Americans and Europeans already believe in democratic ideals. In addition to obvious delays in setting up and operating our foreign “information” operations, the Bush administration has also failed to win public support in almost any country other than the United States, as much of the world now sees China as a more favorable country.

Yes, our duty as Americans is to not bow to pressure from terrorists. I’ll even grant the administration that it is our duty to be “extra vigilant.” But it’s also our government’s duty to win the war on tyranny and fundamentalism that it has declared. I can think of no more effective strategy for the United States than to divorce the Arab world from Al Qaeda and similar groups. We need to take a page from the Bin Laden playbook, and win over the citizens of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others. The United States must show them that there are alternative points of view to consider besides those of Wahabi Islam. Until we present these citizens of the world with a viable alternative to fundamentalism and bombs (either indiscriminate or “smart”) we won’t have even begun to fight fundamentalism – and no amount of public vigilance alone will solve that problem.


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