A long essay on terrorism, American policy, and whitewater canoeing...
When I was 14, one of my teachers got me a scholarship to attend Wolfcreek Wilderness Institute, an Outward Bound-style outfit that my family could have never afforded on its own. And so a few weeks later I found myself in a canoe with another teenager, learning to paddle whitewater on the upper reaches of the Chatooga River.
Most of the shoals we encountered on that first day rated no tougher than Class 2 rapids, yet my partner and I proved incapable of handling them. If there was one rock in the middle of the river, we would run into it, and this tendency got worse, not better, as the day wore on. To cap the day's frustration, we dumped the boat on the last rapid of the day and soaked all our gear.
My second day wasn't much better and I lost my glasses in a spill, no small consideration for someone with 20/300 vision. Eventually my frustration boiled over, provoking an immediate and harsh correction from one of the adult leaders. What he said remains one of the most valuable lessons I ever received.
"If you spend all your time looking for rocks, you'll always run into them, because where your attention goes your boat will follow. If you want stay off the rocks, stop looking for them and start looking for the patterns in the water that show you the way through."
To prove his point, the group leader had my partner give me his spot in the front of the canoe. Now I was the one responsible for picking out the way through rapids, and I was so nearsighted I literally couldn't have spotted a partially submerged
rock two feet in front of us. But I could see the subtle patterns in the water just fine: Big "V" shapes pointing upstream where the rocks
were, big "V" shapes pointing downstream indicating a safe passageway between two rocks.
Our instructors had told us to look for these patterns, but our attention had inevitably strayed toward the threats presented by the rocks. Now, with me incapable of being distracted, I was forced into looking for patterns. And our performance improved immediately.
On the second night we camped just above a famous section called The Narrows. My partner and I ran it flawlessly the next morning, and later that day ours was the only boat to make it through a Class 4 waterfall without swamping or overturning. The whole day went like that: With me reading patterns instead of avoiding rocks, we glided through the most challenging section of the river without incident, even while our friends and instructors struggled.
The analogy here is obvious: By focusing our attention on terrorism rather than seeking solutions to the problems that inspire it, American policy is inevitably nurturing conflict. Not only does this focus enmesh our destiny with that of the terrorists, it gives power to their cause while sullying our own. It is, in a sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy, spinning a vicious cycle of fear, anger, more deadly encounters, more renewed emphasis, more fear, more anger, more "I-told-you-so" political moments. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, "And so on."
The Charge of the Right Brigade
What's needed today isn't a renewed "get-tough" policy on the rocks in the river, but a new kind of discipline. Conservatives tell us that we must keep our eyes on the threat, preaching the discipline of determination. I say that we need the determination to keep our focus on solutions. For all our avowed toughness, our enemies are now setting our agenda for us, forcing us to react instead of acting on our own initiative. This is a classic strategic blunder.
As I wrote in my 2005 Xarker Manifesto, "Killing enemies who attack us is a good thing. Making more of them isn't." This week anonymous intelligence personnel in the United States and the United Kingdom made headlines by leaking classifed intelligence documents concluding that our adventure in Iraq has done exactly that, turning Iraq into (in the words of the British author) "a recruiting sergeant" for jihadists.
Yet Americans are proving to be incapable of addressing this central fact about our current situation in functional, rational ways. The Bush White continues to deny that the intelligence findings actually say what they actually say. The "debate" over the bill establishing rules for the treatment of suspected terrorists has been more notable for what it has obscured (the central issue is indemnifying the administration for previous acts of torture committed by Americans) than what it has revealed. In the face of overwhelming evidence, many American still choose to believe that things in Iraq are better than they seem and that the real problem is the failure of the global media to paint an accurate picture.
As if to prove this state of stunning denial, certain conservatives (not to mention Condoleeza Rice) have invested heavily in marketing the idea that Clinton administration was really to blame for the 9/11 attacks.
Would that it were so. If anything, American media has actually downplayed the crisis in Iraq, as any casual acquaintance with international media would demonstrate. We're bascially living in a state of stunned denial here. A blogger I know regularly posts military press releases describing Iraqi gratitute for various American civil projects. Yet a new poll conducted by the University of Maryland indicates that more than 60 percent of Iraqis favor attacks on Americans. A U.S. State Department poll found that two-thirds of Iraqis in Baghdad favor the immediate withdrawal of American forces. The UM poll found similar evidence across the country. In answer after answer, we see the same patterns: Get out. You're making things worse. We don't want you here.
Bush persists in framing the war in Iraq as the central front in what he has called "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century." Others have called it "The Long War," and "The Clash of Civilizations." But none of these frames truly explain the situation we face. Terrorism is a means of acheiving a goal, not a thing in and of itself. But rather than examining what the goals of terrorists might be, we are told that terrorists threaten us because they hate our way of life, because they hate freedom. And all too many intelligent, educated Americans simply accept this as fact.
Beneath the rock
In the same way that we cannot win the "War on Drugs" by targeting street dealers, we will never win the "War on Terror" by targeting individual terror cells. Terrorists, like drug dealers, must be dealt with. But if we want to "win" this fight, we must stop focusing our strategic energies on immediate threats and start addressing the goals of our "enemies."
We're told that the Islamists want to "reestablish the Caliphate" across the Middle East and South Central Asia, and that from there they will challenge the West for world dominance. Some or all of this may be true. But to stop there is to fail to understand why our enemies are our enemies.
There's a reason that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis: The immediate objective of the jihadists isn't the destruction of Western freedoms, but seizing control of the Arabian peninsula from the monarchists who are now squandering its resources. Islamists may despise our sinful Western ways, but they don't make war on us because they realistically expect to destroy us. They're ruthless, but they're not crazy.
The best case that I've heard contends that Osama viewed the 9/11 attacks as a chess move directed toward forcing "Crusader" military bases off of sacred Saudi Arabian sand. And, lest we think that their motivation is solely religious, remember: Osama may be Saudi royalty, but he's an enemy of the ruling House of Saud. Those offending U.S. military bases are protecting Saudi petro dollars, and so long as those dollars keep flowing, the Saud family is likely to remain in power.
The Sauds are the heirs of nomadic chiefs who returned to power in the early 20th century, in part through their willingness to deal favorably with Western oil companies. The royal family is associated with Wahhabism, a puritanical flavor of Islam. As an Arabic speaking friend of mine put it, "The Saudis are the Beverly Hillbillies of the Arab world," unprepared for the power and wealth that has flowed to them for the past 70 years. Consequently they are spoiled, corrupt and devious power brokers, alternately playing and being played by Western interests.
To confuse Saudi Arabia's interests with the interests of common Arabs and other Muslims is to misread the situation entirely. The Sauds and the other Gulf monarchists want to retain their lucrative lifestyles; ordinary Arabs want a share of the petro wealth before the ruling yahoos run the wells dry. Americans may view Arabs as backward, but trust that they are smart enough to know the clock is ticking down to their post-oil future. Without heavy investment in modern industries right away, the economic prognosis for the Arabic world is bleak. Saudi and Kuwati princes know this, but continue to squander their ill-gotten carbon inheritance on yachts, French villas and hookers.
What does Osama want? Well, it is a Caliphate of sorts: a united Islamic political power that stretches from Casablanca to Kashmir. As Westerners we deem that interest a threat, but from an Arab perspective, Islamic rule is seen as the only practical alternative to corrupt, pro-Western petro-states. The proto-Islamist organization The Islamic Brotherhood actually arose in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when the mosque was the only place in which dissenting political sentiments could be spoken in Egypt without fear of immeidate police reprisal. This situation has remained basically the status quo in much of the Arab world ever since.
Which brings us to a tremendous rock: For all our talk about spreading democracy, democracy is actually the last thing we want in the Middle East. When Arabs get to vote, they tend to vote for people we don't like. The oil industry, which is heavily invested in both the House of Saud and the House of Bush, certainly doesn't want to see its access to Arabian oil riding on the whims of an Islamist electorate -- particularly one that cannot be manipulated via the secret vices of plump princes. And American liberals, for all their talk about self-determination, may not be so dissimilar. How many liberals could live with a democratic election in Iraq that brought about Taliban-style sharia and the subsequent destruction of civil rights for Muslim women?
Yet if we truly believe in democracy, then we must view these ugly risks as acceptable consequences -- at the very least, as steps along the way towards a more stable future. So let me state this clearly: If we really want to fight terrorism, we should use our influence to help bring about free elections that will likely bring to power Islamist governments that do not like us. This will not offer us immediate gratification, but it will address the root cause of Islamist extremism: Arab resentment of economic colonialism. It's an unpleasant reality, but it is what it is. When religious fanaticism is viewed as the only alternative to corrupt secularism, corrupt secularism produces religious fantatics. Our goal should be to shut down that cycle.
Those who are obsessed with the rocks in the stream see expanded powers for our "enemies" as an increased threat, but in doing so they assume that we're the focus of Islamist attention. Once again, this is the rock effect. Most Muslims want things that would seem quite familiar to most Americans, and truly Islamist governments -- with their emphasis on theology over practicality -- will struggle to provide them. Over time, most Islamist governments will moderate, if only because the challenge of providing good roads and efficient services is best served by secular expertise, not sublime interpretations of the Koran.
In other words, if you want to de-radicalize a radical, give him a mortgage.
The Dome of the Rock
We can hardly write on this topic without discussing Israel and the Palestinian question, because it appears to be central. It's certainly significant. But once again, our focus on fighting evil wherever we see it prevents us from steering our way between the rocks here.
Reconciling Muslims and Jews is a task far beyond the vision of this writer, and consequently I recommend that we not waste our time imagining a future in which imans and rabbis and priests will stand outside the Dome of the Rock holding hands and singing Kumbaya. It would be nice if everyone loved and appreciated each other, but brotherly love isn't much of a policy goal. I would prefer that we focus our immediate attention on resettling Palestinians.
While this prospect has never been easy, it's more daunting today than it was six years ago. The Bush administration has chosen to back Israel overtly, undoing 30 years of American foreign policy and abandoning the "honest broker" position that every American president since Nixon has adopted. Supporters of this policy point out that the Palestinians and their allies are bad actors, terrorists who refuse to recognize the right of Israel to exist. And I don't dispute many of their central arguments. Yes, comparing random rocket attacks on Israeli neighborhoods to civilian deaths that occur in strikes against Hezbollah military positions is truly false relativism.
Yet the Palestinians remain -- an inconvenient people, fraught with difficulties, radicalized and embittered, trapped in limbo since 1949. And so long as their future remains unresolved, they will remain as the No. 1 pawn of the region's anti-Israeli troublemakers. Simply put, if we want to achieve relative peace in the region, Palestinians require a homeland. We know where that homeland is and we know what it will take to establish it. But we've been unable to get there because radicals have been so successful at derailing the efforts of peacemakers.
"That proves it," the defenders of Israel say after every attack. "These people cannot be dealt with."
Which brings us to this question: Are we trying to win an argument, or are we trying to make peace? Because here in the West, arguing with other Westerners, you can win the argument that the Palestinians are the most to blame -- and in winning it, still come no closer to a peaceful solution.
But if we are seeking a practical peace, we cannot allow the most radical to dictate the terms of future agreements. This means that West Bank settlements cannot be used as human roadblocks to the creation of a Palestinian state, and that Hammas must face international pressure to contain its militant wing. All the players in this drama -- including the United States, the European Union, Syria and Iran -- should be prepared to contribute generous aid to the displaced Israelis as well as the incoming Palestinians. We must make peace worth the risk.
Once we have completed that transitition, it will be time for us to turn to the real rock in our sandal: Jerusalem. Its future must be as an international city, governed by representatives from the three different faiths. Now is not the time to discuss it, but we should all understand that this is the end-game, the solution toward which we must work. It undergirds every aspect of the Arab-Israeli family feud. Jerusalem, light of the world, is where we must learn to get along. Not for spiritual reasons, but for practical ones.
Two people in a canoe can't see the same things, so one must lead and the other must follow. If the person in the front blocks the other's view and repeatedly runs into rocks, the person in the back soon loses confidence in the direction of the boat. Soon the two are working against each other, and the occasional bump turns into a series of catastrophes.
That's the United States today, and until our leaders stop rushing to confront every rock in the river, we will continue scraping along, pulling against each other, wasting our energy and goodwill on pointless squabbles. It is not sufficient to blame the hole in the canoe on the notion that rocks are bad. Rocks are rocks, and our goal should not be the conquest or avoidance of rocks, but getting down the river together.
If we are ever again to become as united as we were in the fall of 2001, we must begin by restoring the coalitions that used to lie at the center of American politics. Once that task is accomplished, we must move that center back to the center. I believe, but cannot prove, that most Americans have had it with extreme ideologies and partisan filters. We are in dire need of practical, informed leaders who know where they're headed and have the vision to spot the patterns that will get us there.
Today's leaders seem obsessed with justifying their bad choices. Just a month ago the airwaves were filled with the notion that the situation in the Middle East was akin to that in Western Europe in 1939. Our choice, we were told, was between the courage to confront Islamist evil and the cowardice of appeasement. Make no mistake, we're told: These people are bad. "There is a force occupying the planet that's every bit as dangerous as Adolf Hitler," they say.
But we must understand these are the voices of the people at the front of the boat, humiliated by previous mistakes, staring at rocks, missing the bigger picture and trying to block our view. Comparing the world of 2006 to the world of 1939 is not only misleading, it is invariably misleading. Consider:
In 1939, the free world was confronted by totalitarian industrial states making bids for world domination in a truly global sense: Fascists in Western Europe and Africa, Communists in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; Imperialists across the Pacific Rim. For years we watched them build their arsenals, bully their neighbors, invade innocent countries and prepare for wider conquest. Spain, Manchuria, Ethopia, Czechoslovakia and Austria all fell long before the war "began" in September 1939. No, in the late 1930s, it was painfully obvious what lay ahead. We were provoked into a symmetrical, industrial age war and won it. When it ended, it was over.
In 2006, "the West" is threatened by a stateless, hidden enemy, funded and backed by a stateless network of clerics, radicals and Spookworld intelligence agencies. Its goal is the destruction of Arabian petro-monarchies, which are propped up by multinational corporations that transcend traditional nation-state concepts of loyalty. Our leaders propose that we fight this non-industrial, asymmetrical, stateless foe with the tools of a military-industrial complex rooted in the Cold War, protecting an economic status quo that both motivates and supplies our invisible enemies. None of our leaders can give a candid answer when asked for the victory conditions in the "Global War on Terror," because there are no victory conditions. It is not a war they're proposing, but a new way of life in which war is normal and perpetual.
By stubbornly committing ourselves to confronting our enemies on the guerilla battlefield, where we cannot win and they must simply outlast us to prevail, we are fixating on an enormous rock. By defending our failures on moral grounds, by saying that more failure is required if we are to prove our courage, we are banging into that same rock over and over.
There are ways down this river, but they require discipline of thought and action. They require courage when confronted by fear, wisdom when inflamed by anger. But first and foremost, the way ahead requires that we rediscover our common interests as a nation and reject leadership that polarizes us.
As we go to the polls this fall, let's choose practically. Let's stop electing the people who tell us only they can steer us past those menacing, hidden rocks in the river.