April 20, 2004

Isolated Incidents

I'm sure it isn't a new observation, but for all the talk about it, there are ultimately only two ways of looking at September 11:

1. As a crime;
2. As a declaration of war.

If you look at it as a crime, you're likely to think hunting down Osama bin Laden is Job 1. And you're likely to be persuaded by guys like Richard Clarke who say we botched Job 1 and went into Iraq to distract from that.

If you look at it as a declaration of war, you're likely to think it's time we quit leaving parts of the Middle East to fester in a sludge of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism and theocracy, and then you're likely to formulate plans that seek to correct that.

It's ironic to me that many of the people who wailed about "root causes" can't figure out that root causes are exactly what we're overseas trying to address.

We just don't think "not ratifying Kyoto" counts as one of those root causes.

I asked once whether anyone thought it was crucial that we capture bin Laden, and I said that personally, I didn't think it was. Everything I've read about al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist networks characterizes it as a loosely-networked organization, more flat than hierarchic, operating on a system of low-level rules (and in that sense sharing a characteristic of emergent systems). And if you know even the tiniest thimbleful about emergent systems, you know that such systems do not require a leader.

It doesn't matter whether bin Laden's alive or dead. It matters as an emotional issue only, as a matter of pride: "We got bin Laden! USA! USA!"

But it's not going to change the operation of al Qaeda one bit.

The only thing that's going to change the operation of al Qaeda is for it to lose popular support among Muslims. And that's only going to happen if Muslims decide that blowing themselves up for the sake of jihad isn't as good a deal as staying alive is. And they're only going to decide that when their countries are as peaceful and as happy and as stable as most free Western nations are.

Now you can argue whether George W. Bush had any business attempting to bring such conditions about in the Middle East, or whether it was a fool's dream from the beginning, or even whether it was a good idea but botched in execution; but if you do not view the events of September 11 as an isolated incident--if you view them instead as a call to arms, you can't really argue that hauling Osama before some international kangaroo court is an effective solution to the problem of radical Islamist terrorism.

WHY I LOVE COMMENTS UPDATE 04/22/2004: In the comments below, Bernard notes a potential negative ramification of nabbing bin Laden. Feel free to disagree, of course, but it's something I hadn't considered, so I thought I'd point it out. Thanks, man.

Posted by Ilyka at April 20, 2004 11:28 PM in i don't know you tell me

Sensible words. Of course you'll be reviled across the Blogoverse by fans of The Hague, who have never allowed common sense to come between them and their utopian fantasies, but that's life.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at April 21, 2004 03:21 AM

It's war. I think the goal is to keep al Qaeda focused on self-preservation much like Hamas is now. They'll lose popular support when they are defeated. The television images of the gaunt, jaundiced-looking Osama depressed his sympathizers. A dead or captured Osama would hurt their cause tremendously in my view.

Posted by: Rob at April 21, 2004 03:26 AM

That is it. You either believe one or two. The rest follows from it.

Posted by: Margaret at April 22, 2004 04:51 PM

Getting bin Laden could actually be counterproductive to the war on terror, for upon that eventuality those who look upon September 11 as merely a crime will then declare that the case has been closed; further pre-emptive actions taken to combat the 'root causes' of nihilism will then be portrayed as unnecessarily provocative.

Posted by: Bernard at April 22, 2004 06:46 PM

True, Bernard, true.

And yet I deeply, deeply what Osama Bin Laden's balls hanging from my rear-view-mirrors.


Posted by: Lamont Cranston at April 22, 2004 08:56 PM

Bernard, that's reason #9 for attacking Iraq. The stakes are probably too high now for either side to just call for a truce. And that helps us! THEY would use a truce to rebuild, WE would go back to sleep.
(This thought borrowed from Belmont Club)

Posted by: John Weidner at April 22, 2004 10:43 PM

It was definitely a declaration of war. But in my opinion, a premature one. Judging by how the Taliban/al qaeda folded in Afghanistan, I don't think OBL had all his ducks lined up.
Another side effect:
The Iraq war (and Afghanistan) has allowed the US military to rotate all its combat troops into combat. It has tested various strategies and many weapons systems. The US military is far more battle hardened than it has been for decades because of Iraq.
That is bad news not only for al qaeda but for any other potential enemy of the US.

Posted by: Miguel at April 23, 2004 12:32 AM

Miguel is right. War experience is awful to get but it's great to have.

To address Bernard's concern, this "war on terror" is something the CIA/FBI/Pentagon triumvirate can sink their teeth into and something that will keep their budget a high priority. Something the Cold War diminished, the war on terror reinstated. It's a bit cynical to say said triumvirate may be happy but for the wrong reasons so I won't say it.

Posted by: Rob at April 23, 2004 12:09 PM