Friday, August 22, 2003

# Posted 4:46 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HEARTS AND MINDS AND BOMBS: As mentioned before, I have come under attack from a wide array of critics for arguing that this week's bombing of UN headquarters was not a triumph for anti-American forces, but a sign of their desperation.

Especially noteworthy is the fact that my critics include the blogosphere's entire center-left brain trust, i.e. Josh Marshall, Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum. Gentlemen, it's an honor. Now let's get down to business.

There are two principal lines of attack against the 'desperation thesis': First, that Islamic fundamentalists rather than Ba'athist renegades were responsible for the attack. Second, that "conservative columnists" have been so blinded by their partisan and ideological commitments to success in Iraq that they are incapable of acknowledging any sort of setback for American interests.

I'm going to address the first point first since it is a more direct and factual objection to my analysis. Pointing out that no one knows the true identity of the bombers, Matt Yglesias writes that
Maybe all the various attacks we've seen in Iraq were organized by a single, loosely-affiliated group of people. Maybe these people really are deeply unpopular Ba'ath Party remnants. Maybe they've started targeting infrastructure because they're on their last legs and no longer capable of targeting US soldiers. Honestly, though, I just don't see how anyone could know these things.
While Matt never explicitly states why it is important whether Ba'athists or Islamists were responsible for the attack, I think his implicit logic is fairly clear: that if Islamists are responsible, one cannot conclude that the UN attack represents a failure of the Ba'athists initial strategy of focusing their attacks on American forces. Rather, the UN attack may represent one of the first blows in an entirely new insurgency against the occupation government. By extension, there is no reason to believe that the attack represents any sort of desperation.

This assertion begs two questions: First, what do we actually know about the identity of the bombers? Second, must one believe that the appearence of an independent Islamist force in Iraq represents a success for anti-American forces?

The first question is basically matter of evidence and still has no clear answer. I admit that in my initial post on the UN bombing I did not give sufficient consideration to the possibility of Islamists being responsible for it. For a forceful argument in favor of Islamist responsibility, take a look at Michael Ledeen's recent column in the Telegraph. (Also, special thanks to Michael for taking the time to send in his thoughts on my original post.)

While Michael makes some good points, his argument is basically contextual and doesn't establish whether or not Islamists were responsible for this specific attack. The evidence against Islamist responsibility consists of two main facts: First, that the explosives used in the attack were standard components of Saddam's military arsenal. Second, that the former Iraqi secret service agents guarding the UN compound may have been complicit in the attack.

While US officials think that the Ba'athist hypothesis is much more plausible, they haven't ruled out the possibility of the attack being authored by Islamists. There are also those individuals who suspect that the Ba'athists and Islamists are working together, but there isn't any solid evidence to back that up just yet.

Now on to the second question: So what if Islamists were responsible for the attack rather than Ba'athists? I wrote yesterday that evidence of Islamic responsibility
hardly contradicts my main point: that if our enemies are attacking the UN, they have no hope of winning the minds and hearts of the people of Iraq.
Let me elaborate on that a bit. Liberal critics have been arguing from the moment the occupation began that the key to success would be to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, both by restoring basic services and delivering on our promise of democratic self-rule. That, after all, was the lesson of Vietnam: that no amount of firepower can win a guerrilla if the people are on the guerrilla's side.

Thus, I find it rather ironic that they see the UN bombing as a setback. I think the most straightforward version of the liberal argument has been made by blogopshere newcomer Jon Gradowski, who writes that the UN attack was a show of force which may well scare Iraqi citiznes into abandoning their (temporary) support for the occupation government. In short, hearts and minds don't matter.

Yet why should a handful of car bombs lead the people of Iraq to abandon their aspiration of a establishing a democratic, non-Ba'athist order? Especially when the United States has more than a 120,000 troops on the ground and continues to apprehend leading Ba'athist figures such as Chemical Ali and former Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan?

(If you are a fan of Vietnam comparisons, you might ask why a handful of car bombs would terrorize the people of Iraq into submission if hundreds of thousands of tons of high explosives couldn't terrorize the people of Vietnam into abandoning their hopes of soveriegnty and independence?)

If Islamists were responsible for the attack instead of Ba'athists, one has to modify this argument somewhat. If this were a wholly Islamist operation, it may represent the first (second, actually -- see "Jordanian Embassy") in the wave of devastating suicide attacks. But how many attacks will it take to persuade the average Iraqi citizen that he or she is better off without American forces on the ground?

In answering this question, it is important to consider the nature of the target in the UN attack. Ralph Peters writes that
for al Qaeda and associated terrorists, the United Nations is a Western-dominated tool of Christians and Zionists - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
But the people of Iraq are not al Qaeda. According to the Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights,
In the aftermath of the tragic bombing in Baghdad...many have speculated that Iraqis do not welcome United Nations involvement in reconstruction.

Physicians for Human Rights recently asked Iraqis about the United Nations' role there in a population-based survey of more than 2,000 households.

When asked if the United Nations should play a lead role in the reconstruction process, more than 85 percent said that it should play the lead role, and close to 90 percent felt that international assistance in reconstruction was very important.

The Iraqi people are the ones who suffer the most from acts of terror like the bombing in Baghdad. These attacks only set back delivery of basic needs and rights like electricity, clean water, food, health and the development of civil society in Iraq.

The American-led coalition should allow the United Nations a stronger and more independent role in Iraq.
Given that PHR is hardly a pro-Bush organization, I think its word carries a fair amount of weight. Besides, the people of Iraq would have to be ignoring all of the information now available to them in order to conclude that the UN is just a US henchman in disguise.

If you're still with me at this point, you might ask why Islamists would embark on a strategy that is so obviously self-defeating? The answer, of course, is that to them it isn't so obvious. As Peters observed, they are so blinded by ideology and by the Mogadishu analogy that they simply don't believe that either the US army or the people of Iraq are willing to fight for what they believe in.

As such, "desperate" may not be the best way to characterize the Islamist strategy if, in fact, Islamists were responsible for the UN attack. The Islamists are simply unable to switch gears despite the fact that up until know their suicide strategy has resulted in devastating failures, including the destruction of their base in Afghanistan and the apprehension of many Al Qaeda leadership figures.

Again you might ask, "Are the Islamists really that stupid or that unwilling to confront reality?" Well, the Americans were in Vietnam. The Soviets were in Eastern Europe. Further examples aren't hard to think of. Given the Islamists' extreme ideological commitments and the closed nature of their organizations, there is little reason to believe that they will prove any better at coming to grips with reality.

Alternately, the Islamists' may well recognize that they are losing their war against the United States but still have no idea how to win it and no ability to question their tactics. In essence, that was the situation of the United States in Vietnam. We simply didn't know how to win hearts and minds despite knowing that without hearts and minds we couldn't win the war. (It was more complex than that, but I'm not going to go into it here.)

In the final analysis, it is unlikely that Islamist terrorists in Iraq are as desperate as their Ba'athist counterparts, since the Islamists have an international support structure that the Ba'athists lack. Yet if the Islamists are responsible for attacking the UN (or worked in tandem with the Ba'athist underground to organize the attack) then they are strategically desperate and have no idea how to get the people of Iraq to join them in their crusade against the American Satan.

PS I know I didn't get to Josh Marshall's criticism. But it'll have to wait until I get back on Sunday.
(2) opinions -- Add your opinion

I was referred here by a post by Matthew Yglesias (http://www.matthewyglesias.com/archives/2007/02/postmodern_warriors/); it's interesting to see how badly the post has aged.
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