Wednesday, September 13, 2006

# Posted 6:11 PM by Taylor Owen  

WHEN SIMPLICITY BLURS REALITY: An article today by Fareed Zakaria is worth quoting at length as I think it goes beyond it’s stated purpose, to expose the dangerous historical parallels in oversimplifying an enemy for domestic political purposes, and speaks to wider liberal unease with Bush administration foreign policy. In fact, if democrats are looking for a simplistic overarching foreign policy narrative that can compete with the Republican uni-dimensional islamo-fascist argument, then Fareed’s piece undoubtedly urges caution.
But in the past week the president, seeking to shore up domestic support for his policies, has been redefining the nature of the enemy. In doing so he is making a huge conceptual mistake, one that could haunt American foreign policy for decades.

Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have compared the current conflict to the cold war, a decades-long struggle that was ideological and political in nature, though always with a military aspect. But if we're going to use history and learn from it, it is worrying that America is beginning to repeat one of the central strategic errors of the cold war: treating a fractious group of adversaries as a unified monolith.
He points to a similarly overly simplistic categorization of communism in the early stages of the cold war and, interestingly, highlights a state department warning regarding the costs of such a monolithic label:
At the outset of the cold war in 1949, a senior State Department official, Ware Adams, prepared a critique of America's evolving policy of containment. While accepting that international communism was a monolith and that diverse communist parties around the world shared aims and goals, Adams argued that Washington was playing into the Kremlin's hands by speaking of communism as a unified entity: "[Our policy] has endorsed Stalin's own thesis that all communists everywhere should be part of his monolith. By placing the United States against all communists everywhere it has tended to force them to become or remain part of the monolith." For example, the memo explained, "in China, the communists are somewhat pressed toward being friends of the Kremlin by the fact that they can never be friends of ours."
While this indeed sounds prescient, the real parallel with contemporary policies emerges with the reasons behind such categorization, politics:
In a careful recent essay, former U.S. intelligence official Harold P. Ford documents that by the mid- to late 1950s the CIA was arguing that such splits were developing and should be exploited. Nevertheless, Ford writes, the agency's arguments met stiff "external resistance" from politicians and bureaucrats who were wedded to the idea—no doubt once true—of a unified communist monolith. Even sophisticated policymakers who saw the fracture lines couldn't see how to sell the new approach to Americans who had been brought up to view all communists as evil. Words matter.
Fast forward to the past two week, where "President Bush has, for the first time, started describing America's adversaries as part of "a single movement," "a worldwide network," with a common ideology." This, of course, is not quite true. But what are the strategic implications of such labelling?
To speak, for example, of Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists as part of the same movement is simply absurd. They have hated each other for almost 14 centuries. Right now in Iraq, most of the violence is the work of Shiite militias, which are murdering people they claim are Sunni extremists. How can these two adversaries be part of a unified network?

A look at Bush's remarks on Iran will show how such a monochromatic view distorts America's strategic thinking. Last week he spoke of Iran in the context of a worldwide movement of Shiite extremists. This movement, Bush argued, has managed to take control of a major power, Iran, and use it as a launching pad to spread its terrorist agenda.

I'm not sure the president actually believes in the transnational threat of a "Shiite crescent." If he does, why would he have invaded Iraq and handed it over to another group of Shiite extremists? (The parties that rule Iraq—and whose militias are killing people—are conservative, religious Shiites, often with ties to Iran.) In fact, Iraqi Shiites are different from Iranian Shiites. They have separate national agendas and interests. To conflate them into one group, and then to toss in Sunni Arab extremists as comrades in arms, is bad policy. The world of Islam is extremely diverse. We should recognize and act on this diversity—between Shiites and Sunnis, Persians and Arabs, Asians and Middle Easterners—and most especially between moderates and radicals. But instead the White House is lumping Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiite politicians in Iraq and Sunni jihadists in Egypt all together as one worldwide movement. This is, of course, exactly what Osama bin Laden has argued all along. But why is Bush making bin Laden's case?
In looking for a simplistic narrative, Democrats are right to avoid the dangerously monolithic framework of this administration. Perhaps though, instead of critiquing Bush’s worldview on the grounds of being oversimplified, they should take Fareed’s lead and target the strategic recklessness of such a strategy. Why are we playing into bin Laden’s hand? Why are we deliberately mischaracterising the enemy? Shouldn’t policy be above politics? The rebuttal to simplicity is not undecipherable complexity, but rather an accurate, level headed accounting of the threat. It seems to me that the political utility of this realism will follow.
(19) opinions -- Add your opinion


a rarity for me on OxBlog, but I emphatically agree with everything you (and Zakaria) said. Do I detect a crack in the OxBlog monolith? Have I been wrong to lump four Oxonians into a unified entity? Will Ali G ever get the White House invite he so desperately craves?

I would say that that Liberals of various stripes have been making a lot of the same points that Zakaria makes, which is a reason that this analysis seems so natural for a centrist/realist.

A particular case in point is treating a fractious group of adversaries as a unified monolith. This is our complaint about conveniently conflating Saddam and 9/11.
The problem is the Dems don't have any narrative other than "whatever Bush does is wrong". A counter-argument to the "Islamic Fascist" narrative would have to be made by a serious grown-up with enormous credibility as a patriot with national security leadership - and no ties to moonbats or egocratic billionaires.

I'm not sure there are many Dems with this stature - certainly nobody in the current Party leadership.
Passing over the nonsense about Communism (imagine what great friends we could have been with Mao if only they'd listened to the State Department!), let's move on to the old 'Sunni and Shia can never oever cooperate' canard. Please explain the rationale behind saying the Islamic Republic of Iran is willing to work with the Christian-influenced Reagan Administration and the atheist Soviets, but never a Sunni.

Hamas wants to destroy Israel. Will Hezbollah give up that aim rather than risk helping the Sunnis?

Iran wants us out of Iraq. Will al Qaeda come to our aid to frustrate the aims of the Shia?

Bin Laden has said and demonstrated that his people are willing to die to kill as many of us as possible. When Bush reminds us that is the case, is he making bin Laden's argument? When Bush says bin Laden is evil, is that a dangerous over-simplification? Please, Taylor, complicate things for me.
Ah. So for example he would have avoiding treating both Iraq under Saddam and Iran under the Ayatollah as enemies, and rather played them off each other while occasionally selling arms to one or perhaps providing intelligence to the other in order to keep them divided and advance our realpolitck goals?

Neat. So you're saying that Democrats should run on a "we were totally wrong about that Iran-Contra and sucking up to Saddam thing; oh, and by the way sucking up to Musharraf and the Saudis is a perfectly reasonable thing too" platform.

And to think that some of us were worried about the continuing US foreign policy of ignoring Saudi support of extremism and of tolerating dictators like Musharraf in Pakistan because we can use them against other enemies in the area.
>>At the outset of the cold war in 1949, a senior State Department official, Ware Adams, prepared a critique of America's evolving policy of containment. While accepting that international communism was a monolith and that diverse communist parties around the world shared aims and goals, Adams argued that Washington was playing into the Kremlin's hands by speaking of communism as a unified entity<<

And yet history remembers George Kennan and not Ware Adams. I wonder why that is, exactly?
John Thacker has an interesting point: how do we recognise and exploit divisions amongst our enemies without repeating the moral errors of realpolitik?

On the cold war: I agree that there were divisions that might have been exploited earlier on.

But one also needs to be wary of the argument made during the Vietnam war, that communism in Asia was not one octopus with many heads.

We now know how very intimately Ho Chi Minh's regime collaborated and received support from Mao's China, material, financial, technical. This was not because the US identified the phenomenon of world communism, but because it suited Mao and Ho who were pursuing a common interest.
Policy's never above politics. And undecipherable complexity is in the ear of the voter.

And who's to say that creating a "Shia crescent" by deposing Sadaam isn't exploiting divisions, between Shiites and Sunni Wahaabists, etc?

Far be it from me to dispute the "Bush is an idiot" meme. However, I'd much rather play poker with some earnest, bright young international relations types, than with that guy. I'm not claiming there's truly any subtle, unvoiced strategy hidden far beneath the Toby Keith rhetoric. I keep thinking, though, of Lincoln in 1862, Wilson in 1916, FDR in 1940. How do we distinguish idiocy from politically necessary, um, subtlety?
John, I don't see how my post suggests any of those things? Following on Patrick's realpolitik point though, I don't see how recognising diversity in 'enemies' necessarily requires a morally compromising relationship with any of them. All it presupposes is that different actors have to be addressed using different mechanisms? Recognising the deferent reasons why Iranian citizens and bin Laden want a nuclear weapon, for example, might make for a better policy than clustering them together? The consequences of each are very different, therefore the policies for stopping them must also be. Zakaria's point about communism is that when you create a superficial dualism, then you will undoubtededly force moderates into the opposite and often more extreme position, for a host of reasons such as nationalism, regionalism, ethnic and religious connections, perceived injustice etc. You can also end up with a country or organization with a far more powerful base than they would otherwise have.
Bgates, the question re. bin Laden is who are 'his people'. are they one global entity including: all orgs that use terrorism, all orgs with Islamic elements, the tens of millions around the world who give him a higher favorability rating that Bush and their moderate leaders? Would a bit of nuance be useful here?
the moral errors of realpolitik

But what of the moral failings of Bush's policies? Abu Ghraib obviously comes to mind. Was the disingenuous war rationale moral? Has Unilateralism been moral? Has the conduct of the occupation been moral?

RealPolitik attempts to outwardly see the world clearly as a system of interests. Neo-conservativism or 'morality' driven IR plays to a domestic audience.
If the 1400 years worth of hatred between Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists is so great, how likely are they to unite in response to a set of foreign policy speeches by George Bush? This post appears to overstate either distance between the two movements, or the risk of pushing them together involved in this "redefinition."

Beyond rhetoric, the policies the Bush Administration has adopted in dealing with Iran has been completely different that our policies towards the "Sunni" fundamentalists. In fact, the policies adopted in dealing with Sunnis are different depending on whether its the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or the Afghanistan. So why exactly is this "simplicitly" cause for such concern?

on your Iran example:

'Recognising the deferent reasons why Iranian citizens and bin Laden want a nuclear weapon, for example, might make for a better policy than clustering them together?'

Iranian citizens? But is not only they who want a nuclear weapon. Its the regime itself. And the spokesman for that regime has not confined himself to sovereigntist arguments about self-defence. He has, in fact, said a few alarming things about Israel that Osama would applaud.

In this case it would be accurate to spot the commonalities between Osama's world view and the Iranian regime, even if in other areas they are different. Of course, the circumstances require differences in our responses to each threat.

While its simplistic, as you say, to force everyone into a dualism, its also dangerous to ignore the moments when different extremists start singing the same tune. History is not without examples of polarised and opposed idealogues teaming up against a greater enemy.

Osama himself was once prepared to align himself with one hated great power against another...
anonymous 10:09

You seem to assume that because I cautioned against repeating the moral errors of realpolitik, I was therefore endorsing the moral errors and mistakes that have come with a new foreign policy.

You assumed wrong.

Not quite, but close enough.

I do see an emphasis on the perceived 'morality' of RealPolitik vs. neo-conservatism. And I do see this perceived morality as playing to a domestic audience. But I'll grant that you didn't exactly make this argument.

What I thought you meant was that RealPolitik was amoral and somehow neo-conservatism was 'moral.' And again, I'll grant that you didn't exactly say that, but that was what I inferred from without repeating the moral errors of realpolitik.
Hey Patrick,
completely agree that the regime's desires for a nuke are different than the desires of many Iranian citizens. I was just using the citizen example to point out the massive variance between Al Queda wanting a nuke to literally kill as many Americans as possible, and the Iranian citizens, the vast majority of which see nuclear development as a symbol of nationalism and/or regional stability, and have little if no animosity towards Americans. Labelling these citizens "islamofascists" along with al queda, however, may push them closer to the dualistic tipping point Zakaria warns of.
All it presupposes is that different actors have to be addressed using different mechanisms?

And in what way has President Bush been addressing the Iranian government exactly like Saddam? Or the Palestianians, or the Syrians in Lebanon, or the Sudanese government? Or the Saudis, who publically sponsor a particularly fundamentalist version of Islam themselves, or Pakistanis under Musharaff, as I mentioned? Or in Egypt or Libya, for that matter?

It's fairly obvious that entirely different mechanisms have been used-- and Bush has been (understandably) criticized for inconsistency as a result by some.

Iran was supporting, directly funding, and often directing Hezb'allah (along with Syria) long before Bush used any such rhetoric.

And Bush has in no way labeled the citizens of Iran as "Islamofascists"-- see for example his interview here

"I understand that you believe it is in your interest -- your sovereign interest, and your sovereign right -- to have nuclear power. I understand that. But I would also say to the Iranian people, there are deep concerns about the intentions of some in your government who would use knowledge gained from a civilian nuclear power industry to develop a weapon that can then fulfill the stated objectives of some of the leadership [to attack Israel and threaten the United States]. And I would say to the Iranian people that I would want to work for a solution to meeting your rightful desires to have civilian nuclear power."

It is not that Bush lacks complexity, it is that he cannot even criticize the philosophy of Al Qaeda without headlines claiming that he applied it all Muslims, and he cannot criticize the mad government of Iran without people claiming that he criticized all the people of Iran.
Take the famed "axis of evil" speech. That line, the lines before it, and the lines after emphasized and repeated that Bush believed that the Iranian people were peace-loving, disliked their government, and were not responsible for its actions, controlled as it is by the Council of Guardians. And yet of course the speech was reported as saying that all Iranians were evil.
Has Bush treated the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt the same as Al Qaeda? Certainly not, and the same with Hamas.

the overarching trivialization, Islamofascism, does conflate the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and Hamas. This is for Republican domestic political consumption during an election season.

To illustrate this, an interesting exercise is to see how Islamofascism is viewed in the rest of the world. Go onto Google News and look at the rare use of the term by non-American and non-Western media:

United Arab Emirates

Also, you shouldn't be pointing to the provisos, caveats and weasel words in the Axis of Evil speech. Remember that Bush is plain spoken and clear. He says what he means and means what he says. And when he makes a mistake like the '16 words' in the State of the Union address before Congress in front of the American people, he was a big man about it and had his press secretary issue a press release a couple of weeks later because he didn't want people to be misled about Iraqi WMDs into a potentially expensive and lengthy war.
Anon, make up your mind. Either Bush's speech had caveats and provisos, or he's plain spoken and clear. 'Islamofascist' is a different word than 'Islam'. Bush could have chosen the latter for one of two reasons:
the two are synonyms, but Bush prefers the longer, more obscure one; or
the words mean different things.
Post a Comment