OxBlog

Monday, October 23, 2006

# Posted 11:25 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE ROOT CAUSES OF TERRORISM: Some on the left denounce Peter Beiart as a traitor. If so, it's hard to tell from his relentless denunciation of the Bush administration in his recent book, and especially in Chapter 5, entitled "Reagan's Children".

Beinart advances two fundamental propositions about why Bush, Cheney & Co. are conceptually incapable of fighting the war on terror as it should be done. The first is that they are heirs to the dangerous conservative tradition of willingly blinding oneself to America's ethical failures and hypocrisy. The second is that Bush, Cheney & Co. are in deep denial about the economic causes of jihadism.

Beinart writes that:
Salafist terrorists may not all be poor, yet salafism feeds on economic despair. It takes deepest root where states cannot offer their citizens opporunity or hope. (p.118)
Beinart immediately recongizes that this formulation is problematic, since it is very hard to explain why Saudi Arabia is the spiritual homeland of Al Qaeda. If economics were the root cause of terrorism, the 9/11 hijackers and Bin Laden himself should've been Pakistani.

To resolve this dilemma, Beinart introduces a second principle to modify his first:
Economic despair doesn't just stem from absolute depriviation; it stems from the gap between expectations and reality. And nowhere is that gap greater than in Saudi Arabia, where per capita income has dropped by more than half since the 1980s. (p.119)
First of all, I think Beinart's description of the data is very wrong. Second of all, his argument has some very important conceptual flaws.

With regard to the data, it's very easy to find. The remarkably easy use to IMF website lets you produce customized charts with time series data going back around 30 years. In the early 1980s, Saudi per capita income skyrocketed along with the price of oil, hitting almost $19,000 in 1981. Then oil prices collapsed, forcing Saudi income below $7,000 per capita for the latter half of the 1980s. Saudi income then gradually recovered to $11,000 by 2004, before skyrocketing once again as a result of the recent oil crisis. For 2007, the IMF estimates Saudi income at $16,612.

In light of this data, Beinart's hypothesis makes no sense at all. Saudi income may have fallen from its artificial high in the early 1980s, but was increasing at a respectable rate for the entire decade before 9/11. Where are the disappointed expecations that supposedly drive terorrism?

Saudi does have a number of serious economic problems, including unemployment, but if an economy like the Saudis' is what causes terorrism, than there should be a dozen more Arab states generating even greater terorism.

Of course, aggregate economic statistics never tell the whole story. What about the background of individuals such as Osama bin Laden and Mohammad Atta, the former a multimillionaire and the latter with a degree from a German university? If disappointment is the problem, why are the most successful individuals becoming the terrorists (a pattern also observed in the West Bank and Gaza)?

In theory, one could add a third principle to Beinart's argument, namely that successful elites embittered by the suffering of their countrymen are more likely to lash out with violence. But adding one principle after another is just a convenient way of overlooking the simple and compelling argument that violent Islamic extremism is the direct cause of terror. Beinart accurately quotes George Bush as saying about Al Qaeda that "These aren't a bunch of poor people that are desperate in their attempt. These are cold, calculating killers." That's an oversimplification, but Bush's argument makes a lot more sense than Beinart's.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that fighting poverty and disappointment is no less integral to the war on terror than hunting down terrorists. What should America do about it? Beinart's answer is that we need a new Marshall Plan. According to Beinart, the great merit of the Marshall Plan, beyond its incredible magnitude, is that it respected the autonomy of those in need of help. According to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations, aid recipients want the same today:
Asked what they wanted from the United States, the people interviewed [by the study] requested almost exactly what the Marshall Plan once provided: generosity without hubris, economic and educational development guided by local knowledge, not American fiat. "Dear President Bush," said one Jakarta woman, whom the study said spoke for many: "Please help us with our economy, but let our manage our country!" (p.123)
Actually, that is exactly the wrong idea. Beinart is presumably familiar with the recent history of the IMF and the World Bank, which have increasingly conditioned their help on effective governance because it is impossible to separate economics from politics. Corrupt governments waste the aid they are given. The advice of the Indonesian woman is especially ironic, since Indonesia and many of its neighbors suffered terribly when their corruption-riddled and unregulated economies melted down in 1997. In fact, the East Asian crisis of 1997 is one of the most important reasons that the IMF and the World Bank, as well as other development programs -- such as Bush's Millenium Challenge Program -- put so much stress on good governance.

Indonesia is relevant for another reason as well. Along with its neighbors, it has prospered to a remarkable extent not because of economic aid, but because of its consistent support for export-oriented free-market capitalism. The history of development aid also tends to show that this is not something that can be forced very easily on an unwilling government. But without reforms, anything more than humanitarian aid is pointless. In short, helping someone with their economy is no different than managing their country, unless they already have the same ideas as we do about economic policy.

This principle was no less true in 1947 than it was today. Fortunately, many of the European nations who benefited from the Marshall Plan had relatively similar ideas to our own about economic policy, although conflicts were still frequent. But the United States did impose its political will on Europe in a way that Beinart would have to condemn as being characterized by American hubris and American fiat. For example, the US often conditioned its aid on the exclusion of Communist parties from Western European governments, even if they had legitimate won enough seats in the legislature to merit inclusion. In short, the Marshall Plan was not the fantasy that today's multilateralists wish it were.

And this is a good point to end on, since I am going to reserve for my next post an evaluation of Beinart's argument that conservatives have blinded themselves to America's hsitory of moral shortcomings. As I pointed out yesterday, Robert Kagan's new book is built around an appreciation of precisely those shortcomings. In contrast, Beinart is the one who seems unable to reckon with what the Marshall Plan really was.

To be continued...
(6) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
But why have so many Saudis turned to Salafist jihadism? And Egyptians too? Bush's anti-authoritarian argument seems to hold - if these frustrated people had a voice to change their governments, they wouldn't turn to some radical ideology. But what of European-bred extremists? The Pakistani-Britons from Luton who sympathized with or became 7/7 bombers did not grow up in a place where they could not vote in a democracy. They were more economically marginalized than many of their fellow Britons, but not compared to other Pakistanis.

Frankly, I'm not sure that there is a single cause of jihadism, just as there wasn't a single cause of anarchism a century ago. I bet the forces at work are different in different societies - in some places it's relative deprivation, others its dictatorship (usually pro-Western), and others just cultural alienation. The ideology goes back before Osama to Qutb, who advanced it as a specifically anti-colonialist project. How modern jihadism's roots connects with the motives of today's terrorists is hard to say.
 
Hi David,

First, even if one were to agree with your economic assessment of Saudi Arabia, I’m still not quite sure where you’re going with it. It seems as though you’re suggesting that by shedding any doubt on Beinart’s remarks about Saudi economics that that somehow undermines the notion that economic factors play into the sources of today’s terrorism. Is this correct?

Second, I agree with Elrod in that I believe there are various causes of terrorism. I would add that it is hard to discount economic discontent as a contributing factor for why so many young men run into the arms of radical Islamists and why they are willing to become terrorist foot soldiers. Another contributing factor, as Beinart alludes to in The Good Fight, may be that of education. Radical clerics indoctrinating youth with anti-Americanism in school is a part of the problem, as well as the failures of many schools in the Middle East and North Africa to provide business and technical training necessary for the youth to better integrate into the economy. With that said, economics constitute one of many contributing factors.

I look forward to the second part of your review of this chapter.
 
"Dear President Bush," said one Jakarta woman, whom the study said spoke for many: "Please help us with our economy, but let our manage our country."
I.e., give us your money but don't tell us how to spend it.
And what about all the crushing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, yet they aren't breeding terror.

I think part of the problem has been the relentless bashing of America by the left since 1980. America gets blamed for all the ills in the world, and thus some who are frustrated by their own situation decide the US is responsible and decide to take action against the US and those perceived to be with the Americans.

This is only one part of a very complex issue.
 
Tarheel, let me take a shot at your question. I'm not insisting that economic deprivation has nothing to do with terrorism. But I dispute Beinart's identification of economic factors as a principal cause.

Violent Islamic extremism has turned both rich and poor Muslims into anti-Western terrorists. Yet vast swathes of poverty in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere have not led the residents of those nations to decide that killing Americans is the path to salvation.

There is plenty of violence in Africa and Latin America, but even within those regions, you won't figure much out by ranking nations according to their per capita income.
 
Depending on who you read, there may be a shortage of up to 100 million women in the world, compared to what we'd expect, given birth rates and so forth.

Others say 10 million. Leftists and feminists, finding the shortfall occurs in the sainted developing countries, couldn't care less.

They may. Young men with no prospects and no reason to do anything for the future, and who see others getting multiple spouses, might be a bit prickly. I sure as hell would be.

Mark Steyn has said Communist China is going to have the biggest gay army since Sparta.

There's a story that Yasser Arafat, seeking to demobilize a paramilitary group he no longer needed, got them all wives. That way, he figured, they wouldn't go looking for jobs with other paramilitaries.
 
Speaking of 9/11...

One thing that struck me as odd in the days after 9/11 was Bush saying "We will not tolerate conspiracy theories [regarding 9/11]". Sure enough there have been some wacky conspiracy theories surrounding the events of that day. The most far-fetched and patently ridiculous one that I've ever heard goes like this: Nineteen hijackers who claimed to be devout Muslims but yet were so un-Muslim as to be getting drunk all the time, doing cocaine and frequenting strip clubs decided to hijack four airliners and fly them into buildings in the northeastern U.S., the area of the country that is the most thick with fighter bases. After leaving a Koran on a barstool at a strip bar after getting shitfaced drunk on the night before, then writing a suicide note/inspirational letter that sounded like it was written by someone with next to no knowledge of Islam, they went to bed and got up the next morning hung over and carried out their devious plan. Nevermind the fact that of the four "pilots" among them there was not a one that could handle a Cessna or a Piper Cub let alone fly a jumbo jet, and the one assigned the most difficult task of all, Hani Hanjour, was so laughably incompetent that he was the worst fake "pilot" of the bunch. Nevermind the fact that they received very rudimentary flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, making them more likely to have been C.I.A. assets than Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. So on to the airports. These "hijackers" somehow managed to board all four airliners with their tickets, yet not even ONE got his name on any of the flight manifests. So they hijack all four airliners and at this time passengers on United 93 start making a bunch of cell phone calls from 35,000 feet in the air to tell people what was going on. Nevermind the fact that cell phones wouldn't work very well above 4,000 feet, and wouldn't work at ALL above 8,000 feet. But the conspiracy theorists won't let that fact get in the way of a good fantasy. That is one of the little things you "aren't supposed to think about". Nevermind that one of the callers called his mom and said his first and last name, more like he was reading from a list than calling his own mom. Anyway, when these airliners each deviated from their flight plan and didn't respond to ground control, NORAD would any other time have followed standard operating procedure (and did NOT have to be told by F.A.A. that there were hijackings because they were watching the same events unfold on their own radar) which means fighter jets would be scrambled from the nearest base where they were available on standby within a few minutes, just like every other time when airliners stray off course. But of course on 9/11 this didn't happen, not even close. Somehow these "hijackers" must have used magical powers to cause NORAD to stand down, as ridiculous as this sounds because total inaction from the most high-tech and professional Air Force in the world would be necessary to carry out their tasks. So on the most important day in its history the Air Force was totally worthless. Then they had to make one of the airliners look like a smaller plane, because unknown to them the Naudet brothers had a videocamera to capture the only known footage of the North Tower crash, and this footage shows something that is not at all like a jumbo jet, but didn't have to bother with the South Tower jet disguising itself because that was the one we were "supposed to see". Anyway, as for the Pentagon they had to have Hani Hanjour fly his airliner like it was a fighter plane, making a high G-force corkscrew turn that no real airliner can do, in making its descent to strike the Pentagon. But these "hijackers" wanted to make sure Rumsfeld survived so they went out of their way to hit the farthest point in the building from where Rumsfeld and the top brass are located. And this worked out rather well for the military personnel in the Pentagon, since the side that was hit was the part that was under renovation at the time with few military personnel present compared to construction workers. Still more fortuitous for the Pentagon, the side that was hit had just before 9/11 been structurally reinforced to prevent a large fire there from spreading elsewhere in the building. Awful nice of them to pick that part to hit, huh? Then the airliner vaporized itself into nothing but tiny unidentifiable pieces no bigger than a fist, unlike the crash of a real airliner when you will be able to see at least some identifiable parts, like crumpled wings, broken tail section etc. Why, Hani Hanjour the terrible pilot flew that airliner so good that even though he hit the Pentagon on the ground floor the engines didn't even drag the ground!! Imagine that!! Though the airliner vaporized itself on impact it only made a tiny 16 foot hole in the building. Amazing. Meanwhile, though the planes hitting the Twin Towers caused fires small enough for the firefighters to be heard on their radios saying "We just need 2 hoses and we can knock this fire down" attesting to the small size of it, somehow they must have used magical powers from beyond the grave to make this morph into a raging inferno capable of making the steel on all forty-seven main support columns (not to mention the over 100 smaller support columns) soften and buckle, then all fail at once. Hmmm. Then still more magic was used to make the building totally defy physics as well as common sense in having the uppermost floors pass through the remainder of the building as quickly, meaning as effortlessly, as falling through air, a feat that without magic could only be done with explosives. Then exactly 30 minutes later the North Tower collapses in precisely the same freefall physics-defying manner. Incredible. Not to mention the fact that both collapsed at a uniform rate too, not slowing down, which also defies physics because as the uppermost floors crash into and through each successive floor beneath them they would shed more and more energy each time, thus slowing itself down. Common sense tells you this is not possible without either the hijackers' magical powers or explosives. To emphasize their telekinetic prowess, later in the day they made a third building, WTC # 7, collapse also at freefall rate though no plane or any major debris hit it. Amazing guys these magical hijackers. But we know it had to be "Muslim hijackers" the conspiracy theorist will tell you because (now don't laugh) one of their passports was "found" a couple days later near Ground Zero, miraculously "surviving" the fire that we were told incinerated planes, passengers and black boxes, and also "survived" the collapse of the building it was in. When common sense tells you if that were true then they should start making buildings and airliners out of heavy paper and plastic so as to be "indestructable" like that magic passport. The hijackers even used their magical powers to bring at least seven of their number back to life, to appear at american embassies outraged at being blamed for 9/11!! BBC reported on that and it is still online. Nevertheless, they also used magical powers to make the american government look like it was covering something up in the aftermath of this, what with the hasty removal of the steel debris and having it driven to ports in trucks with GPS locators on them, to be shipped overseas to China and India to be melted down. When common sense again tells you that this is paradoxical in that if the steel was so unimportant that they didn't bother saving some for analysis but so important as to require GPS locators on the trucks with one driver losing his job because he stopped to get lunch. Hmmmm. Yes, this whole story smacks of the utmost idiocy and fantastical far-fetched lying, but it is amazingly enough what some people believe. Even now, five years later, the provably false fairy tale of the "nineteen hijackers" is heard repeated again and again, and is accepted without question by so many Americans. Which is itself a testament to the innate psychological cowardice of the American sheeple, i mean people, and their abject willingness to believe something, ANYTHING, no matter how ridiculous in order to avoid facing a scary uncomfortable truth. Time to wake up America.
 
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