Monday, July 31, 2006

The Struggle Against Terrorism

Watching the Israeli occupation of Lebanon has driven home to me that "The War on Terror" is not a war, and for our own sake and for the sake of the rest of the world we need to stop pretending it is.

A war is an all-out effort to physically destroy an enemy's infrastructure, personnel, and anything else the enemy needs to wage a military campaign. It's possible to sort out what that is if one nation's government is fighting another nation's. Each side has armies, bases, lines of communication, etc. But terrorists—by definition—don't owe their ultimate allegiance to any given national government but rather to an ideology or a cause. They don't so much have infrastructure as borrow it from whever they are.

Accordingly, fighting terrorism, especially global terrorism, can't be strictly or even primarily a military undertaking. Instead, it should combine police work, intelligence-gathering, diplomacy, and occasional uses of military force, most of them surgical uses. You can't fight terrorism like you fight enemy nations. Not if you care about civilian life. And not if want to win.

The pragmatic reason for not pretending that the struggle against terrorism is actually a war is that conducting a full-scale military operation against a terrorist target inevitably involves attacking the nation or nations from which a given terrorist group operates. Practically speaking, it may well possible to conduct surgical attacks on individual targets without generating more backlash than it's worth. But that's tricky, and the larger-scale stuff is even trickier.

It's incredibly hard and costly to invade and pacify another nation. Accordingly, a country should do so only when the risks of not doing so are overwhelming. Given the massive anti-American feeling in much of the world, especially the Muslim world, it's a rare country indeed that poses such a threat to us that it's worth invading and occupying despite the inevitable backlash there and worldwide.

And even those rare cases of massive and imminent threat will require so much effort, so much money, so many lives that we have to be absolutely committed to them to ensure that we succeed. (Failure in these cases is generally worse than inaction.) Afghanistan was probably one of those nations, but because of Iraq we simply haven't followed through there. Now we're at risk of losing Afghanistan and coming out worse than we started--with fewer healthy and living soldiers, with less money, and with at least as many enemies actively seeking our destruction.

The ethical reason against treating the anti-terrorism struggle as a war is that we kill a lot of innocent people when we attack states that harbor terrorists either voluntarily or involuntarily.

Now, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will insist that they are at war with the American government and that, since the American people elect and fund that government, they are necessarily also at war with all Americans. This is their rationale for attacking civilian targets. Even if one accepted that hardline claim, it’s clear that while America is committed to al-Qaeda’s destruction, America is not at war with, say, the Syrian government, much less the Syrian people. So we can't tell ourselves that any civilians killed during an attack on an al-Qaeda cell operating out of, say, the suburbs of Damascus were in fact legitimate targets. They were innocents killed by our actions, actions whose general risks were foreseeable even if their particular consequences were in doubt.

And therein lies the ethical problem. There will always be civilian casualties during major military strikes. Especially in the "war" on global Islamist terror, which is being fought by rich countries using overwhelming force, often delivered from 15,000 feet.

You can justify civilian death if it's an unintended consequence of attacking military targets in a nation with which you're at war. But I'm not sure if you can justify it if it's a consequence, even an unintended one, of attacking terrorist targets in a nation that you're not at war with.

Consider the case of Israel in Lebanon. Israel isn't at war with Lebanon. It's at war with Hezbollah, a group that certainly has a lot of support in Lebanon but that isn't controlled by (or in control of) the Lebanese government. There are a lot of Lebanesem, particularly among the country's Christians and non-Shia Muslims, who oppose Hezbollah.

So if I were an Israeli leader, yeah, I'd be infuriated by the Hezbollah attacks from southern Lebanon. But they're Hezbollah attacks, not Lebanese attacks. Is it justifiable for the Israelis to attack Hezbollah in ways (air strikes, missile strikes, heavy shelling) that they know will kill hundreds or thousands of Lebanese civilians, especially if they’re doing so in response to Hezbollah attacks that have killed and will likely continue to kill far fewer Israelis? I'm starting to think it isn't.

The Israeli attack on Lebanon is problematic for a couple other reasons, reasons that are far from unique to this conflict. First, it's killing the weakest and most vulnerable Lebanese civilians. The Israelis did drop leaflets warning the Lebanese to flee the area, which was commendable (and would have been more commendable if they hadn't bombed some of the people fleeing). But there are a lot of poor people in southern Lebanon, people who have no car and no money for gas if they had cars or even an open gas station in town. These are, of course, along with the sick and the elderly, the ones who get bombed.

Second, the destruction causes long-term suffering. I don't know what percentage of people in southern Lebanon can afford insurance, but I bet it's not really high. So even if people were lucky enough to get out, they might still lose everything. And even if they got out and even if their property escapes the bombing, they still might not be able make a living when this is all over. In order to pin down and weaken Hezbollah, the Israelis are targeting infrastructure. So the Lebanese might return to find that the only bridge into town is destroyed or that there's no electricity. That kind of destruction is bad enough in New Orleans. For a poorer region that has only just recently started to put itself together after Lebanon’s long years of civil war, the Israeli incursion way well prove psychologically and economically crippling.

Does Israel's—any nation's--right of self-defense against terrorism give it license to act as if another nation had declared war on it? Again, I'm starting to think not. There are gray areas, of course--much more limited, proportional strikes on specific terrorist targets in other nations might be justifiable. A larger-scale invasion, though, begins to look just as bad as the terrorism that provoked it.

Moreover, the pragmatic and ethical reasons I've identified here reinforce one another. From what various domestic and foreign media have reported, when Hezbollah first started stepping up its attacks on Israel, a lot of people in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East were at least as angry with Hezbollah for baiting Israel as they were with Israel for taking the bait.

But the more overwhelming--and, therefore, the more indiscriminate--the Israeli response has become, the more Lebanese and other Middle Easterners are blaming Israel for everything. That might not be entirely fair, but it's almost inevitable. And not only because Israel is already so unpopular in the region. It's also the case--and you can see this in Europe and even in the US--that watching multi-million-dollar planes and tanks wipe out poor neighborhoods makes people see the conflict as an example of a rich nation not caring what happens poor people, most of whom never attacked them.

In the days and years after this conflict ends (supposing that it does), there will be important and tragic math to sort out: how many dead Lebanese civilians did it take to produce an Islamist suicide bomber, and how many Israelis (or Americans or Iraqis or Kenyans) did that suicide bomber kill? Even if it was right, was it worth it?

Americans will have to ask ourselves practical and moral questions like that if we continue to treat the struggle against terrorism as a war. Do we have the right to send our billion-dollar stealth bombers to attack mud huts in (our ally) Pakistan? And, even if we do, will doing so actually help us?

Fighting terrorism can't and won't be easy or pretty. It will be especially hard to find ways to do so in countries that are hostile to the US without being at war with the US. But, based on our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, we don't have the resources to fight wars in all those places, especially since every new "war on terror" seems to create and train at least as many terrorists as it eliminates.

Moreover, the struggle against terrorism is ultimately a moral struggle as much as a military, police, or political struggle. We have to show people that the terrorists stand for indiscriminate slaughter and tyrannical politics. And it'll be a lot easier to do that if we go out of our way to find solutions that don't involve house-to-house searches and cluster-bombing the village square.


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