Sunday, August 21, 2016

Being realistic about combating terrorism and "naming" the enemy

Paul Pillar cautions against conceiving combatting terrorism in the framework of a War on Terror or the like (The Cold War Mindset and Counterterrorism The National Interest 08/20/2016):

We have seen this with references to “World War IV” (the idea being that the Cold War was number III) and “Islamofascism”. The same pattern crops up in numerous other ways. The recent memoir of a former deputy director of the CIA, for example, is grandiosely titled The Great War of Our Time.

Several things are fundamentally wrong with framing counterterrorism this way. One is that this badly misrepresents the nature of the threat from international terrorism in suggesting a foe with a degree of unity and organization comparable to the enemy powers in the twentieth century world wars or to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. If terrorism is what we are worried about, then we need to remember that terrorism is not a foe or an organization or an ideology but instead a tactic used by many different perpetrators with many different ideologies. Even focusing just on the radical Islamist variety of terrorism, there is neither this kind of organizational unity (as indicated by several of the very attacks Trump mentions in his speech, in which the perpetrators had no organizational ties to any larger group) or even ideological unity (as reflected in the Sunni-vs.-Shia conflicts that dominate much of the current strife in the Middle East).
He also makes this observation about one of the Republicans' favorite rhetorical obsessions of the day: "Particularly stupid is the insistence on 'naming' Islamic terrorism. Not only President Obama but also President George W. Bush understood that such 'naming' has nothing to do with understanding threats and instead only alienates more Muslims."

There's also something downright superstitious about the notion. It's as though they think saying the name of someone gives them some magical power over the person.

There actually is a concept in some varieties of Christian fundamentalism called "name it and claim it." Particularly in the "prosperity gospel" trend. Essentially the idea is that if you ask God for some specific thing in prayer and have true faith that He will provide it, then you will get it.

Viewed in a less theological way, it's a mind-over-matter belief.

Pillar is also concerned about the neo-Cold War approach that has, unfortunately, bipartisan support:

The Cold War mindset that is involved here wasn't even an entirely appropriate way of looking at the Cold War itself. It saw global communism as more monolithic than it really was, a misconception that led to such misdirections as the Vietnam War. But at least there really was a USSR, which was a nuclear power and had a global policy of expanding its influence. Applying the mindset to current policy challenges is even less appropriate than it was during the Cold War. And it's not only Donald Trump we have to blame for corruption of public thinking about such challenges.
Grandiose, Manichean Christian fundamentalist thinking is also analogous to overblown Cold War notions.

No comments: