Saturday, October 27, 2007

Winds of war

For those who might have missed the vanguard of the French New Left back in the day, the Situationists were anarchists who sought to create situations that would engender a response that would provide a critique of the system that they sought to destroy. So one day, they put up posters in the metro with pictures of a man sitting behind his desk, in the crosshairs of a gun, with a caption reading, “Wouldn’t you like to kill your boss today?”

Except, of course, that no one got it. No rash of boss-killings ensued, no national debate on the absurdity of work in the capitalist system. Just more ennui.

Osama Bin Laden, on the other hand, was more effective. Sitting in a cave in North Waziristan, his goal was to drive a wedge between the 1.4 billion Muslims and the West, as a first step toward rebuilding the pan-Islamic caliphate. His method was pure Situationist. He would attack America and sit back and wait for the response. It was not his attack that would create the outcome he sought, but the reaction of his adversary, the reaction of the all-powerful, morally corrupt Americans. They would come after him, and in so doing would go to war on Islamic soil. They would slaughter Muslim women and children in their wake, and those images would be broadcast across the world.

He tried for years before we took the bait. He attacked our embassies in Africa. He attacked the Kobar towers. He attacked the USS Cole, but we did not respond. Finally, with the ranks of Al Qaeda reduced to a few dozen stalwarts, they chose to attack the U.S. homeland in a final effort to prod the Americans to come after him.

Bull’s eye.

Six years later, even as the American military trumpets the defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Dick Cheney declares that Bin Laden has been reduced to irrelevance, Al Qaeda has grown from a few dozen men in a cave to a world-wide movement, and the challenge of bridging Islam and the West has become one of the defining societal challenges of this era.

And now a second front has been joined, and we are being baited once again. Iran is working hard to goad the Bush administration to double down on its strategy of preemption and would be quite pleased with an attack, particularly the discrete assault on nuclear facilities that is contemplated in the western media. A limited strike would be the best of all possible worlds. All the benefit, so little destruction.

The Bush administration has become a wonderful foil for the Iranians. After all, little more than a decade after the revolution that brought the clerics to power, the Guardian Council was faced with a popular movement demanding openness, democracy and secularization. Efforts to repress dissent only increased that momentum of the reformists, as the modern Iran that the Ayatollahs sought to forestall grew in the public imagination.

It was the Axis of Evil rhetoric that gave the Guardian Council the latitude to crack down on reform and elevate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Presidency. Since then, the Iranian’s have played a dangerous game, but pursued their strategy diligently, and Ahmadinejad has played the nuclear and Israel cards skillfully.

The Iranians have two goals in this game. First, and foremost, the regime wants to stay in power. This requires an external threat to the regime that can justify the repression of domestic opposition and undermining of democratic institutions, and engender nationalist support for the regime. For this goal, the Americans could not have served interests of the clerical regime any better. Oil revenues are high, Americans are arrayed along their borders beating the drums of war, and even secular Iranians and Iranian ex-patriots support the regime’s assertion of Iran’s national right to pursue its nuclear program.

Second, the regime desires to assert Shi’a leadership in the Islamic world in its struggles with the West and to counter the ascendancy of Al Qaeda. This is an issue that blends ethnic and sectarian rivalry, with substantial historical resonance. After all, the Shi’a lived under the Sunni boot for more than a millennium until the fall of the Caliphate in the 1920s, only to find a new boot appear in its stead, this one made of British and American leather. This goal requires building the Iranian brand in the minds of the far-flung Islamic nation, the Umma, and has been the purpose behind Iranian support of Hamas and Hezbollah, its assault on the Danish cartoons, its Holocaust rhetoric, and Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University, where he took the West’s verbal assaults and gave the lie to the West’s claims of openness and tolerance.

What could be better now for the Iranian regime than to be attacked by the Americans? What better way to in one moment harden domestic resentments against a common external enemy and build sympathy and support across the Islamic world? What better way to establish Iranian bona fides as the Islamic David standing against the American Goliath?

Where in all of this is the American art of strategy in the world? Why are subtlety and nuance the purview of others? Why do we not consider what happens on day two and day three and day four after we utter our words or launch our spears?

Last month, the Iranians showed the other side of their strategy, when, at the request of Lee Hamilton, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei ordered the release of Halah Esfandiari. Esfandiari, an Iranian-born scholar, had been imprisoned for nine months as a “threat to the Iranian state.” Her comments after her release were notable. When she protested to her chief interrogator that she was not a spy, but just “wrote articles and organized symposia,” the Iranian official replied, “Yes, and that is how it started in Ukraine and Georgia.”

The Iranians care first and foremost about the survival of their regime, and the greatest threat the regime is not guns and bullets, but words and ideas.

Now we are at another moment of decision––when we should be thinking clearly about what strategies will best achieve the goals that we seek––before we launch a new war and once again find ourselves doing the bidding of our adversaries. But even as our adversaries in the world have proven adroit at nuanced strategy and asymmetric warfare, our stance in the world has become more linear and less subtle, more bellicose and less thoughtful.

Unfortunately, bellicosity apparently plays in Peoria, so the winds of war may loom as irresistible. Among the leading Republican candidates, war with Iran has become the new national security shibboleth, and with an eye to the general election Hillary Clinton is marching in lock-step. But behind all of the heated words, is there much thought going on? About day two, about day three or about day four?

How is it that five years into the Iraq war, we might once again succumb to the drumbeat of national security populism? Is it possible that our political class has lost the capacity to think about the implications of their words, to be a little more wise and a little less warrior, and to discern whether they are being manipulated by others more thoughtful and strategic than they?

As we dig our hole deeper and deeper, we should remind ourselves that we are neophytes in this neighborhood. When he was in New York, Ahmadinejad made reference to the invasion of Greece by Darius II, over 2,000 years ago. The Sunni and the Shi’a are playing a complex game of tribe and faith that dates back a millennium. The Turks ruled the region for centuries and are loathe to be dictated to. And the Russians, the French and Brits have been contesting the region since before the battle of Yorktown.

We just might not be as smart as we think we are. And everyone else might know a thing or two. And that would be OK.

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