Andrew Bacevich has a piece up at the Washington Post arguing that the U.S. should approach the war on terror like the Cold War; specifically we need a new doctrine of containment, which for Bacevich means everything from decapitation strikes (though not ones that kill civilians — as if any decapitation can be clean) to “well-funded government agencies securing borders, controlling access to airports and seaports” and “comprehensive export controls.” In each of these examples, Bacevich draws exactly the wrong lesson: decapitation attempts achieved little (think of Castro’s exploding cigars) and contributed to some awful blowback during the Cold War; the Soviet Union collapsed less because the Soviets had noisy submarines (thanks to those export controls) than because everybody in the Eastern bloc knew that life was sweeter in the West; and we had a pretty darn well-funded panoply of intelligence agencies and airport-security professional on 9/11, all of which failed to detect and prevent a low-tech attack by a handful of terrorists. Tightening border security makes sense, but throwing more money at already bloated agencies that aren’t fulfilling their missions effectively is only going to be counterproductive. And decapitations are precisely the kind of comic-book antics that detract from serious intelligence gathering and analysis — Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes establishes that point as anyone could ask.
Bacevich’s American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy remains the best account of what U.S. foreign policy has been all about during the past half-century and more. None of Bacevich 2009’s suggestions for neo-containment address the fundamental defects Bacevich 2001 identified in that book. “Containment” is not a bad metaphor for what may be needed, but it’s the ambitions of the U.S. policy elite, as much as those of militant Islam, that need to be contained. William Lind has written some important essays on the idea of insulating the U.S. from centers of disorder — that’s a far more promising approach than pouring money into government agencies and attempting to control foreign states and other entities. Most of the active measures the U.S. took during the Cold War — the Vietnam War, CIA-orchestrated killings and coups, the still ongoing embargo of Cuba — failed dismally.
Bacevich concludes his piece with an interesting, but also quite mistaken, perspective on the moral-spiritual struggled involve in the terror war:
The competitive challenge facing the West is not to prove that Islamic fundamentalism won’t satisfy the aspirations of humanity, but to demonstrate that democratic capitalism can, even for committed believers. In short, the key to winning the current competition is to live up to the ideals that we profess rather than compromising them in the name of national security.
The upshot is that by modifying the way we live — attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis — we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live. Here lies the best chance of easing the differences that divide us.
The evidence just doesn’t support any of these contentions. Europe has gone farther than the U.S. toward “attending to … poverty,” but generous European welfare states do not seem to have dissuaded Muslims in those countries from becoming radicalized. And Muslim radicals in the developing world hold such compassionate welfare states in absolute contempt. On the other hand, Bacevich is mistaken about the appeal of Muslim radicalism on its own terms: Afghans were coming to hate the Taliban by mid-2001, and we’ve seen in the unrest in Iran this year that young people find something less-than-satisfying about the social system of the Islamic Republic. It’s a shocking idea, but the best way to discredit radical Islam to let it have its own states, so that the everyone can see — as everyone saw in the Communist states during the Cold War — just how miserable life is under such regimes. Only by such comparisons can welfare-state liberal democracy be made to look good.