Our Decentralized Enemy

The Washington Post today included a piece about “Mustafa Setmariam Nasar,” an “Architect of New War on the West.” While it was interesting as a biographical sketch of a jihadist, the key point had more to do with the tactics he advocated:

From secret hideouts in South Asia, the Spanish-Syrian al-Qaeda strategist published thousands of pages of Internet tracts on how small teams of Islamic extremists could wage a decentralized global war against the United States and its allies.

With the Afghanistan base lost, he argued, radicals would need to shift their approach and work primarily on their own, though sometimes with guidance from roving operatives acting on behalf of the broader movement.

This is the enemy we will be facing more and more in the future. Small groups of seemingly unremarkable people, united in hate of the United States and commitment to jihad against it. How do we fight this enemy?

I think it is clear that waging long, expensive wars against individual states is not the answer. This decentralization has emerged as a response to the U.S.’s ability to destroy almost any country on earth, like Afghanistan, if we think we should. Invading more countries won’t help. We have spent a huge amount of money and lives in Iraq, which was only peripherally (if that) affiliated with any Islamic terror groups. We have little to show for it. Contrary to the President’s assertions that we are “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” it is probably more a case that, if we put some Americans nearer to their territory, they are happy to kill those Americans while also learning military techniques. It is, at best, a delaying tactic–unless we plan to send human sacrifices into the middle east forever.
Nasar himself provides a clue as to a better way to fight these enemies:

“Let the American people — those who voted for killing, destruction, the looting of other nations’ wealth, megalomania and the desire to control others — be contaminated with radiation,” he wrote.

This statement shows us what it is that unites and motivates these decentralized groups to kill themselves for their cause. They blame the American people for a whole bunch of problems that exist in their homelands. Recognizing this motivation presents the opportunity to change it.

We cannot fight a traditional war against a miniscule fraction of the world’s population spread throughout its nations. We must combat their ideology of hate with our own extremely potent ideology of freedom and opportunity for all.

This would involve greatly increased foreign aid to the middle east, greatly increased involvement with and respect for the United Nations, expanded intelligence and diplomatic efforts toward the middle east, and a reduced role for the military.

17 Replies to “Our Decentralized Enemy”

  1. Your post is well written and I can see from your blog title you are on the correct side of domestic politics. I dont follow how deeper involvement in money supplied to foreign countries will help us in the fight. Wouldnt less involvemtn in other people;s affaisr make more sense?


  2. There is certainly much to debate about the foreign aid question. My desire to increase it is the result of two observations about our current situation. First, there are certain individuals worldwide who feel that the United States does evil things. Some of these people, in the right (i.e. wrong) circumstances become suicide bombers, terrorists, jihadists.

    They are our enemy, and they are the ones who threaten us domestically.

    They are also pretty much immune to our military power, because there are so few of them, and they are spread over the world. Indeed, using our military power abroad tends to be the one thing that angers them above all else.

    So, we must find another way to combat them. I think it is appropriate to send a great deal of foreign aid because to do so would create a perception that we can do good for people. We should send aid to educational, medical, and other humanitarian groups, so that perceptions of our country will change. In this way we can accomplish three things: 1) Creating healthy, educated individuals all over the world, which is good for everyone; 2) Eroding support for jihadists in their (for the most part) homelands; and 3) Lessening the motivations of people to become jihadists in the first place.

    Of course it is entirely true that aid could be perceived as meddling, which would be bad. Our State Department would have to do the research, and accumulate the cultural knowledge, to conduct the programs as effectively as possible.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. I am afraid with the people running the show right now we have set back foreign relations 20 to 30 years irrevocably- even if we get a great (not just good) President in place the problems that have been created by the arrogant ham handedness of the Bush people will not easily be overcome by foreign aid from the govt. I think the goals are good but they are unreasonable.

    Take Pakistan as an example- how much are we pumping in there annually? I think it is 3 billion. Are we getting a good return on the investment? Do the Pakistanis have reason to help us get Bin-Laden? If they help us what will happen to the Aid Money? Could it be that foreign aid and meddling got us into this now? Did we not give lots of dough to the shah? What was the result? Don’t take that as a grilling- more like rhetorical questions to ponder.

    Thanks for writing a thought provoking post!

  4. Prior to the attacks on our country by Islamic terrorists, did we not already give more money to more countries than any other country on earth? Were not our citizens the most generous (even after taxes) in the world when giving money to help out tsunami victims in the area of Indonesia? The answer is most certainly YES to these questions. So, does giving money to other countries, by either debt forgiveness or direct expenditures, help prevent people from hating America? Again the answer here is most certainly NO. I will not argue that our entangling alliances throughout the world create most of our enemies. I don’t support that sort of foreign policy. I most certainly do not support the government spending my money like a drunken sailor (my apologies to drunken sailors everywhere) on objects of benevolence throughout the world. The real question now is – given our current snapshot of where we stand in the world (Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, Korea, Germany, support of Israel, etc.), what do we do now? The answer is not to pull out of every alliance and replace our presence with money. Despite what many believe, we are doing a lot of things right in fighting the current GWOT. I am an infantry officer and have fought on the ground in support of the current fight. Are we doing many things wrong too? Certainly. Militarily we still struggle daily with how to find the bad guys, help the good guys, tell the difference between them, and all the while maintaining force protection and fighting perceptions back home. Fighting a counterinsurgency is a very tough task – especially so when our own house (politics – both in government and in the news) seems so divided. To have anyone stand up and say “This is the only way to go,” just shows either ignorance or a dogmatic agenda. I do not know the answers. I have a set of principles that I try to live by and judge situations and actions by. They are individual freedom and property-rights driven. Can we get there from here? It seems more and more like that answer is no, at least not now.

  5. Harry, allow me to state my meaning in more broad terms. There are a certain number of individuals in the world who want to execute terrorist attacks in the United States. There are not many of these people. They are not to be found primarily in one geographical region, but are spread all over the world. The question I am trying to engage is: how do we fight those people?

    My proposals of increasing foreign aid, increasing intellectual capabilities in our diplomatic and intelligence agencies, and supporting democratic ideals throughout the world were meant to be my best guesses about approaching this challenge. Of course there is a great deal to discuss.

    Increasing our diplomatic and intelligence capabilities means more language training, less politicization of processes, and an understanding that this enemy is extremely hard to target with the military. Intelligence would help us locate and distinguish terrorists, while diplomacy would allow us to cut down on the radicalization of possible terrorists.

    Perhaps when I say increasing foreign aid, I really ought to say reexamining our foreign aid priorities. The goal is to show people that we are committed to human rights and human development throughout the world. Therefore, aid appropriations would have to be monitored based on their achievement of this goal, and adjusted if they fail. It would be stupid to just throw money at the problem wildly.

    Finally, by showing our support for humanity worldwide, through actions that support freedom and democracy, we can regain our moral standing, which would cut down on terrorist production while also creating more allies on our side. Particularly important here are transparency and honesty. For example, I do not believe we show our commitment to human rights by imprisoning large numbers of people on no charge for years on end. I do not mean we ought to just release all captives; rather, we must have a transparent system for handling them that we believe is just and fair. That is just one example.

    Steve, as far as Pakistan, I agree that it is an interesting case. The population, on balance, probably doesn’t like us that much. They are ruled by a military dictator who walks the tightrope of playing to his people and making nice to us–for the money. While it is not clear what return we are getting, I do think it would be much worse if we weren’t giving him some money.

    That said, part of the problem is that, to the extent the population of Pakistan dislikes their ruler, our aid can be perceived as propping up a corrupt leader. In fact, it may actually be doing just that. This is why diplomatic resources are so crucial. We need people who can go to a region, diagnose the most effective use of our resources, and make it happen.

  6. Walrus,

    I am pressed for time this morning. I am going to try to get back to you later today. Enjyoing the converstaion. Also enjoyed Harry’s post.

  7. As I had mentioned in the previous post, the U.S. already, prior to 9-11 gave more money and aid in support of human rights and development than any other country in the world by far. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2000 the U.S. gave a total of $25.2 billion in official development assistance (OAD) vs. 23.4 for Spain that year at #2 and Germany in at #3 with $12 billion. No one in the world is more officially dedicated to global human rights and development than the United States. That is not to mention at all the private investments into development of the global free market that come from the U.S. So, boiling it down, I guess what I am saying is that I completely disagree with the assertion that we must demonstrate any more today than in the past that we (the U.S.) are “committed to human rights and human development throughout the world.” We did that and were still attacked. I assume that when Walrus says that we must relook our aid mechanisms and policies, he simply means that we continue what we have been doing in the past, just more efficiently and in a way that supports our national interests, specifically regarding the enemy. If we are going to continue to spend money on these objects of benevolence (which we will, given our politicians’ contemptible record), then I would have to agree that when we spend money, we need to ensure it passes the common sense test. First, let me say, that I don’t believe that we should spend a dime of tax dollars on foreign aid – be it disaster relief, alliance building, or economic development. I believe that a global free market will more effectively and efficiently solve world poverty and do more to promote global human rights than any government program in any country. So when I previously stated that I don’t know the answer to the how to get there from here questions, I still don’t but I hold true to the principles of freedom and property rights – which naturally mean a free market. Certainly many will argue that this would cause more problems than it would solve and that unbounded capitalism will make a few people wealthy and many people exploited. I disagree with that (a separate debate entirely), but I believe that our foreign policy should focus on promoting the global free market (starting at home of course) and allowing free people to make the decisions that best support their personal welfare. Those individual decisions exercised every day, every where, billions of times per day will lead to an overall better global outlook.
    How do we fight the current threat? I believe that we continue to fight it as a global counterinsurgency. There has been much written, tested, and proven on combating insurgencies. So, while this fight is different in many ways than any fight that we have had in history, it isn’t completely without precedent. The military necessarily has adapted and continues to adapt to the fight everyday. We need our govt. to do the same (while ensuring to adhere to the principles of freedom and our Constitution). I must completely agree that we often create more bad guys that we kill by heavy handedness – be it an attack on a country or a village. Today more than ever, we have the ability to find the small cells of bad guys who aren’t state actors. I obviously agree that if we find a terrorist cell in Buffalo that we cannot attack and occupy New York State.
    Things are very complicated, I understand. I know that I do not have ½ of the info required to make the most informed decisions. Therefore, I only argue, most vehemently, that any solution must cling to the concepts of personal freedom and property rights.

  8. My Dear Walrus,

    Congratulations on stimulating an interesting discussion on foreign aid. You managed to provoke agreement across the political spectrum in opposition to your call for more aid. Your recent clarification in response to Harry’s post is, I believe, closer to where we ought to be. Let me offer some points for your consideration.

    First we should play to our strength with respect to foreign aid. The US response to the tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan showed us at our best. Using our military assets we were able to deliver aid to remote areas that could not otherwise be reached. It also gave countless Muslims a first hand experience with the US military that showed both our power and our compassion.

    Second, we need to recognize the limits of foreign aid. As you suggest in your last post, our present government-to-government aid expenditures might, with good reason, be seen as propping up a corrupt regime. Although there may be policy rationale for such aid, we should recognize it for the expediency that it is, and plan to move to a different plan.

    Unfortunately, neither aid nor diplomacy will be sufficient in defeating our “decentralized enemy”. The Jihadists hate us and will interpret our attempts at understanding their hatred with contempt. They are willing to die for lies. Are we willing to fight, and die if necessary, for freedom and the truth? Does the “Large Liberal Community” have the will to defend this country?

  9. Patrick,

    I think your analysis of our foreign aid successes is spot on, and highlights the way to use it more productively. After all, our wealth is a powerful tool in our arsenal. Of course, we have to pay attention to what our money is doing. I think you are correct that a simplistic “more aid” approach is wrongheaded. Rather, aid should be looked at as a tactic to accomplish certain ends, for example, more people liking the U.S. and not wanting to kill us. We could then evaluate our programs based on their accomplishment of that goal.

    I am intrigued, though, by your final paragraph. Given that, no matter what diplomatic/aid efforts we undertake, some individuals will remain committed to carrying out acts of terror against us, what are we to do? I believe that all Americans, liberals, conservatives, anyone, would defend our country with our lives if necessary–but how? It is less a question of “having the will” than it is of figuring out how.

    We can’t invade any country we might suspect of harboring some terrorists, because we don’t have the military resources to invade half the planet. I don’t think imprisoning anyone we think might have terrorist leanings indefinitely will work either, because the cost in terms of international anger (=more terrorists) outweighs any possible benefit. We can’t torture because confessions under torture are notoriously unreliable, not to mention it is unethical and antithetical to our respect for individual rights.

    That’s why I mentioned intelligence. We have to figure out ways to identify jihadist terrorists that are accurate and that work consistently. To do this we should at least be offering a lot of money to Universities that will teach Arabic and other middle eastern languages and cultural history. Probably a bunch of other stuff.

    I take it as a given that everyone “has the will” to defend our country. It is just a question of how to do it best. It would be much easier if all the jihadists would try to invade New York City by ship or something, because then I could get my bat and defend my home. But they aren’t doing that, so more subtle methods are required.

  10. I do find myself agreeing with Harry about not investing any money in foreign aid. I think engagement and meddling has been primarily a function of big state corporatism to our detriment long term. When you step back and look at what has been going on since we decided as a nation to start building an empire in the late 19th century many of our problems have been the result of meddling. How many times have we tried a policy of so called “isolationism?” Once (allegedly) in the 1920’s, but even then we were signing treaties like the Kellog-Briand Pact. Is it naïve to talk about a policy of restraint? Maybe. But some things are simple. Doesn’t it make more sense to insure the Mexican Border is secure for our people than the Syrian one? Doesn’t it make more sense to clean up the Gulf Coast than to clean up Basra? Just something to think about.

    You hear politicians like George Bush and columnists like Tom Friedman defend global meddling. Do you ever hear them explain it?

    Despite my paleo-conservative rhetoric …I will continue to mostly vote Democratic. If both parties are big government, why not go for the ones who seem to actually have the middle and lower class more in mind.

  11. Steve, I don’t think that it has to be one or the other when it comes to domestic vs. international projects.

    I am, of course, a liberal in the sense that I think our country should use our power and wealth to promote democracy and human rights everywhere, This does not mean invasions of countries, but rather the things we did to fight the Soviets during the cold war: promoting free exchange of ideas, things like that.

    Finally, you hit the nail on the head with your last observation. The current conservatives did not rein in spending even a little bit. They just shifted the tax burden down the income scale. If no one is going to provide a small government, then big government Democrats beat big government Republicans anytime.

  12. No one can argue that we don’t need more and better intelligence. One of our biggest problems right now is not the lack of intelligence; it is the lack of quality analysis of said intel and then lack of being able to piece together an intercepted cell phone call on the Pakistan border with a note found in a building in the Horn of Africa. Intel drives operations. I don’t think there can be much of an argument that we need more Special Forces and small elite strike units like the Rangers. They are perfect for fighting the small cellular, intel driven fights. Sending an armored division is like trying to swat flies with sledgehammers. I guess our debate then centers on the whole the role of our government in deciding when, where, and how to apply our influence (money, force, political pressure). Many people much smarter than us have debated that question over and over again. Again, my opinion is that we must not entangle ourselves in alliances, we must not commit to force unless it is defensive force (I believe that preemption is defensive), we must not spend U.S. tax dollars on any said alliances or relief, nation building, debt relief, aids fighting, etc., and finally allow the free market to work. That said, I must disagree with the idea that instead of spending our money on objects of benevolence abroad, that our federal government should spend taxpayers money on objects of benevolence at home. I am curious and wonder what principle drives that idea that it is okay to spend money domestically but not abroad? Does not our Constitution specifically state what the federal government is authorized to spend money on? Cleaning up the Gulf Coast certainly cannot be found in that document anywhere. I hate both big government parties. I hold them both in contempt, as they are both wretched and corrupt. I am not an anarchist by any means. I simple want a small, unobtrusive government to leave me to sink or swim on my own. I like my chances that way. Finally, we are at war right now. Regardless of what anyone in the media or Congress blathers about and whether or not we decide to fight him, there is an enemy out there who is actively and tirelessly trying to figure out a way to attack the United States. That is a fact, as I have faced this enemy. I believe that we must fight him. I believe that we must aggressively pursue and attack this enemy, as it is our best defense against him. Thank you gentlemen for the civil discussion and debate.

  13. Harry,

    I think you make some good points. I have a friend in the Navy, in intelligence. She made the prescient decision to learn Arabic in college. She is intelligent, loyal, and courageous. We need to have thousands more people like that, with the ability to analyze all the information coming in.

    That leads me to my question for you. You mention that we are at war, and that we must face our enemy. I agree, but I wonder how we identify and combat this enemy. This war is different from wars as traditionally conceived, because it is not the people of Iran, or the people of North Korea, or any other unified nation that threaten us. Rather it is a nihilistic ideology of hatred that is carried by a tiny fraction of the population of the world.

    Of all the wars we have fought, this one is most like the Cold War, in that the main challenge is not military but ideological. Given that, I wonder how we 1) find the enemy and 2) fight the enemy. I think your comments about improving our intelligence capacity is an excellent way to do that.

    I also have to throw in my liberal idea that supporting health, education, and opportunity abroad with foreign aid will benefit the recipients and ourselves.

  14. Harry, I complete agree with you on your point about remaining independent as opposed to engaging in these disastrous alliances, however I am sorry to differ with you on preemption.

    Not to be inflammatory but wouldn’t you be able to argue that Pearl Harbor is an example of preemption or Hitler’s attack on Poland? Loaning legitimacy to attacking another country is a slippery slope. Just a point to ponder.

    As to your point about the Constitution, yes you would be hard pressed to find a provision explicitly stating narrow purposes like coastal clean up. Unfortunately we have strayed far from that great document! Even our current war, like all of the others since WW2 is undeclared, as is specified in the constitution- Congress must declare War.

    Thanks Harry for your service to our country and also many thanks to you and the Walrus for the great discussion.

  15. Steve,

    Let me explain how I think that preemption is a moral use of force (therefore defensive force). For the purposes of argument, let’s say you had a neighbor who hates you. And let’s say that this neighbor starts to construct a giant cannon and he states all the while construction is being done, that he intends to destroy your house and family with the gun when it is complete. Are you not justified to destroy the cannon or your neighbor in self defense? I argue that you are. Do you disagree? That, boiled down, is my argument for preemption. The gray area is – at what point does my perceived threat justify me to go ahead and defend myself. That is certainly an area for debate. I will never cede my right to defend myself. Waiting until my neighbor completes his weapon and fires on my house just isn’t going to happen. When that basic idea is then taken to the level of the leviathan U.S. Government trying to make that fine distinction and attack a country preemptively, there is much much room for error, I agree.

    I also agree with Walrus that our Government tossed the Constitution out the window a long time ago. In its intent and early in our history, I think that it is still the closest that man has ever gotten to getting government (a necessary evil) right. Therefore, I naturally will fight and strive to head back in that direction.

  16. Thanks for the response Harry, interesting ideas and points. Perhaps you are right. I think the execution of “pre-emption” was very poorly handled in Iraq- not by the military but by the politicians…..

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