Friday, January 8, 2010

On Terrorism, Part I

Coincidentally, Juan and I both had terrorism as one of the topics for our final essays in our international relations classes. Since they offer contrasting takes on the issue, it might be interesting to see them side by side. Here is mine:

In a stunningly short period of time, global terrorism has emerged to become the greatest security threat facing the United States today. Although Islamist radicalism, the driving force behind the most globally salient terrorist organizations, has been on the rise for decades, it was not until September 11, 2001 that Americans became acutely aware of terrorism’s deadly capacity. This phenomenon can be perplexing at first glance. Relative to the forces that opposed America in the 20th century—those of fascism and communism—our current foes seem almost laughably impotent. Unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, Islamist terrorist organizations do not command massive economies or industrialized armies. Instead, they are scattered across the world, recruiting their forces from the local population and relying on the sponsorship of sympathetic states and other entities. It is this amorphousness, this perception of eerie omnipresence, which makes terrorism more frightening of a challenge than anything the United States has faced before. Because terrorist organizations are non-state actors, they can neither be deterred conventionally nor bound to international institutions. This unprecedented problem requires a reassessment of classic assumptions, such as those made by realist and liberal schools of thought. To address the issue of global terrorism, policy-makers must take a constructivist approach to identify the causes of Islamist radicalism and prescribe long-term stabilizing solutions within the social construct of Islamic societies.

Among the myriad of issues facing the United States, Islamist terrorism demands the highest priority because it is a direct and unequivocal threat to the United States. Organizations like al-Qaeda have explicitly stated their intent to kill Americans wherever they are found, and unless the U.S. government takes active precautionary and preventive measures, citizens both domestic and abroad are vulnerable to attacks. Not only does the United States have the greatest reason to combat terrorism, it also has the greatest responsibility to. The U.S. is the only nation with the resources and force projection capability to thwart and root out terrorists in all corners of the world, and however adept our allies may be at creating environmental and economic policy, they cannot tackle terrorism without American leadership. And at the risk of echoing clich├ęd apocalyptic predictions of bygone eras, we must fight Islamist terrorism because it promotes an oppressive ideology that, if embraced, will create societies as harmful to their own people as they are to other societies.

All these reasons are only convincing if one truly appreciates terrorism’s capacity for wreaking havoc on civilian populations. September 11 was a catastrophic tragedy, but nothing even close to its level of sophistication and destructiveness has occurred on American soil since. There are various explanations for this hiatus, but the absence of deadly strikes domestically obscures the ease with which they may happen. As the recent attack on Fort Hood by a single gunman demonstrated, small arms have a tremendous capacity for murder. If a solitary assailant, one without logistic support or any strategic motivation, is able to carry out such carnage, a mildly competent terrorist cell in America will be able to inflict much greater damage at minimal cost. Terrorists can also be aided by crude weapons like dirty bombs, conventional explosives that spread radioactive material which, while not directly destructive, can paralyze a population center and incite panic. One must also not ignore the possibility that terrorists may acquire more potent biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons in the future. If al-Qaeda is ignored, we risk immediate and long-term threats that will not only be difficult to mitigate but also potentially crippling to our national sense of security.

A willingness to prioritize the issue of terrorism must be coupled with a clear understanding of its causes. To discern these complex ideas, the lens of constructivism is especially well-suited. Constructivism takes the perspective that the behavior of people and states “is premised on their understanding of the world around them, which includes their own beliefs about the world, the identities they hold about themselves and others, and the shared understandings and practices in which they participate.” Therefore, it provides an alternative to purely materialistic assumptions, which cannot comprehensively explain the motivation of terrorists, by elucidating the ideas that give meaning to material factors. A materialist interpretation of Islamist terrorism can explain why, among the Western nations that Islamic Middle Eastern societies bear grievances against, the United States is the single most prominent target, for it has the largest and most involved presence in the Middle East. However, this interpretation alone does not explain why such grievances exist toward the U.S. in the first place. After all, although America has a significant military presence in the Japanese islands, no violent Japanese organization has materialized against the United States. A constructivist examination of this issue would yield a hypothesis based on the notion that Islamic societies form their perceptions of the U.S. from a pattern of social interactions. Because Japan considers the U.S. an ally and a friend in a mutually beneficial relationship, it does not resent U.S. occupation. In contrast, Middle Eastern societies have not fared so well in their interactions with the West. The Middle East’s encounter with modernization, which is viewed as a product of the West, has yielded obscenely rich and corrupt aristocrats while failing to introduce liberal concepts that have propelled East Asian nations to genuine economic and social progress. American intervention, especially its support of Israel, is therefore seen as a reincarnation of imperialistic colonialism. A study of this pattern of interactions and its effects can reveal clues for a foreign policy that can redress the failures of the past and reshape relations between the Western world and Islamic nations in the Middle East.

Aside from social interactions, constructivism can also identify the construction of states and state interests as factors in behavior. We can apply this framework to the construction of non-state actors like terrorist organizations to understand their goals. Islamist groups like al-Qaeda believe that sovereignty belongs to God alone, and thus aim to impose shar’ia—Islamic law—on all Muslims. Thus, Michael Scott Doran characterized September 11 as an attempt to provoke an aggressive American response and polarize the Islamic world between the faithful umma—Islamic societies—and the United States and its Muslim allies. U.S. military action, which is bound to cause heavy Muslim casualties, will exacerbate tensions between America and the Middle East. Bin Laden can use this as political ammunition against what he views as apostate Islamic nations and thereby facilitate his vision of an Islamist revolution. Aggression against the United States is therefore a means to the ultimate end of Islamist totalitarianism.

An application of both the understanding of Middle Eastern perception of the United States and the motivations of terrorist organizations leads to several potential and complementary solutions to the issue of global Islamic terrorism. A crucial first step is to mitigate resentment toward America. Policy-makers should take concerns from the Islamic world seriously and adopt a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is possible that Israel’s relinquishment of some settlements could lower Middle Eastern hostility, but even if it does not, we can rest assured that opportunity and peace have been restored to millions of displaced Palestinian. Furthermore, the U.S. should attach conditions to its support of Middle Eastern regime and press for greater liberalization of the political process. If Islamists have peaceful and democratic venues for political participation, we may see a decline in terrorist activities. Furthermore, the U.S. should dispel the negative myths about America that have been perpetuated by Islamist propaganda. This response should not be counter-propaganda; rather, it needs to be an honest and accessible forum that utilizes highly-trained spokespeople and all forms of media. Earnest diplomatic engagement between America and the Muslim masses can heal many wounds.

These approaches might be appalling to certain realists. They might argue that terrorists by and large remain unharmed in the process, and would be able to fearlessly continue their assaults on the United States. However, the constructivist methodology outlined above have the potential of significantly reducing motivations for terrorism because they are so minimally disruptive to Islamic society. If the U.S. refrains from overt breaches of sovereignty, like its invasions of Afghanistan and Iran, it can chip away at the casus belli that Islamists extremists have tried so hard to establish. When America no longer seems like the Great Satan, terrorist organizations will find fewer and fewer recruits with whom to bolster their ranks. At that point, it matters little that perpetrators of terrorist acts remain alive and well; they will have become largely irrelevant. When their ideology is no longer accepted by Muslims, their material resources will vanish as well.

Of course, these are very optimistic predictions, and the solution to terrorism provided is an incredibly difficult one to implement successfully. But given the failures of previous attempts at curbing Islamist terrorism, we must give the constructivist approach the chance it deserves. Global terrorism is the paramount threat to the U.S. today, and constructivism alone can provide real and long-term solutions to this problem.

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