Saturday, July 24, 2004

David Brooks Gets It

God knows David Brooks can be awful at times, but when he's good, he can be very good indeed, and today he's on a roll.

We're not in the middle of a war on terror, they note. We're not facing an axis of evil. Instead, we are in the midst of an ideological conflict.

We are facing, the report notes, a loose confederation of people who believe in a perverted stream of Islam that stretches from Ibn Taimaya to Sayyid Qutb. Terrorism is just the means they use to win converts to their cause.

It seems like a small distinction - emphasizing ideology instead of terror - but it makes all the difference, because if you don't define your problem correctly, you can't contemplate a strategy for victory.

When you see that our enemies are primarily an intellectual movement, not a terrorist army, you see why they are in no hurry. With their extensive indoctrination infrastructure of madrassas and mosques, they're still building strength, laying the groundwork for decades of struggle. Their time horizon can be totally different from our own.

As an ideological movement rather than a national or military one, they can play by different rules. There is no territory they must protect. They never have to win a battle but can instead profit in the realm of public opinion from the glorious martyrdom entailed in their defeats. We think the struggle is fought on the ground, but they know the struggle is really fought on satellite TV, and they are far more sophisticated than we are in using it.

The 9/11 commission report argues that we have to fight this war on two fronts. We have to use intelligence, military, financial and diplomatic capacities to fight Al Qaeda. That's where most of the media attention is focused. But the bigger fight is with a hostile belief system that can't be reasoned with but can only be "destroyed or utterly isolated."

[............]

We also need to mount our own ideological counteroffensive. The commissioners recommend that the U.S. should be much more critical of autocratic regimes, even friendly ones, simply to demonstrate our principles. They suggest we set up a fund to build secondary schools across Muslim states, and admit many more students into our own. If you are a philanthropist, here is how you can contribute: We need to set up the sort of intellectual mobilization we had during the cold war, with modern equivalents of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, to give an international platform to modernist Muslims and to introduce them to Western intellectuals.

[............]

Last week I met with a leading military officer stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose observations dovetailed remarkably with the 9/11 commissioners. He said the experience of the last few years is misleading; only 10 percent of our efforts from now on will be military. The rest will be ideological.
I'll also venture to add my own two bits: seeing as publicity is the oxygen of these movements, it's about time we stopped taking the fight to them in the daylight. Our motto ought to be "By way of deception, thou shalt do war", which will mean using every dirty trick in the book to undermine these movements without showing our hand - using disinformation, sowing internal discord, facilitating untimely "accidents" which look like accidents, setting up morally* compromising situations, etc, etc. Most of the Cold War was fought out of the limelight, and this war will need to be even more so.

*Morally compromising by their standards, of course, morality being largely a subjective thing.