Of course he read Chomsky

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The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released a lengthy list of documents seized during the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan back in 2011.  I’ll leave it to others to parse the contents, but a couple of things stand out to me.

First, there’s a distinct lack of “fun” reading represented on Bin Laden’s list.* I mean, what did he read while sitting on the can?**

Second, the list reveals a kind of actor-reading-his-own-reviews sort of thing going on. Plenty of media stories, think tank studies, and books on Al Qaeda are represented.

Third, international relations theory! Look Ma, we’re relevant! Though he probably could have done better than Ikenberry and Mastanduno …

Finally, based on the strategy guide found, somebody in that compound was a gamer, although not apparently a very discerning one given the reviews for “Delta Force Xtreme 2,” described by IGN as “a game that’s every bit as bad as its spelling.” Gamespot was slightly more generous, boiling its essence down to “large ugly maps with death waiting behind every polygon,” and remarking that its artificial intelligence “can be amazingly stupid in certain situations.”

Somewhere in those reviews there’s a metaphor for the diminished fortunes that led Al Qaeda’s leader to spend his last few years hunkered down in a Pakistani safe house that wasn’t so safe after all. But someone else can puzzle that out.

*Unless you read Noam Chomsky for fun, in which case, I’m not sure you ought to be reading me.

**OK, maybe Chomsky wasn’t such a bad choice after all.

Let them fight

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing coming from pundits and US policy makers past and present surrounding the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to ISIS and the marshalling of Iranian-backed Shiite militias to try to take back the town.  A lot of the usual sorts of suspects have been once again making the case that: 1) Letting the Shiite militias do the fighting will both empower Iran and likely worsen already bad sectarian tensions; and therefore 2) The only alternative is for the US to once again wade into the fray, even if that means reintroducing American combat troops on the ground. The discussion on this morning’s Diane Rehm Show is a good example of what’s passing for debate on the subject.

Of course there is another way of looking at this, and it is one that the US is pretty familiar with, especially in this part of the world. Follow the advice of Ken Watanabe in the latest reboot of Godzilla and “let them fight.”

The Godzilla-vs.-the Mutos analogy is not a bad one when thinking about the struggle for regional dominance that has been playing out for decades between the US, Iran, and Iraq. This is basically the strategy we pursued during the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, letting the two beasts (one of which we marginally preferred over the other) savage each other for as long as they possibly could, with a little help to both sides from us, expecting that at the end of the fight the winner would be far too weak and damaged to pose any real challenge to American preeminence for years to come.

So thinking about Iran, Iraq, and ISIS today, would it be so terrible for US interests to just let them fight? Let Iran invest more time, energy, resources, manpower, etc. propping up an ineffectual Shiite-dominated Iraqi state. Continue providing just enough combat air support so that we stay in the good graces of the Iraqi regime but not so much that we pave the way for an easy victory for Iran’s proxies.  Let them savage each other.

Is this a cold-blooded strategy? Sure. But would it be out of character for the US, especially in that part of the world? Hardly.

Yes, terrorism works

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Continuity IRA grafitti on the Falls Road. (Photo from March)

 

But that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily successful. When pundits, policy makers, politicians, and political opponents make the blanket statement that terrorism doesn’t work, they often do so by arguing the point from the narrowest of perspectives, focused solely on the stated long-term objectives of a violent political movement.

Frankly that’s a pretty poor basis upon which to make the claim. It ignores the reality that there are all kinds of short-term organizational, operational, and publicity goals that terrorism can effectively serve even if its use fails to result in a group achieving its long-term agenda. I’ll just touch on a few here.*

Organizationally, groups that are committed to using violence to advance a political objective will at some point have to act if only to maintain internal morale and cohesion. Terrorist groups that fail to engage in terrorism can see their members either lose heart and drift away, or alternately break off to strike on their own or join up with another group that they believe is willing to fight.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had several years ago with a former INLA member from Derry, who explained to me how he ended up in that group. He said that he and a small group of friends were initially part of a PIRA quartermaster unit that was involved in moving weapons across the border from the Irish Republic for use in the North. They became frustrated that they were denied permission to use those weapons themselves, instead handing them over for use by other active service units. So he and some of the others went over to the INLA. They had no interest in that organization’s Marxist politics. They wanted to fight, so they defected to a group that agreed to let them.

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(Photo taken from the Belfast News Letter)

 

This organizational imperative is likely part of the explanation for the images of armed Continuity IRA volunteers “patrolling the streets of Lurgan” (shown above) that appeared on social media in late April and were subsequently picked up by news outlets across Northern Ireland.  While hardly a show of strength in any meaningful sense, the caption that accompanied the photo when originally posted on Facebook, “Volunteers… patrolling the streets of Lurgan on the lookout for England’s armed colonial police and undercover British soldiers who are operating unwantedly across occupied Ireland,” surely gave a boost to the collective ego of the group’s members and supporters. In organizational terms, that’s a success.

And it also served another purpose, bringing publicity to the group and by extension to the group’s cause. If publicity is the lifeblood of any terrorist campaign, than any operation that brings attention to the group is a success, not matter how “unsuccessful” a specific operation is in concrete terms.  Every time politicians or police officials stand before the press and denounce their armed opponents while announcing measures to respond to the threat these groups pose, they play into the hands of movements eager to be recognized as meaningful and dangerous challengers to the status quo.

Finally, operationally, even unsuccessful attacks — bombs that fail or only partially detonate, grenades that miss their targets, and so on — serve a useful purpose for the group. Groups gain greater operational sophistication and capacity through experience, by learning from their successes as well as their mistakes and failures (assuming those don’t land them in jail or the grave).

At the same time, by their nature, terrorist attacks can be effective even when they fail. Areas are closed off, police and other security resources of the state are diverted and potentially stretched thin, people’s daily lives and routines are disrupted, as noted above attention is drawn to the group and its cause. With luck, perhaps the state can be provoked into over-reacting, demonstrating in vivid terms to the terrorist group’s perceived constituency and the public at large the injustice and oppression of the system that the terrorist group is fighting against.

Again, events of the last few weeks in Northern Ireland (for example a small bomb exploding outside a probation office in Derry, a bomb attack on a police patrol in North Belfast which missed its target, a substantial bomb found and defused in Ardoyne, two partially exploded bombs found outside a Territorial Army base in Derry) point to the effectiveness of essentially ineffective terrorist attacks.  As a result of these and other recent incidents, the PSNI announced today that they would step up police patrols and increase their use of check points in order to counter the threat posed by dissident Republicans, which was described as severe. The resulting increase in armed police presence on the streets, and the inconveniences and disruptions to daily life, can be seen to work to the advantage of a movement that brands the police an army of foreign occupation and will attempt to spin this security response as little more than harassment indiscriminately targeted against the Nationalist community.

None of the above discussion is to claim that an armed campaign has any chance whatsoever to bring about the end to British rule in Northern Ireland, the long-term objective of the groups that are carrying out these and other largely ineffectual actions.  To the contrary, many dissidents argue today that the conditions for successful armed struggle no longer exist in Northern Ireland (read the IRSP’s assessment of the potential for armed action recently republished at The Pensive Quill), and that under these circumstances a continuation of violence is politically ineffective if not immoral. On these terms then, terrorism doesn’t work.

But if we consider all the short-term objectives that terrorism can effectively serve, we have to recognize that even when it fails, terrorism works. And that’s why groups continue to use it.

*If I were in my office and not at my kitchen table this would be a longer discussion, with proper acknowledgment of the academic sources I’m drawing upon. But since I’m not, I’ll just wing it and hope for the best. At least I’m not linking to Wikipedia anymore.

 

Distortion via simplification

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Gerry Adams on 60 Minutes.

 

One way to know that it’s Eastertide in America is the parade of Northern Ireland politicians that traditionally make pilgrimage here to: 1) receive yet another round of congratulations for “making peace” almost two decades ago; 2) accept checks from deep-pocketed American donors (in the case of Sinn Fein reps); and 3) go hat-in-hand for additional funds from the US government and investment from American companies. Most of the time these visits are largely ignored by the media here, and for good reason since they are by their very nature far from newsworthy.

This year was different in that Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, the former IRA commander who orchestrated the systematic bombing campaign that destroyed most of his native city of Derry in the 1970s and now serves as Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, pulled out of the annual trip in order to attend to a crisis at Stormont over welfare spending that his own party precipitated.

But while McGuinness wasn’t here, CBS’ long-running news program 60 Minutes made sure that Easter Sunday wouldn’t pass without hearing from Gerry Adams, the man who has led Sinn Fein since the mid 1980s and who is credited with (or blamed for, depending upon your perspective) orchestrating the IRA’s transition from armed struggle to conventional politics and thereby delivering the peace process. Adams’ interview, which you can watch here, garnered furious attention from the Northern Irish media, and especially from Adams’ numerous critics, who called him out for what was widely perceived as his selective and self-serving reinterpretation of events over the last forty-plus years and his own role in them.

To my mind though, what was noteworthy about the 60 Minutes interview was not what Adams had to say, but the way in which the interview itself and the reporting surrounding it revealed all of the lazy ways in which Americans tend to think about Northern Ireland, why it exploded into conflict, and what went on there during the long years of violence.

Veteran Northern Ireland journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty captured this far better than I can in a scathing piece published a few days ago in the Belfast Telegraph in which he pillories 60 Minutes for its lazy and superficial reporting.

Take the simple description of the period as “a war between Catholics and Protestants” and “one of the longest wars of the 20th century”. Reporter Scott Pelley talked of how the Catholics rebelled against British rule.

Different people from different perspectives will take issue with these simplifications in different ways.

I reject the use of the word “war”, though I accept that others use it. The rules of war did not apply; the ordinary civil law did, though it was flexed and contorted.

There was no general rebellion against partition by the Catholic population. The nearest to a broad movement of protest was the civil rights agitation.

Yes, most of the members were Catholic, but they were not motivated by Catholic theology. And they were arguing for British rights in a part of the UK.

Now, maybe that is all a bit too much to encapsulate in a short link in a documentary film, but was an untruth required in order to summarise history as journalism?

Catholics and Protestants fighting each other is a gross misrepresentation of the Troubles. It implies that the violence of republican and loyalist paramilitaries was endorsed by the wider communities.

That simply isn’t true. The republican movement was only ever able to win majority support among voting Catholics after the end of the IRA campaign. And the loyalist politicians were never able to represent more than a fraction of the Protestant community. Do these facts not matter?

If you want to see a full display of all of the ways in which we tend to get Northern Ireland wrong, watch the report, and then go to O’Doherty’s commentary. It is well worth reading in full.