The Scatterbrained Syncretist








Sunday, March 30, 2003

David responded to my previous comments.

"No, I opposed it because I did not hear any serious planning as to how we could create a democracy from several groups that having been killing each other for a long time, and because I fear it could be all too easy for us to fall into the trap of empire, spending more and more blood and money to maintain an empire which we regret having started, but cannot abandon."

I wonder if he realizes that there has been planning that he may not have heard about. We read last August 15 (sorry, this link requires subscription) about the attempt by the administration to place contracts with NGOs for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. The NGOs refused to cooperate, claiming that involvement with reconstruction plans would somehow be an endorsement of an American invasion. It is not surprising that the reconstruction contracts are now being arranged with companies rather than NGOs.

Of course, planning reconstruction is not exactly the same thing as planning a democratic transformation of a society. But it is a necessary step toward that goal.

Perhaps, David means that he is not aware of any detailed plan to create democracy in Iraq. Certainly there has been plenty of talk about questions of how to structure Iraq (some kind of federation...or not). There has also been much discussion by many parties of questions about the role of exiled Iraqi opposition figures in the future government of Iraq.

But discussion is not a plan.

Since the situation is so fluid and we cannot predict the shape of conditions in postwar Iraq, the creation of democracy in Iraq will require improvisation. A detailed plan for Iraqi democratization would reveal a blindness and hubris the would be a great impediment to progress toward a civil society in Iraq.

David's opposition to the Iraq invasion, based on "I did not hear any serious planning" seems to make unrealistic assumptions about human ability to control events.

His second point of opposition is "I fear it could be all too easy for us to fall into the trap of empire". As I do not know David, I am not qualified to comment on his fear. However, he does not demonstrate how a non-invasion would avoid that trap. Certainly, the factors that make that trap so "easy" to fall into would not have been diminished by a decision to not invade Iraq.

After mentioning the messy history of the area he says,

"Perhaps you'll want to triumphantly seize this evidence that they really are irrational - but then we must be prepared for them to react as irrationally to our occupation as to anything else. Only now we're responsible for it."

Hmm....I have not suggested that the Iraqis are irrational...quite the contrary, My discussion of altering the incentives of the terrorists assumes the opposite...that they behave rationally. I do not understand why he would expect me to reverse my position "triumphantly"

His argument that we would be more "responsible for it" if we act than we would be if we didn't act is empty. Our responsibility for things is a consequence of our ability to choose different courses. Choosing inaction has consequences just as choosing action does. Passivity does not relieve us of responsibility for the results of our decisions.

David then challenges me:

"This discussion seems to have branched out, but the original starting point was 'Why They Hate Us'. You suggested that they had told us the answer simply and clearly - they believe Islam demands Jihad, and this is what they believe Jihad means. If you are right, we are in big trouble. How do you propose to solve it?"

As always, the solution to a problem begins with correctly identifying the problem. In this case, it is extremely unfortunate that "they hate us", but that may be a fact that we all have to live with as long as America is more wealthy, free and powerful than Muslim other states. The obsession with the "why do they hate us" question seems to be a little...ummm...fetishistic. It focusses on sentiment and, in particular, feelings about us. That narcissism distracts us from the problems we face and shifts our attention to a delicious contemplation of our own sins.

We are "in big trouble".

We are in trouble because people are attacking us and our civilization. And those attacks are not merely annoyances...they actually do threaten to destroy the liberal order we have struggled to build. When we examine the tactics of this new style of warfare, it is immediately apparent that we offer so many targets that it is impossible to adequately defend them all against attack. The solution must therefore revolve around finding a way to make them stop attacking us. The attacks are the problem that can be addressed. The hatred is not.

If we understand these attacks as actions of rational people, then we can address them by examining the incentives on which they base their decisions.

The jihadists believe that "martyrdom" is a path to eternal pleasure. Some more moderate Muslims say that this is a blasphemous idea. We should do what we can to propagate the "blasphemy" meme. At the moment, we have limited (being the Great Satan) scope in our range of direct action. But, since much Muslim ideology is often in service of various states, we can apply pressure to the states to moderate their preaching and education. This will be a long and slow process and it has begun.

We can be more effective in our reshaping of earthly incentives. Removing Saddam has certainly upset Hamas. Saddam's financing of Palestinian terrorism has increased the violence in Israel. Eliminate that financing and the intifada becomes less rewarding for its participants. We can expand our program of disincentives to include undermining the sponsorship of al Qaeda and Hezbollah as well as the myriad other jihad groups around the world.

This process of building disincentives will continue to entail pressuring state and private sponsors of jihad. Some of this pressure will necessitate war and threat of war but this pressure can take many forms.

Jihadists expect victory, and as Den Beste suggests, inflicting shattering defeats on them will rearrange the incentives behind their actions. In the short term, our decision to pursue terrorists forces them to devote time and resources to avoiding capture...and to me, that is better than allowing them to prioritize planning mischief.

So far, I have been examining disincentives. But there are also many areas where we can encourage constructive behavior.

If we view terrorists as rational people, we must conclude that they choose jihad because, to them, it is the best option they see. In their societies, they have little political (as we understand politics) voice. David and I (and President Bush) seem to agree that increasing democracy in the Muslim world will ameliorate the urge to jihad. Our government can (and does) apply pressure for democratic reform to Muslim states. This is a delicate issue and may take decades to make substantial progress.

But it isn't just a matter of democratic forms of government. The civil society that democracy depends upon also enables economic freedom. The oil wealth in the Middle East has been a curse on the population. It has allowed the ruling class to enjoy riches and power without the responsibility of creating a real economy. This means that there is little business beyond import of goods and export of mineral resources. People graduate from university and find no prospects for gainful employment. If there is little earthly opportunity after graduation, they might as well study religion in school. After all, if education can't prepare one for life, it can still prepare one for the afterlife.

The Arab economies are characterized by corruption and oppression. Until that changes, there will continue to be few constructive outlets for the aspirations of young people entering adulthood. We must encourage and assist the reform of Arab economies. Without that reform, there is little to be gained from modernizing education.

However, there is substantial resistance to economic reform. The Saudi program appears to be perfunctory and is foundering on the unwillingness to work for a living that permeates Saudi society. Other Muslim countries like Malaysia do somewhat better...but not much. In addition, there are Islamic obstacles to modern business like the forbidding of loaning money at interest. This seriously reduces entrepreneurship as it militates against capitalizing new business projects...and furthermore makes an aspiring businessman dependent on the sponsorship of the wealthy and powerful. This corruption prevents real economic development.

Maybe we would be wise to worry less about democracy in the Arab world and give more thought to the benefits of promoting secular society. Increasing economic opportunity might have a more immediate effect on the prospects (and incentives) of young Muslims than a greater political voice would. One must walk before one can run.