Monday, December 17, 2007
Mao's Virtual Sea
Here's how Kevin Drum defends former Sen. Bob Kerrey's suggestion that Barack Hussein Obama's name and background will help in the fight against Islamic terrorism:
Kerrey wasn't suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn't. But terrorists can't function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao's sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don't have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It's why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.
What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.
Kevin's point about drying up surrounding support is classic counterinsurgency/counterterrorism stuff. But there are significant differences between a classic terrorist insurgency group like the IRA and Al Qaeda. The former was a relatively poor organization that operated in largely urban areas, necessitating the kind of active support from the surrounding populace that Kevin is talking about. They were also on their home turf, fighting against a foreign occupying force, which facilitated it.
Whereas Al Qaeda collects donations from wealthy patrons swimming in petro-dollars. It's based in inaccessible hinterlands, and operates on a globalized battlefield against an enemy whose presence is largely symbolic. (Or at least they did until we provided them with convenient targets close to home.) And its recruiting pool is multi-national, de-centralized and mobile.
In other words, I wonder to what extent globalization has rendered "Mao's sea" an obsolete concept, or if not, whether it has supplied terrorist groups with a virtual replacement. The most effective operation Al Qaeda has mounted to date remains the work of twenty individuals operating within the United States, aided by a network of agents based in Western Europe, financed through legitimate banking and credit card networks.
I agree that Barack Obama will be a more convincing spokesman for an American appeal to the Arab street. I also think that he's more likely to engage in a foreign policy that will make us more sympathetic in the Arab world. That's already alot.
But I question whether that will have a real effect on Islamic terrorism, which with a firm but non-hysterical response from the West will in all likelihood fade away of its own accord. The prize we should be aiming for is to make sure it's not replaced by something worse.