Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Fallacy of "Emboldening Terrorists"

We want the people of Iraq to live in a free society. It's in our interests. In my judgment, if we were to leave before the job is done, it would only embolden terrorists, it would only embolden the extremists. It would dash the hopes of millions of people who want to live in a free society, just like the 12 million people who voted in the Iraqi election. They want to live in a free society. And we support this government, because the government understands it was elected by the people. And Prime Minister Maliki is working hard to overcome the many obstacles in the way to a peaceful Iraq, and we want to help him. - President Bush, al-Malki visit, 2006 11 30

I would like to argue that this judgement about emboldening the terrorists is partly misdirected, as much as those who wanted so passionately to "send the terrorists a message" after 9/11.

We may not be able to "win" every battle with terrorists. It may be arrogance to suggest that we can. Terrorist methods are powerful.


Managing psychology of warfare is important, even key sometimes. However, one has to be careful in elevating it to a strategic goal, rather than a tactic. For sure, to fight the perverse messages of 'global jihad', it is important to at least stand up for those values indicted and greatly jeopardized by the false 'religious' callings of militant jihad.

But, to shape strategic choices because of how they might impact the psychology of terrorists is either to plainly put tactics ahead of strategy (usually a poor choice, a confusion) or to get the wrong balance among strategic imperatives.


We might do better to think in terms of putting degrees of pressure on jihadi groups, from any number of angles, and in terms of choices or tactics that allow for our freedom of action, action that is not drawn into a straightjacket because of perceived psychological impacts.

Besides, what could be better than duping an enemy into a false sense of security, than "emboldening" them?

What is important is that, whatever gains they might try to consolidate from a cessation or tactics retreat, stand in continuous jeopardy of being pushed over or pushed back. We ought not to think of 'losing face' over the kinds of smart, tactical shifts that would make a time-phased strategy in certain circumstances smart.


There is a question about whether to continuously engage in the political debate that militant jihad puts forward, as well as any number of other messages or to attack annointed leaders, lest one confer a kind of legitimacy and free press to their aims.

Ideas are still forming on precisely what the appropriate countermeasures are at each stage of militant jihad, as it is envisioned by its own theorists.

One way is to apply "medicine" (choice countermeasures) in various doses and then to measure how they are working. This is how governments in the Arab world effectively work now, quite arguably - they make statements and wait to see how 'the Street" responds. ('The Street' is nothing more than the long-term educational challenge, the literacy problem/dimension, in some respects.)


Accordingly, I think that abject calls for withdrawal ought to be met with derision, except as part of a broder plan to reposition the pressure campaign.

It might be possible to fashion a long-term strategy to confront radical Islam by denying it its next steps, by picking an choosing which issues on which to engage insofar as they have direct impact on achieving the next goals of the jihad (I'm thinking of the three phases mentioned below, iman, hijrah, and then jihad).

If one worries that the removal of military pressure in one situation might lead to greater recruitment, one has to re-position against recruitment, suggesting that the 'withdrawal' is a way to trap new recruits, who will be confronted/captured shortly.

In sum, there ought to be a continuous engagement, in my view, a pressure campaign, and it can include periods of repositioning in which certain confrontations are conceded as no longer productive and for which we do not have to worry about 'emboldening' some enemy today, if that is just a set-up for them to be neutralized or marginalized tomorrow.

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