The swamp was not drained

by Paolo von Schirach

August 14, 2007

WASHINGTON – Early on, at the beginning of the campaign against al Quaida and affiliates the US Government proclaimed that America would proceed to “drain the swamp”. This radically methodical approach vis-à-vis Osama and his followers would give us victory against this elusive enemy. The metaphor is self-evident: deprive the terrorists of their natural habitat and supporting systems. The swamp creatures, relying on the protection provided by this murky environment, once the swamp had been drained, would be exposed, vulnerable, weaker and thus easily captured or killed.

The problem is that the swamp to be drained was huge; in fact nothing less than most of the Muslim countries and beyond. The Islamic terrorists and affiliated entities found and find shelter, help, assistance and support within various segments of the Islamic world that could not be easily isolated, surrounded by a security fence and then “drained”, thus yielding our quarry. Furthermore, as it turned out, many radicals managed to disguise themselves as legitimate citizens and or immigrants/visitors in many non Muslim countries. If these were and are the swamps in which the terrorists hide, they have not been drained. Whatever successes have been obtained against radicals willing to engage in terrorism, they were achieved through fishing them out of the swamps, because of improved fishing (that is: intelligence) techniques.

True, the radicals have lost the most egregious form of open support that was provided by the Taliban regime prior to 9/11. The Taliban openly and defiantly affirmed that bin Laden was a friend and a guest in Afghanistan. Thus they would not hand him over to America to be prosecuted as the mastermind of the plot leading to the attacks on the US. This adamant behavior provided a good justification for invading, rather than just draining, that particular swamp.

After the initial defeat of the Taliban regime, while many swamp creatures were indeed captured or killed, bin Laden and associates managed to escape and go into hiding elsewhere. Which is to say, they found another, more remote, swamp; most likely across the border in Pakistan. For the time being, because of well known ethnic and religious issues faced by the Pakistani government in the North West of the country, we seem to be unable to drain this swamp.

The notion that one could quickly deprive the terrorists of the environment that provided logistical and financial support as well as fresh recruits proved to be too optimistic; or perhaps just simplistic. Whatever real cooperation may come from governments and intelligence services in various countries, there are significant segments of the societies that support the radicals’ cause. Whatever the efforts aimed at blocking financing via Islamic charities or other sources, there seem to be enough funds to fuel terror plots around the world; while the widespread approval of the cause pursued by the terrorists by large segments of public opinion in many countries, so far has guaranteed a steady flow of new recruits, quite willing to die for the cause, just like the September 11 highjackers. The swamp is alive and well.

A successful “draining of the swamp” should have resulted in obtaining a convinced rejection of radicalism by all Muslim societies. This would have resulted in ostracizing and isolating the fanatics who, without support and friends, would have become weaker and incapable of engaging in grand plans. Well, this has not quite happened yet. In truth, recent opinion polls taken in Muslim countries would indicate a noticeable drop in popular support for the ideology and methods of radical groups; and this is good in so far as these results may be the harbingers of a major future shift away from radicalism and its prophets. But there is still enough residual support for radicalism and terrorism as a legitimate method to advance a cause that many find appealing. This indicates that the swamp has been not been drained.

In parallel with the “draining” methodology, the US embarked in another grandiose plan. And this is the equivalent of moving all Muslim societies from the swamp that does support radicalism to the dry and fertile land of democracy that will be immune from it. The logic is still the same; but the plan much more complex and ambitious. While draining the swamp emphasized depriving the terrorists of their ecosystem, the democracy building plan was and is aimed at creating an entirely new ecosystem in which radicalism and its attendant terrorist methods to force onto others the acceptance of its version of a good society could not take root.

In principle this is correct. In new democratic societies that would recognize and affirm popular sovereignty and individual rights, peaceful political dialogue would replace political violence. Historical precedent, according to some, would vindicate the validity of this approach. The undemocratic Germans and Japanese were taught how to adopt and follow democratic principles by the US occupiers who believed that the creation of constitutional democracies would be the best way to inoculate these nations against the perils of recurring totalitarian temptations. Indeed.

The difference between then and now is, however, enormous. The Germans and the Japanese had formally surrendered and nobody at the time seriously contemplated resisting the Allied occupation. The adoption of new forms of government thus was not strongly resisted by the vanquished societies. Even the skeptics within them agreed that, if nothing else, if the adoption of democratic institutions was the price to be paid in order to regain legitimacy within the international political systems, it was a price worth paying.

In today’s broader Middle East the picture is entirely different. First of all total victory has yet to be achieved both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The western model is actively resisted. Furthermore, beyond places where there is fighting, the western democratic model, founded on individual rights and responsibilities does not seem to sit well with societies molded by the notion of group loyalty, still driven by various forms of tribalism in which chaos among warring factions is averted through one form or another of repression or authoritarianism. (Remember Saddam Hussein?)

In the long run, the swamp may be drained and in the longer run the weak seedlings of democracy may take root. And maybe later on the world will recognize that there was some value in the unrealistic effort made by the naïve (or hubristic, take your pick) Americans in trying to force feed a new political philosophy and new sets of principles on reluctant and quite unprepared societies. Maybe future historians will conclude that, while not immediately successful, the talk of democracy inspired some who, later on, made it their genuinely felt cause.

But whatever the judgment of history, this is a long term plan. In the meantime, we are confronted with the daunting task of convincing people in societies in the midst of identity crises, (or alienated, unassimilated groups living in western societies), that peaceful methods are more effective than political violence and that the paranoid search of external enemies (that is us) is a futile enterprise. They shall have to be convinced that their tactical successes (9/11, Bali, Madrid and London bombings, among others), however spectacular, will never bring about the liberating transformation that the radicals are dreaming about.

Until we will find better ways to make its ideology unappealing, Islamic fanaticism with its Holy War component, conducted through (legitimate, according to them) terrorist actions, will remain a major threat; given the incredibly high level of damage that terror attacks engineered by relatively few people can cause.

This violent extremism originates mostly in the inability of a number of traditionally Muslim societies to first accept modernity and then find and pursue their own more harmonious path towards it. The retreat into a distorted but reassuring medieval orthodoxy is their way to rediscover and reaffirm moral clarity and a sense of meaning and direction in an otherwise puzzling and, for some at least, threatening world. An outside world that (according to them) is deliberately trying to oppress them. In their fight for purity these various radicals have constructed an oversimplified and totally demonized vision of politics. A significant feature of this fantastic worldview is in identifying the West as the main obstacle for pious Muslims on their way to establish anew organically orthodox societies, finally compliant with God given moral principles.

This ideology, as divorced from reality as it may be, presents a huge problem for us, the target of this intense animosity. In our attempt to counter, degrade and eventually neutralize this threat, we have to fight on two fronts: against the individuals who become actively involved; and, probably even more crucial, against the appeal of a distorted, but widely popular way of thinking that creates a steady stream of new recruits quite willing to die for the cause.

“Draining the swamp” and “democracy building” may have appeared good ways to achieve the ultimate objective of transforming the political culture of these societies. But this “mechanistic” approach did not take into account the enormous complexities involved in radically transforming traditional societies, with the attendant negative byproducts of being identified even more than before as oppressors and enemies. Judging by the results of many polls, the US, if anything, is a great deal less popular around the world then before embarking in these efforts.

The task of convincing people to abandon political violence and terrorist methods and adopt peaceful methods compatible with modern political systems is extremely complex. Radical solutions to eliminate this virus, theoretically appealing but in practice not workable, have not produced the intended results.

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