Dividing the World into Terrorists and the Rest

Paul Pillar

The common American tendency to view the outside world in starkly divided Manichean terms between friends, allies and good guys on one side and adversaries and evil-doers on the other side arises in many circumstances but seems especially marked in discussions of terrorism. The tendency is most visible in how the lists that have become mainstays of counterterrorist policy are widely perceived. The U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations had an almost mundane purpose when it was established by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. One of the principal features of that legislation was to criminalize the provision of material support to any foreign terrorist organization. This made necessary clear definitions not only of material support but also of foreign terrorist organizations. Hence the creation of the list, entries on which are determined by the secretary of state with the participation of other executive departments and according to criteria specified in the statute.

Notwithstanding this purpose—support to the enforcement of a criminal law—the list of foreign terrorist organizations gets regarded as if it were a more general act of condemnation that embodies what overall U.S. policy toward a given group is or ought to be. It is taken as a declaration of who is in the bad guys' camp and who is not. Listing or delisting of a particular group gets promoted by those with an agenda that has nothing to do with enforcement of a criminal statute. This has been seen most obviously with the well-financed campaign to delist the Iranian cult-cum-terrorist group the Mujahedin-e Khalq. Or pushing for a particular group's listing is a way of making a statement, as has most recently been the case with the question of whether to list the Haqqani group of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This way of looking at the list has several disadvantages. It constitutes pressure to politicize what is supposed to be an administrative and legal decision. It increases the potential negative consequences of listing a group because non-Americans follow the American lead in looking at listing as a general act of condemnation. Listing of the Haqqani group, however much it may be legally warranted under the terms of the relevant statute, might complicate not only U.S. relations with Pakistan but also any future efforts to negotiate an Afghan peace with the Taliban.

Sharply dividing groups into ones that get the terrorist label and thus are to be condemned and those that are not so labeled and condemned does not correspond to the messy reality of what groups do and don't do. Lebanese Hezbollah is perhaps the foremost example of a group that is known (and listed) in the United States as a terrorist group but is also much more than that. Instead of exploring different options in intelligently dealing with this multifaceted group, more attention gets devoted in a simplistic way to U.S.-European differences on whether Hezbollah “is” a terrorist group—i.e., is officially listed and branded as such.

A related problem is how putting a group on the bad side of the good guys/bad guys divide reduces one's policy flexibility because this one act of branding tends to preclude any engagement with the group, no matter how much such engagement would make sense. Probably the premier example is Hamas. The International Crisis Group recently observed that the ostracism of Hamas may entail yet another costly missed opportunity in the Middle East.

The rigid perceptual division of friends and enemies and the tendency to associate bad behavior such as terrorism only with the enemies does not correspond to actual behavioral patterns. It means, for example, overlooking in the Middle East Jewish terrorism until it occurs frequently enough to make it impossible to overlook entirely. In the United States it means a tendency to consider all terrorism worth worrying about to be Islamist and to discourage attention to other varieties that, based on what has been happening inside the United States, are worth worrying about at least as much.

We would be better advised to remember that terrorism is a tactic, not a fixed set of protagonists who are the only ones ever to use it. We should also remember that good and evil are pretty widely distributed in the world and not just confined to different parts of it.

Image: Thephotostrand

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Talking in Circles

The Buzz

What happens when an Englishman tries to apply for Iranian citizenship? Christopher de Bellaigue has the answer. In a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, he recounts his attempt to do so in 2004. The result provides some interesting insights into Iran’s culture and the ongoing negotiations over its nuclear file.

De Bellaigue writes that upon his initial application, he was greeted by a smiling official who promised him that “it would be an honor to consider your case” and that he had “a good chance of success.” He kept returning month after month to hear that his case was “going very well.” But as the process dragged on, he got suspicious. Finally, he learned that there was no real process by which he could gain citizenship. It would have to be awarded by the Iranian cabinet—“a prospect that seemed rather unlikely.”

De Bellaigue attributes his treatment to the deeply ingrained Iranian practice of “ta’arof.” Coming from an Arabic word, he says, in Iran it “refers to a way of managing social relations with decorous manners.” It involves treating others with the utmost kindness, offering them every courtesy, sometimes in a sort of overdone, playacting ritual. But it can also be “a way of letting people down very, very slowly,” of saying no without actually saying it, as it was with de Bellaigue.

As the author notes, this way of conducting business has long frustrated Americans, “who tend to prize efficiency, frankness, and informality.” The clearest parallel is the continuing saga over Iran’s nuclear program. Americans understand the negotiations in concrete terms: quantities of uranium, red lines and so on. There is also a felt need for a clear timeline to resolve the issue—hence the current debates about when to strike if diplomacy has “failed.” In contrast, “Ta’arof is not always supposed to have a resolution; the best conclusion may be an open-ended one.”

Obviously, there is a limit to this analysis. Iran is clearly concerned with the same concrete factors that the P5+1 is. There is a compelling strategic rationale for Iran to drag the discussions out without a definite conclusion: it allows Tehran to keep its options open. But the lesson is still worth noting. As TNI has long contended, cultural differences matter in international affairs. De Bellaigue’s thoughtful piece offers an example of this principle at work at both the personal and national levels.

TopicsSociety RegionsIran

The Comeback of Condoleezza Rice

Jacob Heilbrunn

Political conventions may not be important for the presidential candidates, but they do serve the function of acting as a kind of cotillion ball for other ambitious officials. Both Chris Christie and now Condoleezza Rice have used their speeches, ostensibly touting Mitt Romney's sagacity, to promote their own causes. While Rice dwelled on foreign policy, the real crux of her talk was more personal. It was to suggest, as the Washington Post has noted, that she has not finished her public service, that she is, in fact, presidential timber. Poor Romney. At this point Romney must be wondering, as Ronald Reagan once did, "Where's the rest of me?"

The truth, of course, is that no one can muster up much enthusiasm for Romney. Even his wife's speech had a defensive tone to it. And Condi's? She hauled out what has become GOP orthodoxy on foreign affairs. "We cannot be reluctant to lead, and you cannot lead from behind," she said. She added, "That is why—that is why this is a moment and an election of consequence.  Because it just has to be that the freest most compassionate country on the face of the earth will continue to be the most powerful and the beacon for prosperity and the party across the world." All well and good. But what it translates into practice is another matter.

Rice indicated that President Obama had messed up everything that had been handed to him by George W. Bush. But what about the kind of leadership George W. Bush exercised? Rice was notably cryptic on the topic of Iraq, a war that she endorsed. I well recall meeting her at the White House when she was national-security adviser, declaring that because Bush had, more or less, made the decision to take out Saddam Hussein, there was really no need to debate the topic any further. The Decider had decided, and she was not going to buck his decision.

Now Rice, as Peter Beinart notes, treats Iraq as something of a footnote in history. The grand episode has become a marginal one. And Afghanistan is treated with complete silence. Beinart writes,

In her speech, Rice mentioned Iraq once, as a “fragile democracy” beset by “internal strife and hostile neighbors.” That’s a rather passive way to describe a country that the United States invaded and occupied because government officials like Condoleezza Rice swore it had weapons it turned out not to have. The other country that the U.S. invaded and occupied on Rice’s watch is called Afghanistan. Two thousand Americans have now died there. She didn’t mention it at all.

The truth, of course, is that Rice was Bush's enabler, but she didn't really espouse the neocon credo. Her roots are in the realist camp. But she got on board with the program during the early Bush years, trying to avert the worst of the lunacy. In 2006 her moment arrived. Donald Rumsfeld was sacked. Vice President Dick Cheney lost influence with Bush, who started to glimpse the costs of handing over his presidency to a glabrous schemer. But it was too late. Rice had risen in the president's estimation, but she was not able to accomplish anything momentous other than wearing her fancy black leather boots. That could change.

At the core of her convention speech was the notion that her personal success is perfectly aligned with the American dream of self-reliance and success. It's a powerful and conservative message:

And on a personal note: a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham—the most segregated big city in America—her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant—but they make her believe that even though she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—she can be President of the United States and she becomes the Secretary of State.

Steely and disciplined, relentless and ambitious, Rice may well ascend to the presidency, where she could dispense with the palaver she doled out at the convention and seek revenge on the neocons who tormented her during the Bush years. Watch out for Rice.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The Counterinsurgency Laboratory in Colombia

Paul Pillar

The long contest between a leftist insurgency and successive governments in Colombia provides much to study and debate regarding counterinsurgency. The principal guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, has been operating since 1964. In the ensuing forty-eight years Colombian leaders have tried a variety of approaches in dealing with the insurgency. Every insurgency is different, and not every lesson learned from any one can be transferred to others, but the sheer length of time that the Colombian conflict has been going on and the markedly different strategies that different Colombian presidents have employed in dealing with it mean this particular insurgency should provide lessons or at least food for thought.

The policies toward the FARC of the most recent three presidents of Colombia have formed a sort of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Andres Pastrana, who was in office from 1998–2002, made the most extensive attempt to negotiate with the FARC, going so far as to grant the group a safe haven—a sizable chunk of Colombian territory immune from government military operations. The arrangement broke down amid continued armed operations by the FARC. Pastrana's successor, Alvaro Uribe, took a much harder line toward the group during his eight years in office. He abandoned the negotiating track and stepped up the government's military operations against the FARC. Uribe scored enough successes in eroding the group's capabilities and increasing security in Colombia to enjoy a surge in his own popularity. But he nonetheless bequeathed a still-unresolved problem of the FARC to his successor and current president, Juan Manuel Santos. Santos had been Uribe's defense minister and as such heavily involved in the military hammering of the FARC, but he has reopened a negotiating track. He has just confirmed that his government has conducted preliminary talks with the FARC, and according to some reports substantive negotiations will begin in October. Santos says he has learned from Pastrana's mistakes and will not repeat them as negotiations move forward.

It is too early to project exactly where this will lead, but when the story is over several conclusions are likely to be derived from it.

Both the gun and the conference table will have played roles in whatever is the eventual resolution of the conflict. A group that is as well established as the FARC and appeals to themes in the mainstream of Colombian politics is not simply going to be eradicated. The FARC is different in this regard from, say, Sendero Luminoso, remnants of which are still active in Peru and which has followed a system-destroying ideology that leaves very little room for compromise and concord.

Resolving the conflict will take a long time and much patience. When an insurgent group has been around for nearly half a century, it will not cease to be a problem overnight.

There probably will be significant controversy and opposition on the anti-insurgent side. Some of the most prominent opposition right now comes from former president Uribe, who accuses his former defense minister of going soft on the FARC.

Finally, the conflict and eventual resolution of it probably will provide further support for I. William Zartman's concept of ripeness in the settlement of disputes. The conflict may be ripe now in a way it was not in Pastrana's time, because both sides are more fed up than before with continuation of the war.

TopicsCounterinsurgency RegionsColombia

Massachusetts Says No to 'Think Stuff'

The Buzz

Much has been written about the Massachusetts Senate race in the last few weeks, and E.J. Dionne Jr. made a worthy contribution in the Washington Post titled “Elizabeth Warren vs. Mr. Personality.” Given Warren’s position as a candidate in a heavily Democratic state, many are struggling to understand why Republican incumbent Scott Brown is even or beating her in most polls. Dionne attributes the success of baseball-loving un-elitist Brown to his downright likability and man-of-the-people attitude, perhaps captured best in his simple campaign slogan: “He’s for us.”

As Dick Flavin, “a veteran of the Massachusetts political wars” told Dionne, “A lot of people vote on how they feel about a candidate, not what they think about a candidate. And she’s doing the think stuff.” Brown’s success may seem less surprising when you consider that a seasoned political vet is calling analysis “the think stuff.” Tough knocks for Harvard professor Warren.

Dionne offers Warren some sage advice that he admits may be a little odd for a law professor: She can't out-personality him, so she has to link her political ideas to the voters’ feelings. Warren, a communicator so agile that an off-the-cuff remark about regulation went viral, needs to get voters emotionally involved in her policy recommendations.

Dionne is right, but perhaps could have taken his analysis a step further. On another level, what does this race say about us? Right now the Massachusetts Senate race suggests that being downright likable is a greater political asset than being able to express ideas persuasively. This author certainly hopes that’s not the case, but these days nothing seems out of the question.