The Rockaway Irregular
A recent article in the London Times by Matthew Parris suggests that al Qaeda may not be quite what it’s cracked up to be, despite the recent London bombings. It’s in the interests of everyone involved says Mr. Parris, from journalists, to the government, to the police, and even to the terrorists themselves, to make al Qaeda appear to be a highly effective and dangerous adversary.
But what if they’re really just a bunch of “muppets” he asks? We can’t really know because the reporting has been all over the map, he claims, over-inflated and largely unsubstantiated.
What if everything the Brits and the U.S. have been doing is just a monumental overreaction, he seems to be asking? Indeed, this is one of the prime charges leveled by critics on the Left against the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror. Isn’t making a war out of all this really just a colossal mistake that basically serves to radicalize young Muslims and doesn’t this just serve to help our enemies recruit more suicide bombers, increasing their capacity for future terrorist actions? And aren’t we acting just as badly as they are when we go after them with guns blazing?
But even if al Qaeda et al are, indeed, just a minor annoyance as Mr. Parris suggests, a bunch of jerks can still plant and trigger bombs, can’t they? Being low-tech bumblers instead of high-tech killers doesn’t make them less dangerous in each individual instance (assuming they’ve got the chemistry right, of course), though it may be encouraging to some of us in the West to know they’re less likely to be effective in their overall campaign against us.
Still, we’ve seen that al Qaeda appears real enough, with a real leadership who make videos and audio tapes to send to the world at large declaring their enmity toward us, announcing their objectives (replacement of our Western civilization with a restored medieval Islamic caliphate) and threatening our continued security and way of life.
More, al Qaeda has taken credit for some very effective attacks in the past (as measured by the extent of the damage done), so there’s little reason to assume they’re just minor players or mere bumblers overall (though perhaps they’ll prove to be little more than that in the end). But what’s the value in underestimating them rather than overestimating them at this juncture?
Of course, one of the claims of the Bush administration is that al Qaeda has actually been degraded, since the events of September 11, 2001, as a result of our proactive policies of hot pursuit and of bringing the war to them. The administration makes the case that al Qaeda is now on the run and has devolved into an amalgam of loosely connected local franchises, in lieu of the more highly organized and centrally-run operation it was back when Osama bin Laden and Aymin al-Zawahiry were comfortably ensconced under the sheltering arms of Taliban-run Afghanistan.
Against this view, opponents of the Bush administration’s policies have recently pressed the argument that al Qaeda has actually grown stronger, not weaker, as a result of the “war on terror.” Robert Pape of the University of Chicago recently argued on national television and in his book, “Dying to Win,” that al Qaeda is really operating with increasing effectiveness, despite the claims of Western governments to the contrary.
Many anti-war critics have taken his claim up as one more stone in their armory of anti-administration rhetoric. Al Qaeda, Pape tells us, is doing exactly what it said it would do from the first, so we shouldn’t take the recent hiatus in attacks (now unfortunately broken in Britain) as indication of al Qaeda’s weakness but, rather, of its continuing strength.
So here we have an interesting question. If the aggressive policies of the Bush administration are wrong, are they wrong because they are making al Qaeda stronger, as some like Pape say, or because al Qaeda is not a real danger to us at all and we’re overreacting, as Parris has suggested? You can’t have it both ways.
If the first argument is correct, then al Qaeda must be understood to be as strong or stronger today than they were in 2001, when they struck at the U.S. (after a series of earlier successive attacks in the nineties) in four separate but highly coordinated actions that took the lives of roughly 3,000 people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage to the American economy.
If, on the other hand, the argument of Parris in the London Times is correct, that the threat posed by al Qaeda is vastly over-rated due to a tacit conspiracy of the players to make more of al Qaeda than it is, then this suggests that their potency has indeed been degraded by the relentless policies of the Western governments in taking the war to them. If so, then those policies have, on balance, had the effect claimed for them. Indeed, the recent attacks in London do seem to have been somewhat less impressive than those launched against the U.S. on September 11, 2001.
So a critic of the Bush administration’s current policies really needs to decide if he or she thinks the recent actions of al Qaeda in London (and all indications do point to this organization) mean that al Qaeda is just as effective as before or that it is less effective.
If just as effective (or more effective), then how explain the more limited scale of the July 7th attacks in London and the bumbling effort that followed two weeks later? If less effective, then aren’t we bound to say that current policy has had at least some of the effect claimed for it, namely the degradation and weakening of al Qaeda’s ability to operate?
If critics of the Bush administration’s policies are serious, then they need to be logical and consistent in their criticisms and not just denounce administration policies from every angle at once, without regard to the logical incompatibility of the competing assumptions.
If al Qaeda has been unaffected, or made stronger, by our actions, then why are their efforts less dramatic and effective in their destructive power today than they were back in 2001? But if they’re recent actions demonstrate that they’re too insignificant to warrant the kind of response we have launched against them, then how did they get that way?
Could it have had anything to do with the Bush administration’s current policies of taking the war they declared on us back to them? firstname.lastname@example.org