September 15, 2003

Notes: Unqualified Offerings on Our Current Clever Plan

Jim Henley talks about the Bush Administration's clever plans:

Unqualified Offerings: Sticky Situations - Colin Powell says it's a problem that "[Iraq's] porous borders are attracting saboteurs intent on undermining" progress toward self-rule. But this isn't really a problem at all, according to proponents of the famous "flypaper thesis." It's supposed to be good for you. All the Islamist terrorists in the world flock to Iraq to fight the Great Satan, leaving the American, um, homeland unmolested and, in some versions, Israel too.

There are only about a million problems with what its advocates call the flypaper "strategy." (A "strategy" is apparently an explanation you come up with to explain why what you did turns out to have been a brilliant idea even though it didn't work out like you said it would.) These problems range from the factual to the practical to the moral.

First off, Powell offers "a rough estimate of 100 such infiltrators." Either this number is a woeful underestimate or flypaper simply isn't attracting all the world's Islamist nutcases, Osama Bin LadenAyman al-Zawahiri's injunctions notwithstanding.

Second, just because some number of al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers flock to Iraq to attack US troops and sympathetic Iraqi leaders doesn't mean that's all al Qaeda is doing or can do. Apparently the US government which allegedly conceived this marvelous "flypaper" "strategy" doesn't think so:

The al-Qaeda terrorist network may be planning attacks more devastating than those of Sept. 11, 2001, possibly involving chemical or biological agents, the U.S. government said in a worldwide advisory to its citizens.

``With the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks upon us, we are seeing increasing indications that al-Qaeda is preparing to strike U.S. interests abroad,'' the government said in an e-mailed statement released through the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. ``The U.S. government remains deeply concerned about the security of U.S. citizens overseas,'' it said.

The Bloomberg story from which this excerpt comes ran three days ago, and quotes an additional warning: "We also cannot rule out the potential for al-Qaeda to attempt a second catastrophic attack within the United States."

To see al Qaeda activity in Iraq and chortle, "See! They're tied down there." would be akin to observing the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 10, 2001 and chortling, "Silly al Qaeda dolts! All they do is mess around in Afghan politics. What a bunch of losers!"

Never trust a plan that assumes the incurable stupidity of your enemy. "Flypaper" only works if al Qaeda's leadership is so stupid as to forget the central insight that led to the September 11, 2001 massacres in the first place - that anti-US forces should not waste all their time messing around on the periphery of American influence.

Andrew Sullivan among others expresses satisfaction that, "The extra beauty of this strategy is that it creates a target for Islamist terrorists that is not Israel." I can't begin to say how appalling it is that Sullivan thinks it appropriate to make American troops into targets for another country's enemies, given that the other country has its own government and military already charged with safeguarding its citizens and interests, and given that the Administration did not exactly put this motivation out there for acceptance or rejection during the debate on the war. Indeed, if you argued that war proponents like Sullivan conflated Israeli and American interests, said proponents called you a nutcase or a bigot. Glad we cleared that up. But there's also the minor practical problem that it doesn't seem to be working. Iraqis and (some number of infiltrators) can attack Americans in Iraq at the same time as Palestinians attack Israelis in Israel and Palestine.

Also apparently not working: Saddam's checks to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers have presumably stopped. Suicide bombings themselves have not.

Then there's the question of whether violent anti-American extremists are a non-renewable resource. For Flypaper to work, there has to be a fixed quantity of muslims sufficiently motivated to attack the United States, all of whom flock to Iraq to die. We've already dealt with the question of whether they'll all flock to Iraq. That leaves the question of whether there is a fixed quantity of violent anti-American extremists. There's no reason to think this is necessarily so. It's entirely possible that the very fact of the Iraq war will generate terrorist recruits at a higher rate than it dispatches them. We just don't know.

There's an outside chance that Flypaper could be true but backfire - that is, that Islamist terrorists flocking to Iraq actually could drive American troops out of the country, or take credit for an American withdrawal they didn't cause.

Finally, there's a minor matter of morality. Remember all that stuff about how we weren't at war with the Iraqi people but with Saddam Hussein, or the Ba'ath Party apparatus? Flypaper theory exists to posit and justify a messy war between the US military and non-Iraqi enemies of America and Israel - those infiltrators, remember? Let's state it again, clearly: the presence of American troops in Iraq draws anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorists to Iraq, where we wipe them out. That is, Flypaper supposedly represents a decision by the US to turn Iraq, a place full of the Iraqi People With Whom We Have No Quarrel, into a theater of war between non-Iraqi forces. The dead, wounded, frightened and humiliated will not, of course, be restricted to non-Iraqis. The stuff that gets broke will not just be non-Iraqi stuff. And we wonder why some Iraqis are so sullen.

(Note: investigate feasibility of spending the $87 billion on book deals for every Iraqi man, woman and child. Fly them to London for publicity events for duration of war.)

So, Flypaper phooey. It is neither moral, feasible nor even actual.

Posted by DeLong at September 15, 2003 07:15 AM | TrackBack


Just gilding the lily here. If the point to Iraq was to put US troops in harms way in the Mideast in hopes that terrorists from around the region and the world would show up and die, what was wrong with Afghanistan? Too many hills? Didn't want to interupt the opium trade? What?

Posted by: K Harris on September 15, 2003 02:00 PM

Imagine George Bush saying to Congress and the American people in October 2002, "we need to invade Iraq so that our military forces can be a magnet there for terrorist attacks." We would have been debating the 25th Amendment's provisions for the removal of a deranged President from office.

Posted by: Marc on September 15, 2003 06:04 PM
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