Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Edited out the extra "accurate". Sorry about that, been too busy to be able to carefully check as well as I'd like.

So, is the "flypaper" theory espoused by conservatives and Bush supporters accurate? On first inspection, this NYTimes article about militants moving into Iraq appears to support it, but as usual, the truth is somewhat more complicated.

In much the same way as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan stirred an earlier generation of young Muslims determined to fight the infidel, the American presence in Iraq is prompting a rising tide of Muslim militants to slip into the country to fight the foreign occupier, Iraqi officials and others say.

'Iraq is the nexus where many issues are coming together- Islam versus democracy, the West versus the axis of evil, Arab nationalism versus some different types of political culture,' said Barham Saleh, the prime minister of this Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq. 'If the Americans succeed here, this will be a monumental blow to everything the terrorists stand for.'

Recent intelligence suggests the militants are well organized. One returning group of fighters from the militant Ansar al-Islam organization captured in the Kurdish region two weeks ago consisted of five Iraqis, a Palestinian and a Tunisian...
So, does this mean that the conflict in Iraq is really supposed to be a lightning rod for militants? It seems unlikely, and if it were intentional then it'd betray the Bush administration as being bone stupid.

It's stupid because the professed goals of the Iraq invasion could all be nullified by this. The security of the oil supply would be in serious jeopardy, as it would be a prime target for terrorist attacks, and because Iraq's oil supply can now have a serious affect on world prices, threats to that supply would seriously increase investor uncertainty across the board, which could hurt regional economies and the world economy (including the U.S.). The goal of creating a stable arab democracy in the Middle East would go out the window: stable democracy requires, well, stability. Even the attempt to make Arabs think that the U.S. is not to be messed with would be contradicted, because this situation makes the U.S. look exactly like the U.S.S.R., another global power that nobody expected to fail and which was confident of its ability to crush opposition. That won't make militants fear the U.S., it will make them even bolder. As for preventing attacks in America, I personally find it doubtful... American sleeper cells aren't going to cut and run to go fight in Iraq, and they may feel that American resources are being diverted to Iraq, making their job easier.

The article includes an interesting piece about the psychology that the U.S. is up against, as well:

...Iraqi officials say they expect a broad spectrum of Muslim militants to flood Iraq. They believe that Ansar al-Islam, a small fundamentalist group believed to have links with Al Qaeda, forms the backbone of the underground network. The group was forced out of northern Iraq by a huge attack during the war.

Mullah Mustapha Kreikar, the founding spiritual leader of Ansar al-Islam, said in an interview on Sunday with LBC, the Lebanese satellite channel, that the fight in Iraq would be the culmination of all Muslim efforts since the Islamic caliphate collapsed in the early 20th century with the demise of the Ottoman Empire. "There is no difference between this occupation and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979," he said from Norway, where he has political asylum.

"The resistance is not only a reaction to the American invasion, it is part of the continuous Islamic struggle since the collapse of the caliphate," he said. "All Islamic struggles since then are part of one organized effort to bring back the caliphate."
I find that unlikely; there's no Caliphs nowadays and little likelihood of one emerging.

This might, however, explain the enduring popularity of Osama in the arab world, even in places where they don't necessarily share his hatred of the United States. Osama is seen as a kind of ascetic, having given up wealth and power for the sake of his religion. In that, he's very, very similar to the original Caliphs that followed Mohammed, who eschewed the trappings of fame and power that later became associated with the title during the Umayyid and Abbasid Caliphates.

It's extraordinarily frightening to contemplate, but there may well be a large number of arabs out there who are convinced that Osama is a potential Caliph; they support him so zealously due to that conviction. That's deeply disturbing. It would be akin to the return of King Arthur, Charlamagne, or Alexander the Great. Heck, there's an element of the Second Coming as well, and one need not be an Evangelical to appreciate how important a perceived second coming would be to Christians.

Even if that isn't the case, it's still a problem that they profess a desire to return to the caliphate. It makes it that much more difficult to win over "hearts and minds", because you're up against the greatest period in Islamic history, and against the sort of mythology that drives many people who belong to the other monotheistic religions to this day. When the perceived alternative to that is (supposedly) being slowly absorbed by the secular West, well.. it shows that the neocon fantasy about the Middle East and Iraq may well be in the process of exploding in their faces.

I am hardly comforted by that. Such things have a way of killing people, and I certainly don't look forward to the job the rest of us have of cleaning up the mess they leave behind. I just hope the lessons we learn are worth it, because I'm pretty sure that "flypaper" isn't going to be.

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