Thursday, March 01, 2007

Robert Pape: Dying to Win

Dying To Win , by Robert Pape, makes a reasonable case that suicide terrorism is primarily used by groups that perceive themselves to be oppressed in their home country by a powerful democratically governed foreign invader (usually with a different religion). The goals and intentions of the occupier don't actually matter very much, as long as the defenders feel that they don't have control, and can use the religious difference to demonize the invader. Pape marshals a considerable body of evidence to show that conventional wisdom is wrong: the terrorists play up religious differences, but aren't motivated by religion; the individual terrorists aren't poor or suicidal; and suicide terrorism is used against democratic countries (the goal is to convince the voters that the occupation isn't worth the cost.)

The book's thesis only explains a portion of what is going on in Iraq today. As far as I can tell, suicide terrorism aimed at the occupying powers is less than half of the violence currently occurring in that country; the rest is sectarian. Pape's thesis doesn't explain why roughly equal factions would use suicide terror against one another in an internal conflict. But I think the explanation of the attacks against foreigners holds up well. Unfortunately, only part of the terrorists' message to America is getting through to the American public.

The public understands that American soldiers are being targeted, but all the internecine violence obscures the message about foreign occupiers. Since some of the local factions are clearly more interested in a battle for control of the country after we leave, the violence against foreign troops looks like part of a strategy to maintain disorder. Major media haven't help Al Queda spread the message that all they want is for the foreigners to leave. Even if they had, the internal violence gives some Americans a reason to want to persevere, so we can help stabilize the country we destabilized.

Pape argues that the only responses to suicide terrorism that have stopped it in the past have been acceding to their demands (withdrawal) and ruthless violence against the terrorists and their community. He argues that one of the reasons this strategy is only used against democracies is that they are seldom willing to be sufficiently ruthless.

I wonder whether it wouldn't have been useful in this context if we had spent some effort ensuring that the history of the American occupation of Germany and Japan after WWII was heard in the Middle East. Those countries didn't lose their national identity; they got a lot of help rebuilding; and they came out of it much stronger than they went in. It may be too late for this message to be spread in the Arab world, where everything we say now is treated as propaganda.

Pape's policy recommendation is to remove active troops from the Middle East, while leaving enough deployed in nearby positions so that we could respond rapidly to new threats. This, unfortunately doesn't address the current situation in Iraq; leaving the country now would give the violent local factions unfettered ability to continue their mutual pogroms. If that isn't the kind of event we would expect to respond to from the off-shore position he recommends, what would be?

For the most part, the book was reasonably even-handed, given Pape's apparent prejudices, which he showed once or twice. He speaks of an American "Policy [...] to conquer Muslim countries" on pages 6 and 241, but otherwise sticks to analysis based on an extensive database of all known suicide terror incidents he has compiled at the University of Chicago. The last, short, chapter giving his policy recommendations is clearly separate, and readers can individually evaluate its merits.

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