August 04, 2005

Column 2005-8-4 Commentary

Amazingly, Brooks's latest column has some redeeming features. For starters, he breaks from tradition by presenting actual facts and, even more incredibly, citing actual sources. In yet another unusual development his point is actually interesting and well-argued. Brooks is claiming that terrorists are not peasants from backwards nations lashing out against America as the symbol of a modernity that is excluding them (actually, I can't really remember anybody making this claim, but I'll let that go: maybe this was Brooks's pet theory), but rather are largely from middle- and upper-middle-class families, well-educated and with good jobs, who are rebelling against globalization and latching onto jihad to give their lives meaning. These new jihadis are fundamentally products of Western, or at least modern, globalised society. Therefore, Brooks says, "democratizing the Middle East may not stem terrorism." Of course, his analysis strongly suggests that democratizing the Middle East will not stem terrorism, as it would not affect any of the factors he mentions as creating terrorists, but for Brooks to actually stand up and say anything that might be construed as direct criticism of the Iraq war is practically inconceivable. And, really, given that democracy is the solution for everything in the neocon vision, this is a pretty big break for Brooks. Brooks also points out that nationalists are in many cases distinct from jihadis, since the latter are a product of globalization rather than "springing organically from the Arab or Muslim world," and that the U.S. should work on separating these two forces. While these two conclusions are both quite reasonable, they don't go quite far enough, but we'll come back to that.

A more immediately obvious blemish is the fact that, to balance what might well be taken as criticism of the GWOT, or GSAVE, or whatever, Brooks throws in two (half-hearted) swipes against old targets. First, he claims that "[i]deologically, Islamic neofundamentalism occupies the same militant space that was once occupied by Marxism." Because people blowing themselves and others up in an attempt to bring about a return of the Caliphate in the Muslim world, insofar as they have any goal in blowing themselves up, is clearly exactly the same as people agitating (in some cases violently) for world revolution and proletarian control of the means of production. Actually, since the first goal is entirely spiritual, and the second entirely economic, it's hard to imagine two ideologies more opposed to each other. Brooks's only evidence for this claim is that both attract disaffected youths who are opposed to the system, a purely surface resemblance. He also claims that both movements use similar symbols, which would be a more important, if only slightly so, correspondence, but, tellingly, he can't provide any examples of this, though he does give examples of overlap in the recruiting pool and points out, quite pointlessly, that both Islamists and Marxists rail against imperialism and capitalism. In fact, this whole diversion is quite pointless -- it adds nothing to the analysis of Islamists, this column's topic, as they share no goals or methods with Marxists except in the most general sense (e.g., both attempt to persuade people to join their orgainizations). It really appears that the only reason to include it is to ensure that there is at least one criticism of leftists in the column.

A similar reasoning applies to Brooks's final conclusion (he gives three, the first two of which were discussed earlier), which is that what is really needed is more assimilation. Actually, I'm being charitable in assuming that Brooks intends for this to be taken as a criticism of European immigration policies, as otherwise there is absolutely no explanation of why this conclusion is included. The title of this column is "From Cricket to Jihad". Brooks spends much of it explaining that even assimilated Muslims become terrorists, despite their education and technical jobs. To quote Brooks from earlier in the column, "[t]hey give up cricket and medical school and take up jihad." So, essentially, after expending much effort to show that the pool of terrorists is largely drawn from assimilated Muslims, perhaps because of their assimilation -- after all, this conflict is presented as "a conflict within the modern, globalized world" and so presumably the jihadis can't be outsiders -- Brooks concludes that more assimilation is needed. Actually, this stunning illogic is fairly typical for Brooks: it's just that he is sufficiently reasonable in the rest of the column that it comes as a surprise.

But this both these problems pale beside the main issue that Brooks does not address. Assuming that these terrorists are striking a blow against globalization to give their lives meaning, we must ask why they choose to revolt against globalization in this fashion? Why not give their lives meaning by becoming radical leftists or anarchists (with the added benefit that they don't have to give up on their newly meaningful life so quickly)? Brooks does not even bring up this question in his column, but these studies of foreigners who tried to get to Iraq to fight the Americans (and some who got there and committed suicide attacks) sheds some light on the question. It turns out -- surprise, surprise -- that almost all of those studied had no terrorism background and had been inspired by the war itself. Combine this piece of information with the rest of Brooks's facts and we can see that his conclusions don't go nearly far enough. Democratizing the Middle East may not stem terrorism, yes, but the more important and obvious conclusion here is that attempting to democratize the Middle East by force will certainly not stem terrorism, and will almost certainly increase it. Similarly, while the U.S. should certainly try to separate jihadis and Arab nationalists, the worst possible way to do this -- in fact, the one way that is guaranteed to drive nationalists and jihadis into each other's arms -- is to invade an Arab country. In short, given what we know about terrorists, the Iraq war is a complete failure as a terrorist-fighting technique. I'm tempted to give Brooks, wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party that he is, some credit for even approaching criticism of the war, even though I'm sure that he read about these studies -- they were circulated fairly widely for a few days -- and it really doesn't take much to come to the conclusion that the Iraq war exactly the wrong move to stop terrorism (and for many other reasons too, of course, but we're just dealing with terrorism here). However, we must try to use carrots as well as sticks, and when Brooks displays vestiges of logical thinking, he should be encouraged for his successes, just as he is castigated for his failures. So we'll call this column a good start, and while I'm not sanguine about the likelihood of this being the precursor of some improvement on Brooks's part, I can still hope (and I need something to hope for now that it seems that the Times will never fire Brooks).