An article today by Fareed Zakaria is worth quoting at length as I think it goes beyond it’s stated purpose, to expose the dangerous historical parallels in oversimplifying an enemy for domestic political purposes, and speaks to wider liberal unease with Bush administration foreign policy. In fact, if democrats are looking for a simplistic overarching foreign policy narrative that can compete with the Republican uni-dimensional islamo-fascist argument, then Fareed’s piece undoubtedly urges caution.
But in the past week the president, seeking to shore up domestic support for his policies, has been redefining the nature of the enemy. In doing so he is making a huge conceptual mistake, one that could haunt American foreign policy for decades.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have compared the current conflict to the cold war, a decades-long struggle that was ideological and political in nature, though always with a military aspect. But if we’re going to use history and learn from it, it is worrying that America is beginning to repeat one of the central strategic errors of the cold war: treating a fractious group of adversaries as a unified monolith.
He points to a similarly overly simplistic categorization of communism in the early stages of the cold war and, interestingly, highlights a state department warning regarding the costs of such a monolithic label:
At the outset of the cold war in 1949, a senior State Department official, Ware Adams, prepared a critique of America’s evolving policy of containment. While accepting that international communism was a monolith and that diverse communist parties around the world shared aims and goals, Adams argued that Washington was playing into the Kremlin’s hands by speaking of communism as a unified entity: “[Our policy] has endorsed Stalin’s own thesis that all communists everywhere should be part of his monolith. By placing the United States against all communists everywhere it has tended to force them to become or remain part of the monolith.” For example, the memo explained, “in China, the communists are somewhat pressed toward being friends of the Kremlin by the fact that they can never be friends of ours.”
While this indeed sounds prescient, the real parallel with contemporary policies emerges with the reasons behind such categorization, politics:
In a careful recent essay, former U.S. intelligence official Harold P. Ford documents that by the mid- to late 1950s the CIA was arguing that such splits were developing and should be exploited. Nevertheless, Ford writes, the agency’s arguments met stiff “external resistance” from politicians and bureaucrats who were wedded to the idea—no doubt once true—of a unified communist monolith. Even sophisticated policymakers who saw the fracture lines couldn’t see how to sell the new approach to Americans who had been brought up to view all communists as evil. Words matter.
Fast forward to the past two week, where “President Bush has, for the first time, started describing America’s adversaries as part of “a single movement,” “a worldwide network,” with a common ideology.” This, of course, is not quite true. But what are the strategic implications of such labelling?
To speak, for example, of Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists as part of the same movement is simply absurd. They have hated each other for almost 14 centuries. Right now in Iraq, most of the violence is the work of Shiite militias, which are murdering people they claim are Sunni extremists. How can these two adversaries be part of a unified network?
A look at Bush’s remarks on Iran will show how such a monochromatic view distorts America’s strategic thinking. Last week he spoke of Iran in the context of a worldwide movement of Shiite extremists. This movement, Bush argued, has managed to take control of a major power, Iran, and use it as a launching pad to spread its terrorist agenda.
I’m not sure the president actually believes in the transnational threat of a “Shiite crescent.” If he does, why would he have invaded Iraq and handed it over to another group of Shiite extremists? (The parties that rule Iraq—and whose militias are killing people—are conservative, religious Shiites, often with ties to Iran.) In fact, Iraqi Shiites are different from Iranian Shiites. They have separate national agendas and interests. To conflate them into one group, and then to toss in Sunni Arab extremists as comrades in arms, is bad policy. The world of Islam is extremely diverse. We should recognize and act on this diversity—between Shiites and Sunnis, Persians and Arabs, Asians and Middle Easterners—and most especially between moderates and radicals. But instead the White House is lumping Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiite politicians in Iraq and Sunni jihadists in Egypt all together as one worldwide movement. This is, of course, exactly what Osama bin Laden has argued all along. But why is Bush making bin Laden’s case?
In looking for a simplistic narrative, Democrats are right to avoid the dangerously monolithic framework of this administration. Perhaps though, instead of critiquing Bush’s worldview on the grounds of being oversimplified, they should take Fareed’s lead and target the strategic recklessness of such a strategy. Why are we playing into bin Laden’s hand? Why are we deliberately mischaracterising the enemy? Shouldn’t policy be above politics? The rebuttal to simplicity is not undecipherable complexity, but rather an accurate, level headed accounting of the threat. It seems to me that the political utility of this realism will follow.