Ive been reading emails

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I’ve been reading emails and articles on the Spanish elections and attacks this morning. And one thing that seems worth keeping in mind for those across the political spectrum in this country is how hard it is for us to make sense of the particulars of just what happened yesterday in Spain.

But general points — especially ones which are as much about our politics as Spain’s or even Europe’s generally — seem worthy of discussion.

I notice that on his site yesterday evening Andrew Sullivan portrays the Spanish election results as a straight-up win for bin Laden. He also argues that you cannot on the one hand say that this is al Qaida payback against Spain for supporting the Iraq war and then also argue that the Iraq war itself was irrelevant to the war on terror. If it’s irrelevant to the war on terror (i.e., the war against al qaida), Andrew argues, why are the terrorists retaliating?

There is a certain logic to this argument. But I think it’s a superficial one — indeed an incorrect one.

Certainly, I think we have to entertain the possibility that — to the extent that nations make collective judgments — the Spanish see the US as caught in a fight with militant Islam and they just want to get out of the way.

But on the whole question of the relationship between terrorism and the Iraq war there’s a very different way to see this from the one Sullivan is proposing.

Just because you’ve inflamed or emboldened your enemies doesn’t mean you’ve used the most effective means of attacking them. Indeed, quite the opposite can be true.

For instance, consider this thought experiment. What if the US, Britain and Spain had attacked and occupied Egypt or Jordan? Do you suppose that Islamic radicals wouldn’t strike at the sponsors of that war much as they seem to have last week?

I suspect there’d be little if any difference.

The point I think is clear. Contrary to what Andrew says, in this case, you can have it both ways. This may be retaliation for Spanish support of the Iraq war without that meaning that hitting Iraq had anything to do with fighting terror in the way Andrew suggests.

Let’s fall back for a moment and think about what this whole fight is about. Al Qaida (and militant Islam generally) sees itself as the inheritor of a world-historical religious movement which, according to their view of cosmology and eschatology, is supposed to be at the vanguard of history. In the orthodox Muslim view of history, the ‘lands of Islam’ expand but they never recede. The Islamic world should be the most powerful, the most advanced by various measures, probably the wealthiest. Viewed from that perspective almost everything about the contemporary world is turned upside down, almost a blasphemy in itself. The US, from their perspective both a secular and a Christian power, is the dominant power even in the heartlands of Islam. Add to this that our secularism is another level of blasphemy. From the perspective of revanchist, militant Islam, almost everything about today’s world is nearly the opposite of what they believe their religion says it should be. (Thus, they’re somewhat aggravated.)

So the whole point of this endeavor is to sweep us out of the heartlands of Islam, put Islam back on the march on its frontiers and purify the religion itself within the Abode of Islam, as they call it.

From that point the whole program becomes more muddled and inchoate, but whether they want to reestablish the caliphate within the existing lands of Islam or take over the whole world or whatever doesn’t really matter for our present purposes.

The key point is that it’s not hard to see how invading and occupying part of the heartland of Islam is going to rile them up a bit since it brings into sharper relief their whole worldview of a cataclysmic struggle between the West and Islam. (In itself that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. But even if we supposed there would be positive effects, we’d have to realize that there would be at least short-term negative ones as well.) Whether they use our presence there cynically (as yet another rallying cry to bring followers to their side) or whether it just confirms them in their view of the reality of the situation is also not all that relevant for our present purposes.

We know for instance that over the last several years al Qaida has spoken more and more about Palestine — an issue with which it didn’t originally seem to have that much interest. And they started to do the same with Iraq just as the US increasingly turned its attention to the country. But again, that doesn’t really prove anything more than al Qaida’s opportunism or their addled worldview, take your pick.

Many of us are familiar with early- and mid-20th century Communists or modern-day LaRouchies who will glom onto almost any movement or issue under the sun in order to use it as a vehicle to advance their own interests and enhance their own power. I don’t think there’s that much difference in this case.

In just such fashion, in the middle decades of the 20th century, Communists sought to infiltrate the American Civil Rights movement — repeatedly and, by and large, remarkably unsuccessfully. The analogy is imperfect certainly. But the parallels are telling. The point wasn’t that the Civil Rights movement was Communist, but that Communists were trying to use the movement for its own purposes. Attacking the Civil Rights movement as part of attacking Communism wouldn’t have damaged Communism but rather strengthened it since doing so would have tended to push those committed to Civil Rights into the Communists’ arms. Indeed, this was precisely the idea.

Of course, there were those who had their own reasons for attacking both the Communists and the Civil Rights Movement. For them, this equation the Communists were trying to create between Communism and Civil Rights wasn’t a distraction but rather a convenience. And those folks most definitely have their modern-day equivalents among us now as well, though we can focus on that point at a later time.

In any case, just because al Qaida has adopted the Iraq cause as their own doesn’t mean we’ve damaged al Qaida by taking down the Baathist regime — especially by doing it so incompetently. Just as likely — in fact far more likely — is that we’ve just handed them a useful recruiting tool while distracting ourselves from pursuing more effective means of extirpating them.

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