September 14, 2011

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

This week in Washington, a conference at the National Defense University has gathered some of the world's leading experts on terrorism. A few nights ago, I joined some of them for a few beers and to be amazed by their collective brilliance. One conspicuous absence from the gathering was my friend Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who was out hitting the pavement, selling his new book, Bin Laden's Legacy: Why We're Still Losing the War on Terror. I read the book while it was still a .doc and really enjoyed it, so I appreciate the time he took to answer a few questions for the blog.

I really wish your new book were not as persuasive at it is. It makes for depressing reading, in large part because it’s such effective argumentation. Walk us through your thesis and summarize your argument.

Thanks for the kind words, Ex; as a long-time reader of your blog, it’s an honor to join you for this discussion. My thesis is that the United States has done a poor job of understanding al-Qaeda during the past decade, and as a result America’s offensive and defensive measures in the fight against the jihadi group have often played into its hands. Al-Qaeda had, in my view, two overarching strategic objectives on September 11, 2001. One was to diminish the powerful U.S. economy. The other was to make the conflict with the United States as broad as possible, expanding it into multiple regions and thus fueling the perception that America was at war with Islam, not just a small group of Islamic militants.

The U.S. lack of strategic understanding of al-Qaeda at an official level is easy to document through a look at the most important documents the government has produced addressing this question. A key example is the “National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism” (NMSP-WOT), published by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As you know, understanding an enemy’s ends, ways, and means is fundamental for military planners—that is, what is the enemy’s goal, and what are the ways and means by which the enemy will pursue this goal. The NMSP-WOT contains no ends, ways, and means assessment for al-Qaeda, but tellingly, does perform this analysis for the United States. Similarly, neither the White House’s “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism” nor the 9/11 Commission Report perform an ends, ways, and means assessment of the jihadi group. The typical method of analyzing al-Qaeda in these documents is discussing its goal of re-establishing the caliphate, and then its use of the tactic of terrorism—leaving an unresolved disconnect between goal and tactic. It’s as though the unstated assumption is that the group doesn’t think strategically, a truly unjustified assumption.

As a result, the U.S. measures for combating al-Qaeda often played into its hands. The price tag of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been over $1 trillion in direct budgetary outlays—and the true cost has been even greater when such second-order consequences as deficits and rising oil prices due to resulting instability are considered. And it isn’t just our wars that have driven up the cost of fighting Islamic extremism: the United States has also created a bloated, expensive, and inefficient system of defending the homeland against attack. Not all of our economic woes are attributable to the fight against al-Qaeda by any means: jihadis didn’t cause the subprime mortgage bubble, no matter what ridiculous claims they offer. [I think the jihadis run those loan shops outside military bases, actually. -- A.M.] But our spending on military, intelligence, homeland security, and other counterterrorism matters hasn’t helped. While I have some reservations about Brown University’s recent study about costs associated with military aspects of the “war on terror,” its hefty price tag of between $3.2 and $4 trillion seems like a reasonable estimate based on my research.

My book traces the evolution of al-Qaeda’s strategy for economically undermining the United States through several phases, including terrorist attacks aimed at economic targets, embroiling America in bleeding wars in the Muslim world, and attacking vital oil targets. This strategy culminates in the group’s current phase, which some militants have called the “strategy of a thousand cuts.” This refers to a phase of smaller but more frequent attacks—some of them expressly designed to drive up our security costs—that was initiated after the September 2008 collapse of the U.S. financial sector made us seem mortal to our enemies.

One of the significant framing devices in Bin Laden’s Legacy is the famous 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. This fight was referenced in an article by political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft published in the journal International Security a few months before 9/11, titled “How the Weak Win Wars.” Foreman, the strongest fighter of that generation, was heavily favored—but was defeated by Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy, which turned Foreman’s strength against him. “Ali appeared to cower against the ropes,” Arreguín-Toft recounted. “Foreman, now confident of victory, pounded him again and again.” Though it appeared to spectators that Foreman was winning, the elastic ring ropes were in fact absorbing much of the force of the punches. Foreman’s attacks only succeeded in tiring him, and Ali pulled off an upset by knocking out his exhausted opponent in the eighth round. That, Arreguín-Toft argued, is how small and relatively weak actors (like al-Qaeda) can defeat a superpower like the United States: by turning its strength into a weapon against it. I think Bin Laden’s Legacy makes it depressingly clear that al Qaeda has been able to execute a rope-a-dope of its own over the past decade. The United States has battered it furiously, and has exhausted itself in the process.

I remember, when you were writing this book, you coming over to my apartment to talk about the Iraq War. As I recall, I had to pour a few whiskies for us before we could talk about Iraq. You make the case that Americans of all political stripes need to understand the negative consequences of our decision to go to war in Iraq and the way in which we went about the conflict there. Tell us more. (But wait for one moment while I fetch the rye.)

I think understanding the mistakes involved in our decision to go to war in Iraq is important because it was a major strategic blunder (and let’s be frank: the enormous human costs of the war make it so much more than that). A lot of our shortcomings in fighting jihadi militancy over the past decade have been strategic, and a failure to appreciate the consequences of the Iraq war means we haven’t grasped an absolutely vital strategic lesson.

Now, it’s well known that the justifications for the Iraq war haven’t held up: Saddam Hussein’s regime didn’t have an active WMD program, nor did it have significant connections to al-Qaeda (though some connections did in fact exist). And we can see many of the costs of that conflict clearly. In addition to the aforementioned human costs, our invasion of Iraq damaged the war effort in Afghanistan (which quickly became an economy-of-force mission as resources were diverted to the Iraq theater), allowed the regeneration of al-Qaeda’s core leadership as pressure was removed from it, angered our allies while empowering the Iranian regime, and served as a potent tool for jihadi recruitment.

These costs, though not totally unforeseeable, have become clearer after the fact. But one point I make in the book is that a better appreciation of al-Qaeda’s strategy would have made the dangers of invading Iraq quite apparent in advance. As I said, al-Qaeda had two overarching strategic ideas about defeating America: bleeding its superpower adversary’s economy, and making the battlefield on which the fight against the United States occurred as broad as possible. The Iraq war plainly advanced both of our adversary’s goals. Despite the best-case scenarios concerning the war’s costs trumpeted by the Bush administration, it was extremely expensive—something that people like army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki foresaw. And the Iraq invasion helped the other major element of al Qaeda’s strategy, broadening the battlefield and feeding the group’s narrative that Islam itself was under attack by the United States.

If we have waged this war on terror so foolishly, what is a smarter way to combat terror? If you could recommend some changes in U.S. policy to the president, what would you recommend?

My chapter containing policy prescriptions runs about 30 pages. A couple of notes about that. First, I really dislike the tendency of books and studies produced inside the Beltway to contain a fairly good description of the problem set that we confront, complemented by vague and often worthless policy prescriptions. Because of my reservations about that formula, I would have simply published a book without any policy recommendations if I felt that I couldn’t come up with something that legitimately added to our thinking. But second, from a policy perspective, I think the implementation of a concept tends to be more important than the basic concept itself. I find that when I distill my rather long thoughts on policy (the implementation) down to talking points (the concepts), some value is lost in translation.

That caveat (apology?) aside, my prescriptions fall into three basic categories: strategy, efficiency, and resiliency. I’ve already spoken about America's rather weak strategic understanding of al-Qaeda over the past decade. We can’t undo past mistakes, but we can prevent a repetition of the same errors if key officials are able to understand both the evolution of al-Qaeda’s strategy and where it stands as of 2011. Further, we need a strategy that is better suited to the age of austerity that we’re entering. Our military intervention in Libya, where the United States had essentially no strategic interests, is in my view the opposite of the kind of grand strategy we need in a world of constrained resources.

In terms of efficiency, we should be looking for ways to do more with less. One way is analytic reform in the intelligence community: creating professional incentives for analysts to specialize, and reducing unnecessarily duplicative efforts. As one analyst said to me while I was researching for the book: “How many of these 800,000 people within the intelligence community are actively advancing U.S. interests? If they aren’t doing so, there’s a legitimate question to be asked: Why are you here?” A second efficiency measure is civil service reform. One core reason for our overreliance on costly contractors for national security needs has been how difficult it is to hire and fire federal employees. Civil service reform has been politically impossible in the past, but it would so obviously be good for the country that I think it should be revisited.

As for resiliency, another terrorist attack may succeed despite our best efforts. We should be building up our societal resilience—not just infrastructural but also psychological. There are smart ways to empower individuals and at the same time make communities safer in the face of terrorism or natural disaster. The Community Emergency Response Team model employed in California and Phoenix, Arizona is promising.

I really enjoyed your first book, My Year Inside Radical Islam: A Memoir. I think I read it in just a few evenings and found your personal story to be fascinating. You remain, in fact, the only Christian ex-Muslim Jew I know. If you don’t mind me asking a personal question, tell me how your spiritual journey continues to inform your scholarship and the questions you ask in your work.

I’m glad you enjoyed it. For readers who aren’t familiar with this rather unusual journey, and don’t feel like reading an entire book about it, I recently did a Bloggingheads segment with Matt Duss where I explain the whole thing fairly cogently. So there are a couple of ways this early-life experience informs my scholarship. One is that I take religion more seriously than a lot of scholars do. To be frank, I think that most (though by no means all) work in the field that touches upon religious or theological issues is embarrassingly bad, including numerous unproven assumptions and analytical errors that would likely be called out were the scholars discussing something other than religion. I also think there’s a bit of projection at play for largely secular academics: they often see religion as a thin pretext for violent non-state actors precisely because they themselves don’t find religion to be a strong motivating force. But just as you can’t simply assume that groups like al-Qaeda don’t think strategically, you also cannot simply ignore their proclamations that hold religion to be a strong motivating factor. This is not to say that their claims should be taken at face value: but at the very least, we owe it to ourselves as scholars to consider the possibility that they might be true.

The second way it informs my work might seem counterintuitive, but I find that I’m not forced to re-think my basic assumptions about issues I encounter in the field all that frequently. The reason for this relates to something that this spiritual journey instilled in the way I intellectually approach new problem sets. Now, this statement is counter-intuitive for an obvious reason: I changed religions a couple of times, a fact that on its face might make me seem flighty or prone to sudden shifts. But the spiritual progression that you outlined was a product of seeing something through a couple of different frames. Jesus had always been a compelling religious figure for me: my parents, though they didn’t believe in his divinity, had artwork of Jesus around the house when I was growing up, and I had a decent familiarity with the New Testament. One of the reasons I became Muslim was because my level of comfort with that faith’s explanation of Jesus was greater than my level of comfort with Christianity’s explanation. At that point, I saw religion through a specific, rather Western lens: I thought the purpose of religion was forging a relationship with God with which I felt comfortable. After I graduated from college, I worked for a Wahhabi charity, and the frame through which I viewed religion shifted: I came to see its purpose not as forging a relationship with God that made me comfortable, but as understanding and obeying God’s will. I came to accept some rather extreme conclusions about what my faith mandated within this paradigm. Obviously, I moved away from that, and have been a practicing Christian for more than a decade.

But one result of that rather circuitous religious journey is that I find, at this point in my life, that I intuitively examine a new problem set I encounter through multiple frames at the very outset. Similar to how I ended up seeing religion through several different paradigmatic lenses over the course of a few years, I now, when approaching a new problem, try to understand it through several different paradigmatic lenses before drawing any conclusions. This is not to say that I’m more thoughtful than other people in my field; just that I have a different approach than I would have without the experiences that you touch upon, and I think I am therefore more thoughtful than I would have been otherwise.

While we’re on personal subjects, it’s no secret that the blogosphere and Twitter encourage the worst snark, sarcasm and ugliness from people. You and I have talked about our mutual struggles to remain civil and polite while engaging with others, but unlike me, your reputation is unimpeachable: you always respond to your critics and other readers with politeness and courtesy. Why does civility matter in our line of work? And how do you discipline your own speech in the public sphere? Is there a trade-off? Do we lose something in terms of honesty by being polite?

I’ve come to see civility as important for a variety of reasons, but honestly, practical reasons loom rather large. First of all, it’s generally hard to win a name-calling contest. If I call someone an America-hating pinko, they can fire back that I’m a right-wing tool of the military industrial complex. Those two insults seem essentially to cancel each other out: why give someone an area that can end up a draw if I believe that I can prove all of my other arguments to be correct? Second, I find that if I’m civil, I can actually (sometimes) persuade people I’m arguing against that they’re wrong about an issue. In contrast, if I begin a debate by insulting someone, it only further entrenches him in his initial position, thus making it more difficult to talk sense into him.

I’ve found the balance I strike in my own small corner of the public sphere to be rather intuitive and comfortable. I’m unyielding when making arguments, but generally try not to belittle the people I’m engaging. If they really are so dumb that I feel like I can’t help but insult them, it’s almost always easier to disengage than to tell them how I really feel.

I don’t think there’s a trade-off involved in being polite. Being polite isn’t the same as being a pushover, nor is it the same as false collegiality that needlessly avoids confrontation. Indeed, I think that kind of fake collegiality should be avoided: the review I published this year of Robert Pape and James Feldman’s Cutting the Fuse is probably one of the harshest critiques a graduate student has produced of a work of that stature. But again, it eviscerates their argument without really personalizing the matter.

Finally, I think it’s much more important to be polite or collegial to people who are just breaking into the public sphere and are feeling their way around than to those who are well established. For those who are young and realize they have a lot to learn, it’s possible to help them in that process. People who are better established are usually more hardened in their views. For those who have become tenured professors or have been part of the National Security Staff, if I don’t like what they stand for now, then I probably never will.

You may be a tree-hugging Oregonian, but your charming wife is a Daughter of the South and knows her whisky. What has she taught you over a decade of marriage? When you’re writing and need a glass of something stronger than coffee, what do you reach for?

I’ve learned an enormous amount from Amy, though I’m sure she finds me to be an intolerably slow study. In addition to helping me to gain a finer appreciation of whisky, two things that she’s taught me stand out. One is that she’s helped me to be more comfortable relying on other people. I had long conducted myself very much as a loner, dealing with whatever issue or challenge I faced internally. Being willing to reach out to others is healthy, it turns out, though it’s still not my first impulse. And second, basically since I was a high school student, work has been an all-consuming passion. Amy has helped me to step back from that and better appreciate non-work things, non-work time.

When I need a glass of something stronger than coffee, gin and tonic is my drink of choice.

Solid choice, Daveed.

Readers, you know what to do: buy the man's book.