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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

James Fallows

At a glance
Blind Into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq
by James Fallows

256 pages, $13.95

When magazine journalist James Fallows takes on a topic, he tackles it with a seriousness that would make most of us blanch.

In his article in the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, “Declaring Victory,” he talked to some 60 experts “about the current state of the conflict that (Osama) bin Laden thinks of as a ‘world jihad.’ ”

While reporting “Declaring Victory,” Fallows – a staff writer for the Atlantic Monthly since 1979 whose latest book is “Blind Into Baghdad: America’s War in Iraq. (Vintage, 256 pages, $13.95 paper) – talked to a range of workers from military or intelligence agencies, academics or members of “think tanks” and even some business types.

From those interviews, Fallows builds a case for what he calls “the underappreciated advantage on America’s side.” He also insists that those countries targeted by al Qaeda, “especially the United States, (have) more leverage and control than we have assumed.”

Putting it simply, Fallows thinks that we should just say that we defeated al-Qaeda and get on to other issues (not the least of which would be what to do about Iraq).

Doing otherwise, he says, just plays into the hands of Osama bin Laden and his erstwhile followers.

At 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 14, Fallows will speak at Whitman College in Walla Walla. The title of his speech: “The U.S. and the Islamic World: Victory, Defeat, or Coexistence.”

Contacted in China, where he is researching another Atlantic piece, Fallows answered a number of e-mailed questions about “Declaring Victory” and about his upcoming talk.

Q: What exactly do you mean by the term “Islamic World”? Isn’t there a big range between, say, the Taliban and other more moderate Muslim societies?

James Fallows: Sure. It’s like talking about “the Western World” or “East Asian Societies.” Obviously, there are a million differences and distinctions among any of these groups – in “the West” you’ve got Europe versus North America, and in North America you’ve got the United States versus Canada, and once you get to the United States. …

But there can also be value in considering some of these larger groupings. “Western” developed societies, in general, have some similarities among themselves – and differences, say, from much of the Middle East. And while Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims, is very different from either Bahrain or Afghanistan, there are some challenges the United States has recently faced with many Muslim nationals in general.

Q: Of the three results you mention – victory, defeat or coexistence – which do you think is most likely, especially given our current administration's policies?

JF: For better or worse, a nation’s interests always outlast the policies of any one administration. So whatever this administration does will not prove decisive – it’s a long-term interaction. In my view, though, the administration has set up the conditions for a result that is the opposite of its stated intentions. Within the administration, a major part of the rationale for the war in Iraq was to jump-start democratization and reform throughout the Arabic-Islamic Middle East. That rationale took second place to warnings about WMDs before the war, but all available evidence shows that it was really the paramount goal in the minds of many of the president’s most influential advisors.

In the administration’s eyes, that was a heavy bet on either “victory” or “coexistence”: Arabic-Islamic societies would go through the modernization and liberalization that has affected much of East Asia. (Paul Wolfowitz, who had spent a lot of time both in the Philippines and in Indonesia, used to argue that it was effectively “racist” to think that similar modernizations could not apply in the Arab Middle East.)

But because of the post-invasion chaos in IraQ: and the increasingly stark tones in which the president and vice president have described America’s showdown with “Islamic Fascism,” I suspect that the main legacy with be an us-or-them outlook from the other side as well. That is, as I argue in my latest Atlantic article, the American approach has given Islamic groups – from violent extremists to average citizens – a unity and coherence they would otherwise lack.

Q: In that article, you wrote that the U.S. is “succeeding in its struggle against terrorism.” What did you mean by that?

JF: Essentially I interviewed a very large number of U.S. and international experts in counter-terrorism. The big discovery to me from this reporting involved these two main points: One is that the struggle against “Al Qaeda Central” itself, the group that has been run by Bin Laden and ((Ayman) al-Zawahiri and that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks – has been surprisingly effective. These people are on the run. They can’t easily meet or train. They can’t easily transfer money.

Q: You’ve been critical of the Iraq war, saying that it “undercuts the broader and longer term war against Islamic terrorism.” Yet the argument offered by President Bush is that we can’t just “cut and run.” How would you resolve the war?

JF: Both these points can be true: That the Iraq war has become the main impediment to America’s larger efforts to deter, contain and discourage Islamic extremists; and that getting out of Iraq is not a simple process. Some politician recently used an analogy that actually is a good one: Asking people who opposed the war to have “good” plans for resolving it now is like smashing up crockery with a hammer and then saying “OK, what’s your plan to fix it?”

The main point to recognize, both in political debates and as an operating reality, is that we don’t have any good choices. It’s a matter of finding the least-destructive alternative at this point. So far, the evidence suggests to me that an immediate pullout could make things even worse. (To think “things couldn’t be worse!” is to indulge in a failure of tragic imagination that we could regret.) The evidence could change though.

Q: Considering the U.S.’s strong ties with Israel, is it realistic to think that any sort of peaceful coexistence with the Islamic world can happen?

JF: Every U.S. administration for the last 40 years has eventually come to the same conclusion about Israel and the Palestinians: A land-for-peace deal is the only way to go. Recently, I had the chance to interview President Clinton about this, who said, “It’s only a matter of how many more people die before it comes to that conclusion.”

Support for Israel’s security and right to exist is a basic part of U.S. foreign policy. That is not the same as blandly and blindly condoning whatever Israel chooses to do, like its current assault on Lebanon. Support for Israel’s security should not be at odds with coexistence with the Islamic world. Blanket support for any and all Israeli policies is a problem – and is not a standard we apply with another other ally.

Q: Many Americans seem to hold the oversimplified view that Muslims are fanatics who cannot be negotiated with. They point to the use of suicide bombers as proof. But the use of terror in the Middle East has been an obstacle to peace. Even if you can make peace with Islamic leaders, how do you control the splinter terrorist groups?

JF: Hmm, I don’t know!!

Q: How big a threat is it that Iran will develop nuclear weapons? Should the U.S. take steps to stop this from happening, and if so what should they entail?

JF: Short answer to a very complicated question: It would obviously be far better for the world, and for the United States, if Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. So the United States should work with other countries – most of whom have the same view – on a combination of incentives and penalties to persuade Iran not to go down this road. What if no such “grand bargain” can be struck?

Everything I have seen and heard from U.S. military and intelligence officials is that the U.S. would do more harm than good by trying to pre-empt the threat through a bombing raid or other means. The two problems are that Iran’s work is too advanced to be eliminated by such methods, and Iran has too many other options to wreak havoc and punish the United States if this occurred.

Q: How much has the war on terrorism affected the basic civil liberties that we Americans take for granted?

JF: One reason to call a halt to the open-ended state of “war,” as I argue in the Atlantic, is that it has become the excuse for open-ended infringement on civil liberties. Also, as I say in the article, “war” implies emergency, and past administrations have taken emergency steps that also impinged on civil liberties.

Lincoln’s use of martial law is the most famous example. But neither the Civil War nor World War II, each so crucial to America’s survival, went on as long as this “war” has. As the Supreme Court noted in its recent ruling about Guantanamo, time makes a difference, and emergency measures are appropriate only for limited amounts of time.

Q: In respect to the threat of al-Qaeda being less important now than our reaction to what they do: Why do you think that the Bush administration is so unwilling, or incapable of, doing what you suggest – just claim victory and move on?

JF: In theory, you might think the administration would welcome the chance to recognize one kind of success. The high-road explanation for their unwillingness to do so might be their fear that the threat remains so acute that they can’t let down their guard in any way. (Of course, I argue in my piece that “keeping up their guard” actually makes the threat worse, but you know what I mean).

The lower-road argument would be that “security” in various forms has been the main political strength of the Bush administration and they don’t want it to seem as if that is any less important than before.

Q: You write that changing terms from “mujahideen” (“warriors”) to “mufsidoon” (“evildoers”), “jidhadists” (“holy warriors”) to “irhabists” (“terrorists”) would help tag bin Laden and his followers in a more negative light. This seems only natural for the Bush administration to do since that’s what they’re so good at doing to their domestic critics (Rumsfeld and his references to “a new kind of fascism”). Why aren’t they doing this?

JF: The argument that Jim Guirard (a writer and former Senate staffer) makes, about turning the Islamists’ language against them, would indeed seem to be appealing to the administration. Maybe they’re just not attuned enough to that foreign audience to have it be worth the bother.

The administration has been very skillful in using such labels in internal domestic debate. Academic analysts argue that the term “death tax” rather than “estate tax” has in itself changed the dynamics of that issue. The question is whether recent speeches by the president and, especially, (Defense) Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will be effective politically or will seem like overreach.

On the merits, I think Secretary Rumsfeld’s speech, in particular, was amazing overreach; what I don’t know is what the general public reaction will be

Q: As to those motivations, many people I know take an Orwellian view, saying say that the overspending since 9/11 is intentional so as to bring about a conservative agenda aimed at destroying social programs, etc. You agree, disagree?

JF: I think that analysis is more convincing when applied to the Reagan years. David Stockman actually spelled it out (in the Atlantic). By cutting taxes and increasing spending on defense, you force the opposition into a corner: If they want to seem fiscally responsible, they have to cut what’s left, which are domestic programs.

I think the post-9/11 spending has mainly been born of political convenience. If there were no stigma attached to deficits, this is the way all administrations would behave: i.e, it’s always a political benefit to cut taxes and increase spending, so it’s the path of least resistance.

Q: Following that, when you write, “A state of war encourages a state of fear,” most people I know believe this is intentional on the administration’s part because it helps keep them in control. Your take?

JF: I don’t think the administration intends it in this stark or conscious a way. But that is the effect.

Q: You talk about the need for America to assert a “moral authority.” Isn’t asserting exactly what Bush thinks he is doing?

JF: Yes. But “idealistic” or “moral” programs always must match the goal with the practicality. If purely practical considerations didn’t matter, the U.S. would invade North Korea tomorrow, to liberate its hungry people – or it would have invaded China during the Cultural Revolution, to stop the atrocities then. “Morality” and “idealism” in public life are always a combination of what should be done – and what will work.

My main criticism of the Iraq policy is its utter unrealism – which has ended up having, in my view, a completely nonidealistic, destructive effect.

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