Sarah on Terrorism
In her paid speech before the Tea Party “convention” at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville last night, former Vice Presidential candidate and current right-wing heart throb Sarah Palin made her “strategic” statement about dealing with terrorism. It was hidden in the middle of a much longer paean to political sermons that I confess I did not have the constitution to watch on live cable TV, but her signature on the subject was captured in the Washington Post coverage of the event. It says a great deal about Palin the terrorism strategist.
“Treating this (terrorism) like a mere law enforcement matter places our country at great risk because that’s not how radical Islamic terroristsare looking at this,” she opined. “They know we are at war, and to win that war we need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at a lectern.”
Aside from the snide reference to Obama the former professor, this statement says a couple things about Palin’s worldview that might be matters of concern for anyone who dreams about a Palin run for and even capture of the White House in 2012 (as a matter of personal opinion, this is a prospect I view as a decidedly Freddie Kreuger moment).
The first thing it says is that terrorism is not a “mere” terrorism concern. I don’t know of anyone who thinks terrorism is a “mere” anything, but it certainly is at least partly a criminal justice concern. Terrorist acts do, obviously, break laws, and those who terrorists captured alive are subject to criminal prosecution. One can argue, as people are now about the 9/11 trial, whether the administration of justice should occur in a civilian or military venue, but nonetheless, the decisions about innocence or guilt and disposition for Mullah Omar or the underwear bomber or anyone else are matters of criminal justice: law enforcement. The suggestion that these are not “mere” law enforcement matters appears to assume that they are principally something else, and that is, at a minimum, debatable.
The terrorism community is divided, more or less equally, on the question of whether it is best to conceptualize terrorism as principally a legal or a military problem, with most analysts arguing it is partially both while disagreeing at the margins if it is a bit more of one than the other. Hardly anyone thinks the decision is either-or, although that is certainly what the Palin statement suggests: commanders-in-chief waging “wars” on terror rather than college professors (presumably in tweed sports coats with suede patches on the elbows smoking pipes) arguing the nuances of terrorist rights (pinkies thrust defiantly in the air). It is,of course, a false, misleading, and even dangerous analogy.
Conceptualizing terrorism as a war (“they know we are at war”) is certainly a more tidy, conceptually simpler way to think about it than the reality suggests, but it can get you in trouble, as it has the United States. Beginning from the premise of war, the responses are naturally military, and it is not clear that the kinds of military responses the United States has or can make have much to do with solving the problem. It is, after all, the kind of thinking that has led the U.S. into two long, indeterminate wars in the name of defeating terror (Iraq and Afghanistan), which have not been noticeably successful in overcoming the problem but have made a major contribution to the economic problems the country currently faces. I would suggest, indeed, that sucking the U.S. into economically ruinous military exploits has been part of Usama bin Laden’s strategic plan for weakening the United States all along, and that it is the one part of his strategy that has worked. It is a game of rope-a-dope, and guess who holds the rope and who is the dope.
The reason a war-based vision is distorting is that terrorism is not warfare in the traditional sense, and it misleading and distracting to think of it that way. I don’t know the answer, but neither apparently does Sarah. If I knew exactly how to defeat terrorism in a detailed way, I would be a lot richer and more famous than I am. What I know is that it is a lot more complicated than a war to be turned over to the military leadership. That, of course, is not what the Tea Partiers wanted to hear (or at least what Sarah thought they wanted to hear), and maybe a war on terrorism is what Palin can see looking out over her backyard in Alaska when she is otherwise viewing Russia.
Rallying speeches are not, of course, the place for nuanced debates on complex public policy issues, but neither should they be conscious exercises in oversimplification and distortion. Terrorism is a more complicated problem than a “war on terrorism,” Sarah!