Monday, March 24, 2008

Reviewing Recent History: Getting The Basic Premise Wrong

A few days ago, I started watching webcasts of the PBS documentary show: Frontline. As we enter the fifth year of war in Iraq, it has been both fascinating and frustrating to review this recent history and perhaps to better understand how we have arrived here.

In addition to the opportunity to watch, or re-watch, these episodes, Frontline provides extended transcripts of the interviews conducted for the program. Consisting of material that often wound up on the cutting room floor, these interviews can provide flashes of insight to those willing to peruse them.

In the Frontline film, "The Dark Side", Collin Powell's former chief of Staff, Lawerence Wilkerson was interviewed. While he spoke on camera about the tense relationship between the "moderates" (like Powell) and the "hawks" (Chaney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz)- but one of the most prescient things Wilkenson said is found in his extended interview transcript:

Carl von Clausewitz [says]... that you must make sure you identify the nature of the conflict you're in. You must. That's absolutely essential. If you misidentify that nature, you're not ever going to get back on the right sheet of music.

But from the beginning, Wilkerson implies, mistake the nature of the conflict we were involved in against Al Qaeda. Their impulse was to see it as a new version of the Cold War against the Soviet Union- a struggle which had shaped their careers molded their personalities.

[Cheney, Rumsfeld and others bought the notion] that Al Qaeda has the capability to destroy the United States of America, its institutions, its very being, much as a 20,000-plus nuclear-tipped missile [arsenal] had the capability to had we gone to war with the Soviet Union and everyone unleashed his full panoply of weapons. This is ridiculous. This is utterly ridiculous. It begins marching you down in your decisions this road that is full of dangerous and even inept decisions, because we're not in an existential conflict with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda doesn't even remotely have the capability to bring the United States down...[T]his is a conflict of ideas; it is not a conflict of bombs, bullets and bayonets. ...

Wilkerson describes a briefing he received from a CIA agent. If Al Qaeda was the top of a pyramid, then, at the base, are ordinary people throughout the Islamic world, who, while they do not personally advocate killing (and especially not the killing of fellow Muslims) nevertheless "went into mosques all around the world and put shekels, dinars, dollars in the second box, knowing full well that the second box was not for charity; it was not for the mosque; it was for Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-like organizations."

How many people are dropping money in the box, wondered Wilkerson. The answer came back: Between 40 and 100 million people around the world. Those people, Wilkerson says, are:

the center of gravity of this war, and you don't get at the center of gravity by killing it or by killing others. You get at that center of gravity by proving to them your ideas: that democracy is the best form of government; freedom is the best human condition; and market economies, open, free trade is the best way to prosper in those systems of governance; and violence and killing people is antithetical to that. That's how you win that conflict. It's a conflict of ideas. You have to capture the hearts and minds of those people who are putting the shekels, dollars, dinars in that second box in mosques all over the world. You don't do that with bombs, bullets and bayonets.

This is not new, of course, this has been part of the debate (such as it has been) in the United States for a few years...but it is chilling to think back on five years of violence and death- resulting, perhaps in a weakened America, all arising from the acceptance of a false premise about the nature of the conflict in Iraq.

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