Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

In fighting terrorism, not doing stupid things would help

As we learn more about Chérif Kouachi and other suspects in the Paris terrorist attack, we also learn more about the gift that keeps on giving:

"Chérif’s interest in radical Islam, it was said at the 2008 trial, was rooted in his fury over the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, particularly the mistreatment of Muslims held at Abu Ghraib prison."

That's also how the French press at the time reported the case against Kouachi, who had been arrested and charged with attempting to travel to Iraq to fight against the American invasion. (He was sentenced to three years.) In 2005, his lawyer told the French daily Liberation that Kouachi had been "an occasional Muslim," for example giving up drinking only during Ramadan, but had been radicalized "by the U.S. intervention in Iraq and the abuses at Abu Ghraib."

Nobody is suggesting that Kouachi and his co-conspirators are somehow not fully responsible for their actions. That would be silly. But if we're parceling out responsibility, we should be willing to take some of our own, if for no other reason than to prevent mistakes in the future. And if we invade and occupy the keystone state of the Arab world without provocation, and if we violate our own fundamental principles by deploying torture, the favorite tool of the most despised regimes in history, it would be equally silly not to expect that our actions would have consequences.

In fact, I can't help but recall a memo written by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld back in October 2003, at a time in which it was slowly dawning on him just what we might have done with our invasion:

"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions."

You might think that given our experience in Iraq, we've now learned that lesson, but I'm not convinced. It is a lesson that appears destined to be learned and forgotten and learned and forgotten countless times. For example, consider a prescient memo written 20 years earlier, in 1983 during the early days of the Reagan administration.

The author, fresh from a tour of the region, suggests that we "ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East, very carefully so we don't further upset things," warning of  "the many opportunities to do harm to ourselves and others through error, inattention or miscalculation."  "American goodwill, intuition and logic in an area that is non-intuitive and hardly logical in our context is a formula for trouble," he predicts.

We need to "keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it," and that any talk of a "just and lasting peace" in the Middle East should be avoided. "There is little that is just, and the only things I've seen that are lasting are conflict, blackmail and killing - not peace."

He goes on:

"A U.S. foreign policy must be rooted in the support of the people or it is not a policy, but merely a temporary aberration. The key is to provide maximum clarity as to what we are doing, why we are doing it, what the stakes are, and why what we are doing is worth the stakes and has reasonable prospects for success."

If only Donald Rumsfeld had listened to that younger Donald Rumsfeld.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.