As you might imagine, suicide bombers are very angry people. To those of us in the West, the idea of killing oneself for the purpose of killing others and doing so for the goal of driving them from one’s country, is utterly foreign to our moral and ethical values. It is, however, a very effective weapon of the weak. It works.
The succession of suicide bombings in Iraq influenced the outcome of the recent U.S. election to the point where a majority of Americans have signaled the government that it is time, in their opinion, to leave Iraq. Prior to the 2003 “coalition” invasion, Iraq had never had a suicide terrorist attack in its history.
Robert A. Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, is the author of “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” He recently had an analysis published by the Cato Institute called “What We’ve Learned Since 9/11.” Policy wonks like myself read the Cato Analysis papers to get behind and beyond the daily headlines.
Pape understands the suicide bomber like few others so let me share some of his insights. “Suicide is an especially convincing signal of future intent because it suggests that the attackers could not have been deterred, and future attackers will not be, by a threat of costly retaliation.”
Put aside, for the moment, the dramatic 9/11 attacks. We know that the U.S. elected to inflict a costly retaliation on the Taliban in Afghanistan. They have returned and are once again waging a guerrilla war there. Just as they originally wanted the Russians out, now it is the Americans.
We did not, however, invade Iraq as the result of 9/11 although it was sold on the basis of a potential future attack on the U.S. homeland or its allies in the region. We attacked Iraq for the strategic reason that it would (1) depose a troublemaking dictator, (2) lure terrorists to a place where they could be killed, and (3) provide the U.S. with a military platform in the most important, strategic location in the Middle East.
Vital to understanding the action taken, there was clearly a perceived need to protect the West’s access to Iraq’s oil reserves as well as others in the region such as that of the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates, all of them Sunnis, and all of whom feared the Saddam Hussein regime and now fear Iran’s.
A relative handful of suicide bombers have successfully forced the U.S. to reevaluate its strategic goals, nor is it surprising that most attacks occur in Baghdad where they receive maximum media coverage; a media that is largely opposed to our objectives there.
Since the 1980s, the West has pulled back from military engagements, ranging from Lebanon, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia where our troops were garrisoned, and other places in the Middle East. Nations such as Spain and Great Britain whose troops were allied with the U.S. also experienced terrorist bombings.
“The data showed that all suicide terrorists campaigns have in common a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists value.”
Like 9/11, it is not the dregs of Islamic society committing these acts. As often as not, the bombers are educated members of the middle class. They are primarily motivated by a “deep anger over Western combat forces in the Persian Gulf region and other predominantly Muslim lands.”
The vast bulk of the suicide terrorists have been Saudis and this is understandable if one considers that it is the locus of Wahhabism, the most fundamentalist of Islamic sects.
“If al Qaeda no longer drew recruits from the Muslim countries where there is an American combat presence, the remaining transnational network would pose a far smaller threat and might well simply collapse.”
This requires one to ask the question of the value of keeping American and coalition troops in the region. Pape concludes that, “The longer this suicide terrorist campaign continues, the greater the risk of new attacks in the United States.”
The coup de gras he delivers is the view that, “Spreading democracy in the Middle East is not likely to be a panacea as long as foreign combat troops remain in the region. If not for the world’s obvious interest in Persian Gulf oil, the obvious solution might well be to simply to abandon the region altogether. Complete disengagement from the Middle East, however, is not possible.”
Welcome to that spot between a rock and a hard place. Benjamin Franklin famously once said that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
We need to find that delicate balance between the protection of our interest in the flow of oil from the region and the forces competing for hegemony there. Nobody said it was going to be easy, but the failure to project our power will only create a vacuum that would swiftly be filled by Islamic extremists.
Middle Eastern nations have spawned a new, very long war between each other and, so long as we play soldier in their sandbox, one directed against the West as well. If we leave, does anyone believe it will get better?