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Radical Ideologies Are Only One Part of the Terrorism Equation

Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld HistoryPolitical Theory


In his book on guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, neoconservative and foreign interventionist extraordinaire Max Boot devotes a sizable amount of energy to looking at how states can be successful in counterinsurgency.

Boot has no moral problem with occupying foreign countries and with nation building, but he does think there is a correct way and in incorrect way to do it.

States that are skilled at protecting themselves and their foreign policy efforts seek to minimize activities that will lead to radicalization of populations that are either under occupation or otherwise affected by the policies of the dominant power in question.

States deny insurgent efforts (i.e., guerillas and terrorists) of the justification they need for their efforts when: states buy off leaders with cash and favors, allow a large degree of local autonomy, and avoid visible massacres of the local population. In other words, successful states seek to avoid creating conditions that help their enemies win the political battle.

There’s nothing unique to Boot’s research in these observations, of course. Observers of foreign policy have long observed that when occupiers and hegemons engage in policies that are perceived as morally outrageous by others, these actions provide fodder to rebels and resistance fighters in their efforts to recruit more people to their side.

A state that generally leaves the native population alone will likely enjoy a much less costly and more successful long term effort.

An example Boot points to is the case of the Empire of Japan which met early success in convincing Asian regimes to tolerate Japanese hegemony in the name of ridding Asia of European colonists and other interlopers.

Over time, though, the brutality and insensitivity of the Japanese to local concerns drove the occupied population — such as the Vietnamese and the Burmese — to the side of the Allies in many cases.

Brutality and tone-deaf foreign policy often work well in the short run, but they have a tendency of causing long-term problems.

A perfect example of this is the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Even ignoring all moral considerations in the conflict, the United States botched the occupation from a basic foreign policy standpoint, and instead of allowing a substantial amount of local autonomy for the existing societal institutions, the US decided to upend the Iraqi economy and society. The US’s biggest mistake was in disbanding the Iraqi military which was the primary source of income and employment for the Iraqi population. The military, which had no ideological attachment to Hussein had offered to ally itself with the US as the main policing power in post-invasion Iraq. Had the US accepted the offer, Iraq would have likely continued as the established, relatively stable police state it already was. Prior to 2003, there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq, there were no suicide bombings, and there was religious freedom for Christians.

But, the US couldn’t leave well enough alone, and instead decided to render most Iraqis unemployed and impoverished by disbanding the military. Soon afterward, suicide bombings appeared, cultural institutions like the National Museum were looted, and Al Qaeda entered the country. Today, Iraq is ruled by death squads, local warlords, and by ISIS in the north. Iraqi Christianity has been all but destroyed.

Who could be surprised, then, that the 2003 invasion led to a radicalization of the Iraqi population? Radical Islam existed well before 2003, but it took the American invasion in Iraq to create the conditions necessary for radicalism to flourish there.

The Radical Islam Question

Boot’s work on this matter offers no particular novelty on the topic of radicalization, but it is useful to mention his work on the matter because Boot is one of the most militant and influential neoconservatives in American foreign policy today, and he is certainly no apologist for terrorists who commit their terrorist acts in the name of Islam.

However, not even Boot possesses the sort of tunnel vision necessary to conclude that the belief system behind Islamic radicalism is the end-all-be-all when it comes to explaining terrorism in the world today.

It’s obviously nonsensical to claim that terrorism — by which we mean the deliberate targeting of civilians by non-state insurgents for political purposes — would not exist were it not for radical Islamic ideologies.

If that were true, then how would we explain the IRA in Ireland, nineteenth-century French and Russian Anarchists, and countless tribal uprisings across the globe, including many right here in North America? All of these movements targeted civilian populations (at least on occasion) for political ends.

What all of these movements did have in common was the fact that the enemy hegemons in each case provided numerous opportunities for the insurgents to illustrate the moral turpitude and brutality of the occupiers.

British massacres like 1972’s Bloody Sunday fueled recruitment for the IRA and future IRA bombings. The Sand Creek Massacre fueled the rage that led to murderous raids on civilians by Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians thereafter.

I’m sure the opponents of the Plains Indians and the Irish rebels made arguments claiming that there was some special mental or ideological defect among the Indians and the Irish, but such arguments ignore the fact that a key component in the conflict was the (correct) perception of an abusive state by certain segments of the population.

Is ideology among radical Islamists a factor? Certainly it is, just as Irish nationalism was a factor for the Irish, and tribal solidarity was a factor for the Indians. Such things weren’t the only factors, of course, but they did help animate the resistance movements that were granted urgency and moral indignation as a result of abuses by an outside political power.

Why We Focus on Foreign Policy

And while radical Islamic ideologies are indeed a component of belief systems of the jihadi terrorists, that component is something we in the West have very little control over. What the West does have control over is how many opportunities it gives radicals to recruit new members and illustrate the brutality of the West. Every time the US or NATO invades another country, firebombs another wedding, or puts another military base on foreign soil, it gives radicals yet another opportunity to show some impressionable young person just how horrible the Americans and Europeans are.

If most Middle Easterners were Amish instead of Muslim would the equation be different? Yes, that is likely, but even in the case of the Amish, a government could only massacre so many of them until a subset of the population would abandon the group’s prohibition on violence and attempt to violently resist.

If the West wishes to do something within its control that could actually help to make Americans and Europeans less of a target for terrorists, Western regimes should stop engaging in foreign policy that aids terrorists in their propaganda and recruitment efforts.

This is especially important since Western foreign policy in the Middle East does nothing to benefit average Americans and Europeans. All the Iraq, Libya, and Syrian interventions have done is destabilize the region and create a power vacuum that increases the influence of Islamic radicalism.

And yet, it is the advocates for further intervention — like Max Boot, incidentally — who claim to be the hard-nosed realists when their policies have only strengthened the hand of the radicals, over and over again.

Pointing out the follies of Western foreign policy is not to apologize for Islamic radicals. It is simply to point toward a way that the West could make a positive impact in favor of ordinary Westerners right now, with the added benefit of being morally correct as well.


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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