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Criticism Iraq National Security The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Contra Taibbi: Fighting Them Over There So We Don’t Need to Fight Them Here

The thing is, we’ve been listening to this stuff for so long that when we hear it, we don’t recoil in confused disbelief anymore — we’re so familiar with these arguments we’ve forgotten that they don’t make any sense. It’s similar to that other Bush-era standard: “We fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here.”

I never understood what the hell that was all about. The best I could figure is that the people who were saying this think of the world like a big game of Risk, and they think that if we commit a big force to some place like Iraq, the “other side” will have to leave all his forces over there or something to keep us from moving through Eurasia. This might make sense in a real war, in a war-between-nations war, but it’s completely absurd in a conflict where the “other side” is actually hundreds if not thousands of different/unrelated actors and can successfully attack a country like the U.S. using just a few people at a time. Sending 160,000 troops to Iraq does absolutely nothing to prevent a terrorist group like al-Qaeda from sending over a couple of “exchange students” to dump botulinum toxin into the Akron reservoir.

That’s Matt Taibbi in a recent blog post. Given his explanation, he clearly is missing something.

One understanding of terrorism holds that acts of terrorism are a reaction to the fact that many people in the world have no say in how they are governed. They realize that who Americans elect as their president has a more of an impact on their lives than their local leaders. Yet – they have no vote in this matter – and few ways to affect what America does. Those who are especially frustrated and determined and who value life least see there is a way they can impact America – how they can make their views matter. They can commit an act of terrorism against America – or American interests.

This understanding of the root cause of terroism is implicit both in many liberal critiques of the War on Terror and in Bush’s democracy promotion. Liberal critiques tended to see our doubling down in our support of tyrants in the region as kong as they were anti-terrorist as contributing to the sense of alienation. The neoconservatives saw democracy as a kind of safety valve in which these frustrations could be channeled – which is why they were so focused on promoting it in the Middle East. 

If terrorism is the means by which people whose views are not represented make themselves heard by those who have the power to change their lives, then allowing them to fight us over there does make it less likely we will be attacked at home. It provides an outlet in which they can channel their displeasure – killing American soldiers. It’s easier to travel to Iraq or Afghanistan than to America – and to participate within structures already set up while attacking outsiders – than to work undercover in an American sleeper cell, plotting against the people with whom you have contact every day.

Taibbi is right that leaving ourselves vulnerable over there doesn’t preclude them from attacking us here – but that mis-states what the “fighting them over there” idea is about. The fact that we can be attacked over there provides a release valve for frustrations – in a way similar to having a democracy where people could vote anti-American politicians into office would. 

I’m not sure if I buy this theory. And it’s not clear that even if it is true, that the overall approach is effective – because after all, by responding to attacks on us, we probably create more ill-will than we have allowed to be “released.” But there is a coherent view behind this – and mocking it doesn’t make it less so.

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