Thursday, February 09, 2006

Understanding the Enemy

While my last post was a meditation on preventing emotionally charged issues from turning oneself into a partisan in spirit, this one focuses on the way to think about an enemy one means to defeat, i.e. militant Islamism.

Yesterday on NPR a former Army officer (I'm afraid I didn't catch his name) made a distinction I think is useful to think about--he said that we need to really understand our enemies, not just explain them away.

That is to say, that to predict the enemy's actions and take effective countermeasures, we need to understand him on his own terms, rather than applying our own meanings to his actions in a facile way.

But how can we know whether a given proposition about the Islamists is real understanding or just expaining them away?

One measure might be to see whether the proposition leaves one feeling superior in some sense; if so, it is likely 'explaining away'. For example, a conservative might interpret a protest against American occupation as opposition to freedom, and that certainly places the interpreter on the right side of history. Or a liberal might interpret suicide bombers as the result of imperialist policies oppressing the colonized class, again casting the observer as an anti-imperialist whistleblower. This criterion cannot by itself prove a proposition wrong, but if it is met on honest introspection, one should take it as a red flag that the idea/opinion ought to be examined more closely.

I would also worry that a proposition about the enemy is not rooted in true understanding if the enemy himself would not agree with it. For instance, if you asked an al Qaeda member if he is against freedom, or against the moral decadence fostered by Western secular materialism, I'd guess he'd answer the latter. Defining him as an anti-freedom fighter as Bush has done plays well at home, but might lead us to make statements and adopt policies that don't actually serve our goal. In this example, for instance, we might make more headway on our hearts-and-minds campaign if we focus on answering the charge that freedom leads to decadence, rather than touting the idea that freedom is pleasurable.

I welcome other ideas on what pitfalls of 'explaining away' the enemy might be.

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