This Week in Geopolitics

Beyond the Current Fantasies in the Jihadist War

June 20, 2016

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Last week, I wrote an article on the massacre in Florida. It drew many responses and some criticisms. In general, the critics fell into two groups.

Some felt I should have demanded stricter gun control. Others, that I should have demanded an end to all immigration by Muslims. On the surface, both suggestions are reasonable, but they reminded me of something Will Rogers said.

Rogers was a renowned American humorist in the early 20th century. During World War I, German U-boats threatened the Allied war effort by sinking US ships headed to Europe. The Allied navies could not stop the slaughter.

Rogers was asked what he would do about it. He said that the only solution was to boil away the Atlantic Ocean, and then capture the U-boats sitting on the bottom. When asked how to do that, Rogers answered that he was responding as a policymaker, and that that question must be handled by others.

There was genius in this answer. Boiling away the Atlantic would have solved the U-boat problem. Any issues created by the solution would have been ignored. Whether or not it could be done was treated as someone else’s problem.

Policymaking is easy, if it ignores reality. And the problem we have is not only that policymakers craft policies designed to fail, but that citizens in a democracy do the same. The desire to do something is overwhelming. The solution is derived from interests and not connected with the reality of the problem. The result is that nothing is done. 

So, those concerned with gun violence want to deal with terrorism through gun control. Those who see immigration as the problem want to solve it with immigration control. Both have decided to boil away the Atlantic Ocean. They move on, and nothing is done.

Why Banning Guns Won’t Work

The gun group argues that if there were no guns, there would be no gun deaths. Therefore, banning guns, or at least assault weapons, is essential. They might add that homemade explosives—like those used in the Boston Marathon attack—should also be banned, but that has been left out of the debate.

The Congressional Research Service says there are 300 million guns in the US. I have no idea how they came up with this number, but we can agree there are a lot. One study estimated there were 1.5 million assault weapons in the US.

Let’s assume a law banning the sale of assault weapons was passed. That would stop the number of these weapons from rising. But unless the 1.5 million assault rifles already owned were seized, their value would soar and spawn a robust black market.

Of course, an endless stream of AK-47s—cheap and effective assault rifles—would be smuggled into the US.

The US has banned the sale of heroin for nearly a century. Vast amounts have been spent on the drug war, yet the flow of heroin has never been stopped—even before the rise of Mexican drug cartels.

When something is cheap on one side of the border and expensive on the other side, there will be people willing to smuggle it.

Heroin users in the US will pay a lot of money to get it. The same is true for those who want assault rifles—particularly criminals and terrorists. 

You can pass any law you wish. It won’t be effective. Even during World War II in occupied Europe where the price for owning a gun was death, people still had guns they used to attack the Germans.

The Problem with a Muslim Ban

There are about 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. India has 172 million Muslims. How would a ban distinguish Muslim Indians from Hindu Indians?

Do we ban all Indians from entering the US? That would infuriate a country that cooperates closely with the US Navy in the South China Sea, and is a major economic power. 

We tend to think of Muslims as being Middle Eastern. But the country with the world’s largest Muslim population is Indonesia. I have been there and can guarantee that they do not look like Syrians and do not speak Arabic. 

There are about 11 million Muslims in the Philippines, a country with deep historic ties with the US. How do we distinguish Christian from Muslim Filipinos? Or Muslim from non-Muslim Nigerians?

Then, there are European Muslims. Bosnia and Albania have about 3 million. About 4 million people live in Muslim-majority Chechnya and Dagestan (the Boston Marathon bombers were from Dagestan).

Some, particularly Chechens, have been deeply involved in jihad against Russia and have been important figures in the Islamic State and other Islamist movements. Many from these regions have moved to Europe and have Italian, Dutch, and other European passports. 

A few dedicated terrorists can wreak havoc. The purpose of banning Muslims would be to keep out terrorists. That will not happen with a ban. Even if no one else could, Chechens with British passports would still get in—and there would be many others. The small number needed to carry out terrorist attacks will get in.

But the real problem rests at passport control points when entering the US. Agents, already harried from dealing with long lines, lack the needed skills in hundreds of languages to distinguish a Muslim from a non-Muslim traveler. Even someone with a British passport would be a problem. Britain has lots of Muslim citizens, as does the US with about 3 million.

It is, of course, possible to boil away the Atlantic Ocean by banning all foreigners from entering the country… though it would create political and economic chaos. Canada and Mexico would likely be excluded. Beyond the economic impact (Canada and Mexico are the two largest trading partners of the US), it would not be practical. Anyone who has explored the US-Canada border can easily find a way to get in from Canada.

Policies Must Be Grounded in Reality

The proposals for banning assault rifles and Muslims are, like Will Rogers’ proposal, conceptually sound. Their weakness is that they can’t be implemented. We are not going to boil away an ocean.

Terrorists will get the weapons they want and make the explosives they need. Muslim terrorists will find ways into the US. Some will be stopped, but not all. 

This exposes a deep rift in American political culture: the advocacy of policies that are plausible but cannot succeed after even a casual review. 

Let’s recall the war on poverty. It was clear that the “war” would not prevail in ending poverty. And it didn’t. But its critics were seen not as opponents of a wrongheaded policy, but as indifferent to poverty. Similarly, some will judge my views as indifference to gun crime or being soft on terrorism. 

In terms of foreign policy, I think of the contrast between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson in war. Roosevelt defined his goals in WWII as the unconditional surrender of the enemy, working in concert with the British and Soviet Union. He was aware that Stalin was a mass murderer but judged Hitler the greater threat. Roosevelt aligned policy and reality.

Johnson believed that the US could compel the North Vietnamese to abandon their historic goal of unification under communism. He said he could do that without angering Russia and China, or asking the American public for massive sacrifices.

Roosevelt faced the cost of war in blood, wealth, and uncertainty. Johnson refused to face what the victory meant or what it would take. Roosevelt never denied the moral or material cost that defeating the Axis would require. Johnson never knew or never admitted the cost.

The Danger of Wishful Thinking

The duty of a president is to craft policies based on what is realistically possible. The duty of a citizen in a democracy is to demand that he do so. As such, all policies must be ruthlessly subject to this question: Accepting the goal, can it be achieved? 

In general, when there is a gap between a policy and reality, reality will win. Wishful thinking can hide the gap for a while, but in the end, a price must be paid.

I would propose that the US can prevent terrorist attacks by crushing radical Islamist organizations and intimidating others who might follow. However, the cost in lives, wealth, and time would be staggering.

There are 1.7 billion Muslims. Islam’s jihadist strand is organized into groups like the Islamic State. These groups are capable and sophisticated in both the covert arts and more conventional warfare. They are ruthlessly pursuing their goals. IS is not being defeated, as the White House has claimed. The head of the CIA conceded this last week.

The jihadists are fanatical in their commitment and, therefore, can be defeated only by measures such as those that broke the Germans and the Japanese fanatics. That means accepting a massive increase in American force and possibly even a draft. It also requires the acceptance of many innocent civilian deaths. Believing it can be otherwise is, in my opinion, wishful thinking.

Banning guns and blocking borders is psychologically satisfying but an illusion—a victory of the imagination, not reality. Defeating Islamist terrorism involves defeating the organizations that encourage and enable it. 

That will require a mammoth effort. If we are not prepared to make the effort, we must consider leaving the region and perhaps accepting the idea of the caliphate. 

We are now in, what is most charitably described as, a “holding action.” One we cannot win. At best, we can maintain a stalemate until we tire… and then we’ll be defeated.

We can commit to all-out war or abandon the field. Anything in-between leaves us trying to boil away oceans.

And One Last Thing…

We just took a serious look at immigration, domestic terrorism, and the question of firearms in civil society. And those just scratch the surface of the crucial issues we cover everyday in my premium service Geopolitical Futures

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George Friedman
George Friedman

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