Soft Power

On the question of Islamic terrorism in the West, the narrative of the right has been that letting in large numbers of immigrants from Islamic countries is dangerous. The narrative of the left has been that the terrorism is a result of the West's invasions and destabilising of the Islamic world.

Very few people seem to have noticed that there is no contradiction between the two narratives.  They can both be correct, and in my opinion they probably both are.

I do have one issue with the “left” narrative however; not that I disagree with it, but I think it carries with it some associations that are interestingly wrong.

The associated idea is that sending in armies, special forces, cruise missiles and drones to other countries is particularly likely to stir up violent response in your own country, as if by some kind of justice or karma.

That is, on its face, quite a plausible thing to believe, which is why it gets carried around as the mostly-unspoken associate of the concrete argument that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in Islamic terrorism in America and Europe.

The problem with the idea, plausible as it is, is that it leads to the conclusion that aggressive military interventions are particularly dangerous, and that it is preferable to act in a more restrained way, using “soft power” to achieve foreign policy objectives by encouraging or giving aid to sympathetic factions. (I think the original meaning of “soft power” was a bit more subtle than the heavy-handed but non-kinetic activities I am talking about, but I don't have a better term).

That sounds plausible too, but the history of the last few decades seems to me to demonstrate the opposite.  Way back in 2003 I argued that the major error that led to the necessity (or near-necessity) of invading Iraq was not the 1991 invasion, but the actions taken after the 1991 invasion to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein via “soft power” and the Kurds.

In a similar way, while the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did much to stir up terrorism in the West, they are not the biggest cause. Much more damage has been done by the “Arab Spring”, the attempt by the West to replace dictatorships with democracies through propaganda and funding for activists, with only a tiny little bit of bombing in an extreme case.

My view is that these kind of soft power interventions are particularly dangerous. Of course, there is the chance that they will be totally ineffective, which would be OK, but that possibility itself lends a reckless attitude to the decision-makers behind the interventions. When starting a war, even twenty-first century politicians make some small effort to anticipate consequences and problems. When intervening without military force, image and sentiment take over entirely, and no attempt at all is made to predict what the concrete consequences are likely to be, even when it is very easy to do so.

As I argued in 2003, I'd rather see military action, thought through and taken seriously, than the kind of gesture politics behind the Arab Spring, or, for that matter, the Ukrainian coup.