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Bad Prediction?

Andrew Sullivan, doing his year-end awards, bestows a Von Hoffman Award (for egregiously bad predictions) to William Pfaff for writing the following:

Blair and Bush ultimately build their case on their personal intuitions, provoked by the Sept. 11 attacks, that something new had appeared in the world. They both concluded, as Bush was to put it, that they had to "rid the world of evil." But their argument that Islamic extremism is a "global threat" is indefensible. The Islamists can make spectacular attacks on Britain or the United States, but neither country, nor any of the other democracies, is in the slightest danger of being "engulfed" by terrorism, or shaken from its democratic foundations. The Islamists are a challenge to Islamic society itself, but a limited one. Their doctrine will run its course, and eventually be rejected by Muslims as a futile strategy for dealing with the modern world.
The punchline, according to Sullivan, is that this prediction was made "the day before the 3/11 Madrid massacre." I think Andrew needs to read over the article again. Pfaff writes that "Islamists can make spectacular attacks on Britain or the United States," and the Madrid train bombing certainly qualifies. But his controversial analytic point was that "neither country, nor any of the other democracies, is in the slightest danger o being 'engulfed' by terrorism, or shaken from its democratic foundations." And it seems to me that Spain certainly hasn't been 'engulfed' by terrorism any more than the United States has been over the past forty months. Contemporary Iraq no doubt qualifies as engulfed by terrorism, just as Israel has been so engulfed from time-to-time. Western countries, however, have at best seen sporadic spectacular attacks that kill large numbers of people without fundamentally derailing anything. I've visited New York City many times since 9/11 and the city is fine just as is Madrid, by all accounts. Nor has any country seen its democratic foundations shaken by terrorism.

The 3/11 attack and the Aznar government's response to it had an impact on the March Spanish election, just as the 9/11 attack and the Bush administration's response to it had an impact on the 2002 and 2004 elections. But in neither instance does the fact that the electorate chose to base its votes in part on the perceived quality of different parties' anti-terrorism strategies indicate that democracy is faltering. On the contrary, that's democracy working. It would have been bizarre for voters in either country to simply ignore terrorism and the Iraq War when deciding how to vote. Now maybe Pfaff is wrong. Maybe terrorism really does pose an existential threat to the West. One could make the argument. It would probably involve nuclear bombs. I myself am leery of this sort of "well, the problem will just go away" sort of thinking. But it certainly hasn't been proven to be an egregiously bad prediction so far.

January 1, 2005 | Permalink

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» The Threat from Conatus
Matthew Yglesias also contests Sullivan's Pfaff selection, arguing that Spain's intact democracy - in the face of spectacular attacks - is in fact a point against Sullivan's choice. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 1, 2005 7:40:32 PM

» Bad Prediction? from kevin rose dot com
Link: Matthew Yglesias: Bad Prediction?. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 2, 2005 10:48:39 AM

» Bad Prediction? from kevin rose dot com
Link: Matthew Yglesias: Bad Prediction?. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 21, 2005 3:04:47 AM

» Bad Prediction? from kevin rose dot com
Link: Matthew Yglesias: Bad Prediction?. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 21, 2005 12:30:44 PM

Comments


This is not about reality, Matt, this is a war of frames. They cannot tolerate anyone creating an alternate frame for understanding the mideast conflict.

When this was all getting started, the right demonized the left for suggesting that this was a "law enforcement" problem. The reason they attacked the "law and order" idea so forcefully is because they knew that it was a real threat to their ideology. "Law and order" is a genuinely different way of understanding the mideast conflict, one that shows up all the flaws in their strategy.

The "war on terror" frame posits that this struggle is Ragnarok, the end time in which all good fights against all evil, and that the outcome will be the end of the world.

The "law and order" frame posits that Al-Qaeda is a criminal organization run rampant, and that the way to solve this problem is to impose law and order on the mideast.

The "law and order" frame is dangerous to them because it clearly identifies the flaws in their strategy. If law and order is the desired outcome, then toppling governments and leaving anarchy behind is obviously counterproductive. If law and order is the goal, then it's clear that you can only succeed by building a peaceful relationship with moderate muslims, and that you can't win by driving them to riot.

That is why Sullivan attacks Pfaff, even when Pfaff is obviously right. Sullivan isn't really reading Pfaff's words literally, he's reading them as support of the law and order frame (which they are). Sullivan sees that frame as wrong, and therefore he sees Pfaff as wrong.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jan 1, 2005 3:43:00 PM

Pfaff is correct, it would take a level of terrorism akin to world war to pose any threat that could cause the decline of Western civilisation as we know it.

Posted by: Gavin | Jan 1, 2005 3:49:40 PM

Bush, the believer, must think he's greater than God if he aspires to "rid the world of evil". It hasn't happened yet, but maybe in the second term.

Posted by: janeboatler | Jan 1, 2005 3:52:51 PM

This kind of shit is why I don't read Sullivan.

"Their doctrine will run its course, and eventually be rejected by Muslims as a futile strategy for dealing with the modern world."

Is undoubtedly correct.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 1, 2005 3:52:59 PM

"Their doctrine will run its course, and eventually be rejected by Muslims as a futile strategy for dealing with the modern world."

Is undoubtedly correct.

It sure is. But the Bushies/neocons will make sure that it lasts as long as possible, because their doctrines are reinforcing one-another.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 1, 2005 4:13:16 PM

I have never understood why Islamist terrorism has been compared (as a threat) with communism or fascism. There aren't Islamist parties electing majors in Rome or Paris, and I don't know of one single intellectual in the West defending the idea of an Islamic state. The states that have supported it, say, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Iran are far weaker than the former USSR or China. And that support many times isn't even overt. Is it a serious threat and do we have to answer it forcefully? You bet. Are the democratic foundations of the Western Civilization threatened by radical Islam? Oh, please!

Posted by: Eduardo | Jan 1, 2005 4:26:59 PM

Speaking of lousy predictions, here's Sullivan himself on 8 October:

"I'd say a clear and decisive Kerry win is now the likeliest outcome of this election."

Posted by: Peter | Jan 1, 2005 4:35:39 PM

I have never understood why Islamist terrorism has been compared (as a threat) with communism or fascism.

It's just a dishonest rhetorical device used to whip the unreflective right-wing rank and file into an intellectual frenzy. Islamic fundamentalism shares no outstanding characteristics with fascism.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Jan 1, 2005 4:41:25 PM

"maybe Pfaff is wrong. Maybe terrorism really does pose an existential threat to the West. One could make the argument. It would probably involve nuclear bombs. I myself am leery of this sort of "well, the problem will just go away" sort of thinking. But it certainly hasn't been proven to be an egregiously bad prediction so far."

I suppose it is all a matter of correctly identifying "the" problem, and not just exploiting irrational fear, to build a foundation for a fascist State. At the moment, Bush is a far greater threat to the United States as a functioning democracy than Osama bin Ladin is. Technological progress is magnifying the power available to crazy and ruthless people, and there are risks emerging, which ought to be met intelligently, by building better intelligence networks, systems of identity verification, and general policing. Bush, of course, is not doing anything of the sort; he is building an utterly useless missile shield and bungling his way to vastly increased nuclear proliferation.

Sullivan, a gay Tory Catholic immigrant, has some fairly serious identity conflicts, and probably needs medication more than intellectual criticism. Reality is always going to be a tenuous concept to Andrew.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jan 1, 2005 4:53:19 PM

"Islamic fundamentalism shares no outstanding characteristics with fascism."

Or at least, if there are similarities, it's at the ideological level, not in the sense of power level.

I think Al-Qaeda has a lot in common with early-1900 racism and the Ku Klux Klan.

* Al-Qaeda is essentially racist. They blame whites and non-muslims for everything, and their hatred is deeply irrational. Similarly, the KKK blamed blacks and non-christians for everything, equally irrationally.

* Both are(were) terrorist organizations, and their methods seem similar. The burning of blacks on crosses is a lot like the beheading of Americans on film. Both organizations occasionally resort(resorted) to larger-scale terror.

* Neither was condoned openly by the public, but both had significant undercurrents of support. Neither had outright governmental support, but in both cases, there were government officials willing to look the other way.

* I think that if Al-Qaeda is to be defeated, it must be defeated in the way the KKK was defeated.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jan 1, 2005 4:56:49 PM

"and eventually be rejected by Muslims as a futile strategy for dealing with the modern world."

Of, course, as the Conservative Christians in America will certainly accept evolution in a few more centuries. It isn't as if the Religious Right has any real power, anyway.

More complicated than either "War on terror and those who hate our freedoms" or "let's get the three dozen bad guys"

No Western Civilization is not immediately, existentially threatened, but...

1) Actual terrorism in the west, nukes the worst, but Madrid or a large number of less than Madrids could be very damaging.

2) Economic dangers in a number of factors involving ME turmoil, radical Islam, oil, competition from Asia for scarce resources leading to war or depression

3) Islamic prosyletizing. Perhaps not a worry at all, I happen to find varieties of Islam attractive, as have many others on many continents, but American Christians are not used to competition. And there may be real effects, it would take a Max Weber to assess cultural significance.

4) A general reaction against modernism and pluralism. Fundamentalism will likely lose that war, though I do not consider it a lock, and the two competitors for the shrinking market share might involve us in their battle. In any case the eventual triumph of science and reason is small comfort to the current gays and women being hurt by these assholes.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 1, 2005 5:00:26 PM

Josh Y. writes: Neither was condoned openly by the public, but both had significant undercurrents of support.

I agree with most of your other points, but disagree with that one. Both were/are openly condoned by a significant percentage of the public.

Some wear their affiliations on their chests. Of course, maybe he just hadn't done laundry in a while.

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Jan 1, 2005 5:04:44 PM

The Islamists can make spectacular attacks on Britain or the United States, but neither country, nor any of the other democracies, is in the slightest danger of being "engulfed" by terrorism, or shaken from its democratic foundations

My sense is that if there was ever a danger of the U.S. being "engulfed" by terrorism, the window of opportunity closed several months after 9/11. A carefully planned follow-up attack a day or week or so after 9/11 could have set off a chain of events that might have brought the country to it's knees, although even if that happened, what would the Islamists do then?

Posted by: Paul | Jan 1, 2005 5:15:36 PM

"Contemporary Iraq no doubt qualifies as engulfed by terrorism,.." is not a true statement at all. Iraq is engulfed by an occupation by a foreign power, which is being resisted, as all such occupations are, by a variety of groups. The means of resisting the occupation are brutal, and deadly for other Iraqis, but hardly qualify as terrorism. This just proves, as another poster noted above, that Bush is the single biggest threat to the world now in existence.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Jan 1, 2005 5:21:10 PM

Al-Qaeda is essentially racist. They blame whites and non-muslims for everything, and their hatred is deeply irrational.

Last I checked, Arabs -- in fact, all semitic people -- were white. But even if you disagree, I can't imagine a more international gang than Al Qaeda.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Jan 1, 2005 5:21:40 PM

My new favorite comparison is between Al Qaeda and the Boxers. It's not perfect, but the comparison is very interesting.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 1, 2005 5:22:46 PM

Well, I think the key here is that radical movements often get popular support in response to national humiliation (or perceived national humiliation):
"We turned ambivalence into hatred," Zogby said. "The issue is less the attractiveness of bin Laden than hatred for the United States.

Same was, arguably, the case with the Nazism (WWI/Treaty of Versailles) and the KKK (Civil War/Reconstruction).

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 1, 2005 5:29:54 PM

How distinct religion from racism?

Posted by: Ken Melvin | Jan 1, 2005 5:58:13 PM

Matt is right to be leery of the argument that Islamic fundamentalism will fade away. I have no use for Sullivan, and this post is correct about his argument on the Spain attack (try, Andy, try), but we shouldn't assume that terrorism is the worst that Islamic fundamentalism throw at the West. If Pakistan and Saudi Arabia go fundmentalist, a worse threat could develop. Everyone worries about Pakistan's nukes, but what about the funky weapons systems that Russian engineers have developed over the years? Saudi wealth can buy a lot of weapons. This occured to me after 9/11, but now, given Russia's economic growth, nationalism, and apparently increasing stability, it doesn't seem as likely as it did then. Still, wealth combined with political-religious fanaticism could make a future Islamic alliance an old-fashioned, well-armed security threat, the kind of threat that Iraq was purported to be.

Posted by: Sean Flaherty | Jan 1, 2005 6:32:04 PM

Me: "Al-Qaeda is essentially racist."

ScrewyRabbit: "I can't imagine a more international gang than Al Qaeda."

Here's the thing. "Racist" isn't *exactly* the right word for Al-Qaeda. But it's the closest word I could find.

I'm looking for a word that says "irrational hatred of the other tribe." Sometimes tribal boundaries are determined by skin color, sometimes by religion, sometimes by national boundaries. But in the end, it's all the same. It's the same psychological dynamic, it's the same demonization, it's the same horrible outcome.

Take hatred of Jews, for example. There are Jews of every race: european, black, and semitic. So I suppose that hatred of Jews isn't technically "racism," since the Jewish community is open to anyone regardless of race. But hatred of Jews is so close to racism that we just call it "anti-semitism," as if it were actually hatred of the semitic genes, as opposed to hatred of the Jewish community. In other words, we lump it under racism, even though it's technically not quite racism. I think that's the right thing to do, since it's really the same thing at a very fundamental level.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jan 1, 2005 6:38:05 PM

After rereading the post, I realize my last comment conflated acts of terrorism with fundamentalist ideology. But the "their docrine" line if Pfaff's essay leaves some room for my interpretation, I think.

Posted by: Sean Flaherty | Jan 1, 2005 6:38:11 PM

I can't say whether or not this islamist movement will fall by the wayside, but terrorism as a tactic certainly won't -- as long as there remain fanatical minorities that believe endless conflict is preferable to the status quo.

How democracies ultimately adapt to this reality remains to be seen, but if it does trigger the end of democracy, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Posted by: Royko | Jan 1, 2005 6:40:18 PM

The Pfaff link here and at Sullies stop at the front page: try this William Pfaff.

Sullivan and Beinart are both exhibiting classic cases of overcompensation based on their abandonment on social issues by the Republican party. They are trying to hype the 9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria to induce the Democratic party into becoming a liberal Republican warmongering party. Joe Lieberman and the neo-cons have always viewed the security of Israel as a vital interest to U.S. national security. (And no Joel Mowbray
and David Brooks and Julia Gorin I am not anti-semitic.)

William Pfaff's analysis was far more accurate than Sullie's. The biggest problem to U.S. national security is that Bush has ignored the threat of Bin Ladenism by waging a War to Provoke Terrorism in Iraq. The Sullivan, Beinart, Hayes case for war against Iraq or any other nation based on the non-state threat of Al Qaeda inspired terrorism is counter-productive at best.

One question: Has the war on Iraq prevented Bin Laden in any way from conducting the business of terrorism? Correct answer: No. The Afghan war destroyed the only state sponsored terrorism connection in existence. If Bush had stopped in Afghanistan, Pfaff would have been absolutely correct. Bin Ladenism would have withered on the vine. Bush and Bin Laden need each other the way O'Reilly needs Michael Moore and Dick Morris needs Hillary Clinton.

Posted by: JollyBuddah | Jan 1, 2005 6:52:20 PM

Josh, there is good reason to define fascism as a "we are not other" as the theorist Rey Chow has - fascism bases its political organisation around separating the "pure" group from the "impure" one (and in the case of the Nazis they tried to then eliminate the "impure".)

My reading suggests that the root of it isn't racism so much as the sexual other - a fascist society is usually a male society. This fits OBL and the Taliban fairly well. The racism is a kind of transposed next step. One accessable way in is Bram Dijkstra's "Evil Sisters", although I always come back to Klaus Theweleit's monumental study "Male Fantasies", which you should read if you are at all interested in fascism.

Up to now totalitarianism has been generally secular (I don't apply the term loosely - to me totalitarianism is Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China; it has to be big enough for the society to have a real historical mission applied to it, after which it starts on a process of feeding on its own people. People misapply the term to the likes of Saddam Hussain, when he was just an especially brutal petty tyrant. North Korea is the oddity, a holdout from the Mao era)

I think a pan-islamic state stretching across the ME and ruled by the likes of OBL would be similarly totalitarian, albeit with a religious origin (and would have to be expansionist for any ideology that involved a historic destiny to be maintained). A chain of events that would led to this situation would appear to be very unlikely - unless some major western nation(s) were to unite enough moslems against a common enemy.

Posted by: plebian | Jan 1, 2005 7:22:40 PM

I agree with you, Matt; you get to one of the important points directly and effectively. I spent a bit of time last night writing a response to Sullivan's take on Pfaff, and it went up this morning. It's rather long; interested readers may anyhow find it here.

I disagree with some who suggest Andrew is all bad - he writes well, and often is insightful, but like all of us is not agreeable all the time. This is one occasion many of us disagree with him, and I don't think we're very much alone.

Happy New Year.

Posted by: Aaron Radcliffe | Jan 1, 2005 7:30:01 PM

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