Blowback Matters

by Conor Friedersdorf

Christopher Hitchens debated American foreign policy with Robert Wright on, a pairing I'm glad to see happen, since Mr. Hitchens is a prominent hawk capable of making an eloquent case for his convictions, and Mr. Wright is an agile thinker whose particular take on the War on Terror is too seldom grappled with in foreign policy debates. I've absorbed it over the course of many Web video segments, dating back to years when my own views were closer to Mr. Hitchens, and I've certainly been persuaded to modify my thinking by his core insight: that a successful counter-terrorism strategy doesn't measure success by the number of terrorists killed, but by the total number of terrorists who harbor ill will toward us. Put another way, American behavior that kills or detains 10 terrorists but inspires 20 people to take up terrorism is an obvious failure.

But! Surely we should persist in championing equality for women and gays even if Islamist terrorists target our society for doing so, Mr. Hitchens counters. Moreover, he says, terror cells are always going to have propaganda for recruiting extremists, even if they make it up.

Mr. Hitchens believes that Islamist radicals would be acting in accordance with their extremist ideology regardless of our behavior, at least assuming that we don't compromise our core beliefs in obviously unacceptable ways. That he is correct, however, is hardly as conclusive as he imagines. Islamist radicals may well be enraged by women without burkas, or hell bent on harming America regardless of our behavior. But Muslim moderates who'll never be radicalized into violent acts by jihadist sermons at a mosque may well find themselves inspired to fight against the United States if instead of offending them somewhat by letting our gays marry, we inadvertently kill their wives and 6-year-old daughters with a cluster bomb, or take naked photos of Muslim men on leashes, or round up innocent Muslims only to detain them without end at Gitmo.

Do you hate the Taliban? Wish them dead, even though you haven't any intention of fighting them yourself? Okay, imagine that you're at a family wedding, and a stray Taliban missile kills everyone in your immediate family, and much of your extended family. Is it more likely that the Army could convince you to embark on a revenge mission?

Of course we shouldn't compromise core Western values to appease terrorists. But those who argue that we must compromise our values to kill terrorists--or launch discretionary wars to eradicate them--must grapple, among other things, with the fact these anti-terror actions sometimes come at a cost of making more terrorists.

Few people if anyone in American politics argue the extreme case that we should never aggressively kill terrorists. But even fewer people who insist that we kill terrorists hedge their recommendations with a realization that indirect, unintended consequences matter.

Keep at it, Mr. Wright.