Listening to Sageman

David Ignatius says that "politicians who talk about the terrorism threat -- and it's already clear that this will be a polarizing issue in the 2008 campaign -- should be required to read a new book by a former CIA officer named Marc Sageman." The good news, from my point of view, is that based on Ignatius' writeup, Sageman's new book doesn't sound all that different from his previous book, Understanding Terror Networks. Bottom line:

[W]e are not facing what President Bush called "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation," but something that is more limited and manageable -- if we make good decisions.

The trouble is that ever since 9/11, we've adopted a set of incredibly harmful and counterproductive policies (the war in Iraq has, of course, been considerably more costly in terms of lives lost, people crippled, and stuff destroyed than was 9/11). Rather than taking a focused, disciplined approach to a dangerous-but-manageable situation, the Bush administration has engaged in a series of flailing overreactions that have, improbably, actually made it possible for a relatively small group of people to dramatically alter the course of the world without expending any vast resources. The whole thing's been a disaster. James Fallows points out that you can find much material along these lines in his great 2006 cover story on the need to back off from the idea of a "war on terror."

In my forthcoming book, Heads in the Sand I observe that there's a substantial political problem here as well. Given how firmly entrenched the wrongheaded framework is, it's generally not worth any particular politician's while on any particular day to stick his or her neck out and try to prick the conceptual bubble Bush has erected around these questions. It's risky. It makes more sense to try to just come up with ideas that make sense within the Massive Ideological Struggle framework. But as long as that framework goes unchallenged, it's incredibly difficult to make the case for liberal alternatives to the policies we've been implementing.

That's where outside pressure and things like primary campaigns can make a difference -- they create situations in which the balance of incentives can flip and people have reason to start trying to dismantle the sort of grandiose vision that Bush and now John McCain have been propounding. However it gets done in the end, however, the main point is that it's absolutely vital to do it over the long run. Trying to cram good policies into a framework that was designed to support bad policies is a thankless and ultimately futile task.