War on terror a catastrophic failure

Following the Paris terrorist attacks, there will be countless analysis of the facts and figures. What should we do and how do we stop these terrorist acts from occurring?

Some people will argue for higher military spending or looser gun laws. Others such as Australian AG George Brandis will use the acts as a cover to curtail our civil liberties. Some will go on racist tirades (the ‘Bolt’s comments’ twitter page is a good example), while others will extend an olive branch with twitter hashtags such as #illridewithyou.

The one conclusion that can be reached, however, is that the War on Terror has been a catastrophic failure. Rather than stopping terrorism, the war has, in fact, intensified it. The number of terrorist incidents is actually higher than it was at the time of September 11.

The graph below, sourced from the Institute of Economics & Peace, illustrates that failure. Prior to the war on Iraq, terrorism was largely irrelevant within the Middle East.

In 2013, there were some 10,000 terrorist incidents resulting in around 18,000 deaths. A vast majority of those deaths occur in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria.

In Iraq, 6,362 died from terrorist attacks in 2013 (35.4 per cent of total deaths). A further 14,947 people were injured.

The west may not be willing to accept this but we must share some of the blame. There was always going to be a military response following such an unprecedented attack on the United States. But nobody forced us to bungle the military response as we did; certainly nobody forced us to invade Iraq.

That the war on Iraq was justified on incorrect information and was largely a vanity project for the worst US president since Nixon, makes the failure only more terrible. It still remains unclear why we went to war against Afghanistan and Iraq rather than the terrorists themselves: I assume it was because we were too lazy or it was too difficult to identify the real enemy?

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what we did. We let inadequate politicians and career sociopaths civil servants lead us into an unwinnable war that resulted in tens of thousands losing their lives.

The more disturbing fact – assuming that anything is more disturbing that the most powerful leader in the world deriving an imaginary way to invade another country – is that we have yet to see the full implications of that war. There’s a very real possibility that the worst is yet to come.

Consider for example the fact that terrorist organisations such as al Qaeda were formed in the aftermath of the Afghan-Russian war during the 1980s. Operatives within al Qaeda (and other organisations) tested their metal against a largely unmotivated and bankrupt army that was on its last legs.

The war on Iraq, by comparison, encouraged people to come to Iraq to fight the might of the United States and her western allies. These soldiers tested themselves against the most capable and best trained military in the history of the world. This is the environment that will give birth to the next generation of terrorist organisations; they will be better trained and resourced that the likes of al Qaeda and for that matter ISIL.

The question remains: how do we defeat terrorism? And the reality is that you don’t. You cannot defeat an idea, not really, but you can undermine its legitimacy.

The war on terror won’t be won by better soldiers or naval and air superiority. This isn’t Germany and the Nazis; it’s not even Vietnam; this is a new type of war that requires new strategies that take advantage of the weaknesses of the enemy while enhancing our inherent strengths.

The war certainly won’t be won by creating scapegoats such as Afghanistan and Iraq; terrorists are not countries and shouldn’t be treated as such. They are a group of loosely connected individuals with similar shared beliefs; the ideas cross country borders as easily as support for Manchester United. We cannot be bound by limited state vs state relations.

So what’s the solution? What can we do if our guns and bombs won’t work?

Terrorism is at its core a battle of ideas. As a result, the war on terror will be won through public relations.

The west needs to prove that freedom and democracy is every bit as good as we tell the Middle East it is. We need to ensure that terrorist organisations appear as extreme within the Middle East as they do outside it. Unfortunately, winning the PR war is awfully difficult when you are also invading these countries and bombing innocent civilians. It becomes harder still when social media makes it more difficult to hide the facts from the public.

Obviously there is more to it than that. Cross-border cooperation among security agencies is key; undermining resources and cash flows is paramount and arresting and interrogating known terrorists and their associates is necessary.

But ideas are ultimately beaten by better ideas. Communism wasn’t beaten by nuclear weapons but by the superiority of capitalism. The belief system of al Qaeda and ISIL will not be beaten by drones and bombs but by the eventual realisation that freedom and democracy is the best political system yet derived.

Two final points worth emphasising: we need to put the threat into perspective and we need to remember that Islamic terrorists make up only a small share of the broader religion.

Unless you live in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria or Syria, the threat from terrorism is so incredibly small that it would be irrational to let it impact your daily lives. In the aftermath of Paris that might be difficult to believe but as always statistics can offer some perspective.

For example, Australians are more likely to die from falling out of their bed than they are from terrorism. In American, drowning in your own toilet remains a greater threat that dying from a terrorist attack.

Finally, it is easy to rail against the Islamic faith but the reality is that extremists are exactly that: extreme. Every religion has them; in America some Christians like to bomb abortion clinics for example. Is it stupid? Sure but any group that is sufficiently large (and the Muslim community is estimated at around 1.5 billion people) will have members who are capable of extreme violence.

Are you racist? Probably

A fascinating article over at Vox makes a pretty compelling argument that racism is alive and well in our hearts and minds.

Most people can identify explicit racism: in Australia that seems to manifest itself with racist rants on public transport, the ‘White Australia’ policy or the Liberal and Labor parties position on ‘boat people’.

Implicit racism is a little more difficult to identify and unfortunately more difficult to eradicate. Basically it amounts to thoughts that you don’t realise that you have; stereotypes and shortcuts that enable you to make and draw connections.

Everyone has some element of implicit bias, though not everyone needs to be implicitly racist. For example, if I was chatting to a guy at a bar and he said he was from Melbourne High School (my former college) I’d probably assume that he was likely to be smarter than if he’d said “Scotch College”.

That’s a rather benign example – though even that example has implications for job recruitment – but it’s fair to say that implicit racism can be more problematic and has important economic and social implications.

Consider for example, the fact that having an African-American sounding name makes it more difficult to find a job even when qualifications, education and experiences are accounted for.

A test over at Project Implicit shows that 83 per cent of people are implicitly racist – that is they have a preference whether slight, moderate or strong for one race over another.Naturally I was curious about where I stood on this. I’ve long been exposed to different cultures – a natural byproduct of attending Melbourne High School – and to this day a majority of my friends originate from countries or cultures that might be considered ‘exotic’ to white Australia.

For example, a couple of months ago I proposed to my Chinese girlfriend; two of my groomsmen are almost certainly going to be of African and Indian descent. I have friends from South Africa and Germany, from Poland and New Zealand. I don’t even have a problem with Poms. My first girlfriend was a mix of Mexican and Spanish and lived in the American south.

At Project Implicit you can take a range of tests to identify implicit bias across a variety of areas. I decided to take the one that tries to identify implicit bias between African-Americans and European Americans – or black versus white.The test works a little like a child’s videogame and asks you to place pictures and words into two categories. It takes about five minutes to complete.

My result was:

Your data suggest little to no automatic preference between European American and African American.

I should also reveal that about a year ago I did the test and it revealed a slight preference for African Americans over European Americans. That position is held by only 12 per cent of respondents (which I’d assume correlates quite strongly with the number of African-Americans who take the test).

I wasn’t really surprised by that earlier result and I’m not surprised by my more recent result. As I noted earlier I’ve long been exposed to different cultures and that has no doubt impacted my decisions and thought processes as an adult.

Sitting the test can be somewhat daunting. Many of us take pride in being socially progressive; being open minded to other cultures, races and sexualities. This test could potentially be a punch in the gut but it seems like a punch worth taking, particularly if you care passionately about eradicating racism not only in public but in our hearts and minds as well.

A new decade and a new beginning …

My blogging experience thus far has been confined to a long-forgotten LiveJournal account, which chronicled my experiences in late high school and early university as I navigated the nasty world of uni classes, pimples and girls.

It’s fair to say that this blog won’t be that exciting – though I use that term lightly when referring to my 20 year old self – but hopefully it’ll be a little more intelligent and insightful and all the things one associates with a 30 year old man-child.

With that out of the way I thought I should take the opportunity to explain who I am (middle-class white male), why I’m writing a blog (definitely not because of ego) and whether you should read it (probably not).

Who am I?

I’m currently the economic editor at the Business Spectator. Basically I get paid to have opinions.

The appeal of that is probably fairly obvious but I take particular pleasure from it since my previous job involved working for an organisation where junior analysts were expected to be seen but not heard.

I won’t deny that I had a great deal of fun while working at the Reserve Bank of Australia. I was lucky enough to meet my future wife; but I also made no shortage of life-long friends. I am good friends with at least a few people who may one day become key power-brokers within Australia’s most important institution.

But at the same time I was more than happy to leave. I had big views on the future of the Australian economy and no avenue with which to pursue them. I was interested in the long-term structural issues facing our economy but stuck writing about near-term cyclical trends.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was soul crushing but I’ve seen a few souls crushed. Occasionally you’d walk down those hallowed halls and see nothing but dead eyes and slumped shoulders. I’m not sure what that says about Australia’s most important institution but I’m just happy that I’m doing something different.

Why am I writing a blog?

Ego. Or ‘brand’ development.

I’d like to think that neither of those reasons are why this blog exists but that’s probably a lie. To be an economic commentator you need at least a healthy ego; at the end of the day you are putting your views up for the world to see on a daily basis – and in my case often challenging popular and conventional wisdom.

Expect a fair bit on sport and a few columns on interesting books I’ve read or games I’ve played. There will certainly be plenty of politics and pop culture; observations about society and hopefully a few other issues. Oh … and lists.

Basically I don’t want it to simply be an off-shoot of my Business Spectator articles. Sure I’ll comment on economics from time-to-time – hopefully in articles much shorter than 800 words – but I don’t want to be confined by just that.

Should you read my blog?

Probably not. But feel free to prove me wrong.

Why now? And what’s with the name?

As I write this I am just an hour away from turning 30 years of age. That makes me official old – at least according to my 15 year old self – but it seems like a good time to try something different.

Some readers may have already worked out that the blog name is simply my initials and my age written in an inconvenient way. It also mirrors the name of my favourite robot in my favourite science fiction series.

What’s next?

Not much. At least for a few weeks. Not a great deal happens over the Christmas break; most people are away and I’m fairly lazy at the best of times.

As such I’ll leave you with three things worth considering:

  1. Does anyone really care about the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race?
  2. Why is Shane Watson still in the test team?
  3. I feel sorry for those that have already seen The Hobbit.

For the rest of you, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and a safe and happy New Year.