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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nuanced to Death

The most recent crisis in the Middle East was sparked by a movie about the Prophet Mohammed, which was made by an Israeli-American and financed by American Jews except that it was actually made by a maybe-Egyptian-maybe-Coptic-Christian conman with a dozen aliases and likely financed by no one or possibly financed as a different movie then dubbed to be anti-Islam, which may be irrelevant since the initial stories went out and the conspiracy theories have begun, and in this case, there may be some merit to the idea of a conspiracy theory given the film is also apparently connected to a radical, armed, Christian, antigovernment group.

Or rather the crisis was sparked by a lunatic Florida preacher disseminating that movie and also holding a trial of Mohammed on the anniversary of September 11 which also coincided with the release of an Al Qaeda video confirming the death of Libyan Al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya, for which jihadists had been  plotting revenge and may have used protests over the movie simply as cover for a possibly already planned attack which may or may not have been intended as a 9/11 anniversary attack.

Or perhaps the movie -- which has been condemned by many in the U.S. but can't be banned or suppressed due to the First Amendment (except in countries which don't have one) simply lit fire to a gasoline tank full of weapons in Libya caused by the fact that we didn't intervene forcefully enough in the uprising against Qaddafi, or maybe it was resentment about our heavy-handed intervention that may or may not have been soon enough (or too soon) or forceful enough (or too forceful) or careful enough to keep weapons out of the hands of jihadists, if we should have done it at all, and maybe we shouldn't.

Or rather the movie may in itself simply have provided an excuse for anti-American sentiment to boil over in places like Yemen where drone strikes (which we don't technically admit exist) and the Saleh immunity deal (which technically wasn't done by us) have enraged the populace.

Or perhaps one of several factions within Yemen are exploiting the controversy for political gain, or perhaps one of several factions in Libya, or one of the factions in Egypt, some of whom may or may not be allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and may or may not be linked to Al Qaeda and/or may themselves be Al Qaeda (but who are definitely using Al Qaeda's flag, or rather a flag that may or may not signify Al Qaeda but has been used by Al Qaeda), or rather one of Al Qaeda's factions, such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (which may or may not be linked to or part of Al Qaeda), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (which appears to be rising throughout Africa) or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (which is probably on the run but maybe not so much) or Al Qaeda in the Sinai (which may or may not actually exist).

If all of this is giving you a headache, welcome to foreign policy in the 21st Century, where everything is so nuanced and complex that simple answers no longer exist (which they probably never did, but our dramatically expanded access to information and communication makes it harder to pretend, although in fairness everything that happens is far more interconnected than at any previous point in history). The only people who have simple explanations or solutions to the events of the last 48 hours are people who are trying to sell you a bridge.

The challenge faced by policy makers at home and around the world today is unenviable, to put it mildly. On the one hand, there's a clear need for policies and expertise to be customized to each situation and location in which events occur.

On the other hand, there's a rapidly growing need for someone to articulate the overarching principles that guide national policies -- both domestic and foreign -- so that we are not (justly) accused of continually applying double and triple standards that inequitably allow some people to do some things while preventing other people from doing the same things based on calculations that are murky at best (issues involving foreign aid, harboring terrorists, nuclear weapons and suppression of dissent are among the exemplars of these problems).

And all of this must be managed in a world where, increasingly, single individuals with unexceptional minds and minimal resources can have a global impact, for good but far more easily for ill.

The complexity problem can't be wished away. We need to think about how to think in this new and challenging environment. We need not just new ideas, but new ideas about ideas to guide nations and communities through the increasingly choppy waters of world politics. Unfortunately, innovation in technology is moving far faster than innovation in political imagination.

Check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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