Sensing on Flypaper

I took Donald Sensing’s One Hand Clapping out of my blogroll a while ago, when I decided that he’s too wedded to his biases to be consistently interesting. But sometimes he comes through with something that’s worth reading, as he did the other day with this: Mistaken about the “flypaper strategy”.

Bush has pressed the so-called flypaper strategy into service lately as one of the few remaining credible rationales for the Iraq war. He used it in his latest presidential podcast (excuse me, “weekly radio address”), when he said:

We are now waging a global war on terror — from the mountains of Afghanistan to the border regions of Pakistan, to the Horn of Africa, to the islands of the Philippines, to the plains of Iraq. We will stay on the offense, fighting the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them at home.

Sensing begins his piece by quoting Kos of Daily Kos, who, in the wake of the July 7 attacks in London, wrote the following in Flypaper:

Bush’s latest rationale for maintaining the course in Iraq adventure has been the “flypaper strategy” — it’s better to fight the terrorists over there than at home. Nevermind that the Iraqis never asked to have their country turned into a dangerous den of terrorism, insurgency, violence and death. For war supporters looking for an excuse, any excuse, to justify the continued disastrous American presence in Iraq, the flypaper rationale was as good as any.

Except that it’s not working. The war isn’t making the West any safer. In fact, it’s creating a whole new class of terrorists. Today it was London. Next time it could easily be the United States. And waging the war in Iraq, rather than make us safer, is further motivating Islamic terrorists to strike at the West.

Sensing responds as follows:

I want to spend some time walking back the cat here because Kos’s criticism isn’t justified for a perhaps-surprising reason: the “flypaper strategy” was never a strategy of the Bush administration.

(Emphasis in original.) Sensing then goes on a long, but interesting, ramble through the history of weblogger, pundit, and politician statements on the flypaper strategy, culminating with his own posting of July 2, Compulsion, where he wrote:

Our fear should be not that the Islamist insurgency is continuing, but that it might end too soon.

If al Qaeda wakes up and discerns that Iraq is their graveyard, they may wisely abandon the battle there before they are lethally wounded. We do not want al Qaeda to vacate Iraq substantially intact in order to regroup, reorganize, retrain and re-equip to attack us elsewhere and elsewhen.

Sensing finishes his response to Kos with the following:

In fact, the London bombings neither confirm nor disprove the efficacy of the “flypaper strategy” concept. The administration didn’t intend such a strategy in the first place and only adopted it late in the game after it became evident that Iraq was indeed proving a magnet for al Qaeda. But no administration member has ever claimed that fighting al Qaeda in Iraq would ironclad guarantee there would be no al Qaeda terrorism in Europe or America. Such a criticism is nought but a straw man Bush’s opponents set up and knock down to serve their own purposes. They have confused outsider analysis by people such as Warren, Bay, Andrew Sullivan and many others including me as enunciations of official administration policy. But it has never been the intentional policy of the administration until very recently, if indeed it it now is at all.

This passage is pretty revealing, and it gets to the heart of what disappoints me about Sensing’s analysis generally. In fact, it is Sensing who’s setting up and then knocking down a strawman here.

The real question is whether or not the flypaper strategy is working, whether killing the foreign terrorists drawn to Iraq lessens the risks of terror in places like the US and Britain. In trying to answer that question, the July 7 attacks are clearly relevant, though they are also clearly insufficient to reach a final determination one way or the other. They don’t “prove” flypaper’s failure. But they are an important data point.

For Sensing, though, the idea that killing bad guys is a good thing, a viable strategy that will ultimately lead to success, rather than simply escalating a cycle of violence that makes things worse, is axiomatic. For Reverend Sensing, it constitutes something akin to religious faith. (My guess is that this is a legacy of his indoctrination by and long service in the military, though that’s only a guess.)

Because of this, Sensing is disinclined to deal with Kos’s main argument (that “flypaper” isn’t working) head on. Instead, he creatively misconstrues it, saying that Kos is wrong for having mistakenly believed that flypaper was Bush’s actual motivating strategy. Flypaper, says Sensing, was merely a bolted-on after-the-fact rationale for the Bush team, one they may not actually believe in even today. But of course, that’s pretty much what Kos is saying, too.

The fundamental disagreement remains unaddressed: Is “flypaper” a viable strategy? Is it working? Or is it doomed to failure? Sensing can’t answer that question interestingly, because he doesn’t seriously entertain it as a question.

Ultimately, that constitutes a failure of imagination. It’s the same too-human failing that we all share, and that dooms most of our quests for truth. On this particular subject, though, Sensing has it bad. Which is actually kind of interesting in its own right, even if the analysis it results in isn’t.

One Response to “Sensing on Flypaper”

  1. ymatt Says:

    Oof. Waist-deep into the meta-reporting here.

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