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Saletan on Al-Queda’s Strategy

July 12, 2005

Writing in Slate, William Saletan argues that Al-Queda’s strategy is to “destroy democracy from within.”

Bin Laden’s whole game plan is to turn the people of the democratic world against their governments. He thinks democracies are weak because their people, who are more easily frightened than their governments, can bring those governments down.

As Saletan puts it earlier in the article:

In April 2004, Bin Laden told Europeans, “Vigilant people do not allow their politicians to tamper with their security” by pursuing policies that provoke al-Qaida attacks. “Injustice is inflicted on us and on you by your politicians, who send your sons, although you are opposed to this, to our countries to kill and to get killed,” he said. “Therefore, it is in both sides’ interest to check the plans of those who shed the blood of peoples for their narrow personal interest and subservience to the White House gang.” Bin Laden even cited “opinion polls, which indicate that most European peoples want peace.” A month later, his point man in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, took credit for wounding an Iraqi official. The attack “conveyed a strong political message to Washington’s allies,” he bragged. “Such operations have a destructive effect on the psychology and morale of the enemy soldiers inside and on their relatives and peoples outside.”

I don’t understand why Saletan thinks it is some sort of revelation that terrorist groups, let alone Al-Queda, might seek to change a government’s policy by terrorizing its population.

Saletan’s punchline is that

He [Bin Laden] doesn’t understand that this flexibility—and this trust—are why democracies will live, while he will die. Many of us didn’t vote for Bush’s government or Blair’s. But we’re loyal to them, in part because we were given a voice in choosing them. And if we don’t like our governments, we can vote them out. We can’t vote out terrorists. We can only kill them.

If Saletan had written an entire essay expressing defiance against terrrorism, or perhaps showing that terrorism is, in aggregate, an ineffective strategy of forcing policy change in democratic polities (a claim that would need to be proven, given the mixed evidence on the subject), I might be more sympathetic. In its current form, his essay is basically one long tautology dressed up with some interesting quotations.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.