“A Triumph of Ideology over Evidence”

Debates about how well or badly the United States is doing in the war on terror seem to have one feature in common. Those who say we’re doing well rely on objective, measurable data — e.g., no successful terrorist attacks on the homeland in six and a half years; very few successful terrorist attacks against Europe; two governments that harbored terrorists and sponsored terrorism toppled and replaced by governments that don’t do these things; scores of al Qaeda leaders captured or killed, etc. By contrast, those who say we’re doing badly tend to rely on impressionistic, non-measurable arguments — e.g, we’ve alienated our allies to the point that we’re not getting sufficient cooperation; countless otherwise peace-loving Muslims have been driven to a life of terrorism by our actions, etc.
The evidence supporting these impressions is weak. Since 9/11, leaders in most of the countries we’re allied with have come and gone. Sometimes, old leaders have been replaced by more pro-American counterparts (e.g., France and Germany), sometimes the opposite has occurred (e.g., Spain). But to my knowledge, there is no evidence that any government is failing to cooperate with us in the war on terrorism due to animosity we have have generated through our actions in the war on terror, and a fair amount of evidence points to the contrary conclusion (see Peter Wehner’s recent article linked to below). Nor would it make sense for any government to base its approach to dealing with terrorists on its feelings about us, as opposed to its self interest.
It’s impossible reliably to assess whether our anti-terror actions are “creating” more terrorists or fewer terrorists than some other set of actions (or inaction) would. However, there is decent evidence including a Pew Survey, that the tide within the Islamic world is beginning to run strongly against al-Qaeda. Perhaps Osama bin Laden was correct when he said, “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”
Peter Wehner has also noticed the non-empirical nature of the arguments typically made to support the proposition that the war on terror is failing. In fact, his recent essay on the subject, which appears in the magazine Survival: Global Politics and Strategy (published under the auspices of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London), is called “A Triumph of Ideology over Evidence.”
Wehner takes specific issue with the arguments of Phillip Gordon of the Brookings Institution. However, his rebuttal has general applicability and is well worth reading (just click the “View Article (PDF)” option at the link above).

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