A Penny or a Pistachio

Ed Haislmaier writes to say:

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has an intriguing “thinking outside of the box” idea for the rewards the U.S. is offering for the capture of bin Laden and al-Zarqawi. Friedman writes:

The U.S. should announce that it is lowering the reward for bin Laden from $25 million to one penny, along with an autographed picture of George W Bush. At the same time, it should reduce the $25 million reward for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the chief terrorist in Iraq, to one pistachio and an autographed picture of Dick Cheney.

Don’t get me wrong. Bin Laden and Zarqawi have murdered people. I want them brought in dead or alive – and preferably the former. If I thought $100 million would do it, I’d be for it. But these mega-rewards clearly are not working, and in many ways they are sending the totally wrong signals.

First, both of these guys are obviously megalomaniacs, who think the world is just hanging on their every word and video. All we are doing is feeding their egos, and telling them how incredibly important they are when we put a $25 million bounty on their heads. We are just enhancing their status on the Arab street as the Muslim warriors standing up to America, and encouraging other megalomaniacs out there. We should be doing just the opposite-letting these two know we don’t think they are worth more than a penny or a pistachio.

But there is an even more important issue of principle at stake. We should not be paying Iraqis or Arabs or Pakistanis to get rid of their problem. Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are a curse on their civilization. Their capture will have real value to them, to us and to the world, only if it is done by Arabs and Muslims for the sole purpose of purging their civilization of these two cancer cells.

Also, if bin Laden’s or al-Zarqawi’s own neighbours turn them in for nothing, it will have a much greater deterrent effect on others. After all, what story would you rather read after bin Laden’s capture?

“Osama bin Laden was apprehended this morning after villagers turned him in to local police. The villagers collected the $50 million reward and then fled their country in ski masks, not wanting anyone to know their identities.”

Or, “Osama bin Laden was captured this morning after villagers tipped off local police. One of the villagers, Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed, told reporters: ‘This man sullied the name of Islam, a religion of mercy and compassion. There is a special place in hell for him. I will dance on his grave…'”

While Friedman’s suggestion may seem to some to be too clever by half, I actually think it has some merit following the successful elections in Afghanistan and now Iraq. In the context of Middle Eastern cultures — which take far more seriously than ours the giving and receipt of personal insults and are almost as concerned as the Japanese about “face” — it would be seen as a deliberate, calculated insult and a loss of face for the terrorist masterminds. It would also show who is the “strong horse” and who is the “weak horse,” to turn bin Ladens’s phrase against him. In that regard, it should be noted that it was similar logic that motivated Ariel Sharon to crack down on Palestinian terrorists in Gaza at the same time he pushed through the Knesset the removal of Israeli settlements in Gaza. It was widely commented on that Sharon did that to send the Palestinians the clear message, “Israel is withdrawing from Gaza for its own reasons, not because you forced us to.”

Here’s how I would modify Friedman’s basic idea if I were the President. I’d announce that the rewards offered were being reduced to a much more modest, but still attractive, amount (say, something between $10,000 and $25,000). Such an amount would be equivalent to that for a garden variety murderer in the U.S. but still a big inducement for tipsters in those impoverished countries, while still clearly communicating the calculated insult that Friedman intends. Furthermore, I would say that the reason the U.S. is taking such a step is that the successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly demonstrate that the peoples of those countries are well on the way to responsible self-government, that neither terrorist leader has any meaningful support left in either nation, and that the vast majority of Afghans and Iraqis understand that they need to get rid of those guys if they want to build free, secure and prosperous societies. Of course, we will continue to work with the Afghan and Iraqi governments and our other allies (Coalition partners, Pakistan, etc.) to hunt them down, but doing so is now a “mopping-up” operation.

The other, and bigger, quibble I have with Friedman is that I don’t think there is much value to his idea (not excerpted above — see linked full version) of reprogramming the money into some kind of Arab scholarship fund.

Remember, some of the top terrorists, including a number of the 9/11 hijackers, have (or had) wealthy, western educated backgrounds and established their key cells in the U.S. and Western European countries. I think the better approach would be to announce that the funds will be redirected to a couple of major, high-profile infrastructure/reconstruction projects in those countries (I’m thinking power plants, water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, etc.) that the “masses” will benefit from, and I would publicly identify where and what they will be — effectively daring the terrorists to stop us from building them. Given their egos, that would either drive them to attack those sites (where, of course, we would position troops and armor to deal with them), or force then to accept further humiliation by effectively conceding that they can’t stop us from going ahead.

Another aspect of the PR effect would be that such projects would be a kind of “reward” to the common people of those countries who have suffered from the terrorist depredations, and a “thank you” for seizing the opportunity for self-government that our troops have provided them.

Thus, we could simultaneously insult the terrorists and reward and flatter those who braved the terrorists to vote in the Afghan and Iraqi elections. Kind of a “two-fer” and the sort of thing the State Department calls “public diplomacy.” How about it Mr. President? Madame Secretary?

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