Know Thine Enemy

Understanding why your enemy hates you seems to be an important thing, but some people would rather believe in caricatures.

Commenting on many of the email responses that he’s received to a post he wrote that was highly critical of Ron Paul’s foreign policy positions, Commentary’s Peter Wehner makes the following comment:

Most of the e-mails I received, apart from being ad hominem and witless, argued I was wrong to say American “occupation” of Islamic countries couldn’t have been the triggering event for al-Qaeda’s attacks. I wrote, “There was no ‘occupation’ to ground jihadist hate in. We did have a presence in Saudi Arabia, but that hardly qualified as an ‘occupation.'” To which Paul’s supporters replied: We did too occupy Saudi Arabia! And who is the individual they cite as their source on the matter? Why, Osama bin Laden, of course. He insisted it was an occupation, so it was. Q.E.D.


No reasonable person could argue America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s qualified as an “occupation” or, to use Paul’s words, “our invasion
of their land.” That bin Laden and his jihadist allies viewed it as such doesn’t make it so. And for Paul’s supporters to accept bin Laden’s bizarre and twisted interpretation of events as reality tells you just about everything you need to know about them, and about Ron Paul.

The problem with Wehner’s comment is that he isn’t understanding this issue from the point of view of the people that were inspired by al Qaeda to fly airplanes into buildings. They had a very different view of the American military presence in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm and afterwards. It was Osama bin Laden’s public statements against the American presence in the Kingdom that finally got him banished from the country, and started him on the road to war against the United States. The American presence in Saudi Arabia, even though it ended long ago, was mentioned repeatedly in the various fatwa’s and propaganda tapes put out by al Qaeda in the years preceding the September 11th attacks.

I bring this up not to justify the September 11th attacks, they were an act of mass murder for which they is no justification, nor because I agree that the American presence in Saudi Arabia was in any sense of the word an “occupation.” I bring it up because it strikes me that it’s important to understand what motivates ones enemy, even if you disagree with it. The delicate position that an American military presence put the Saud family in was well known by all sides when it started, and there were plenty of measures taken during the time American troops were there to minimize the offense that some might take to the presence of American troops, especially female soldiers. The fact that it led radicalized Muslims to become even more radical shouldn’t be too surprising, really.

The wisdom of understanding your enemy, what motivates him, and why he is your enemy is as old as Sun-Tzu. Wehner seems to think that it’s better to live in ignorance and simply assume that the Islamic radicals are evil, irrational monsters. That hasn’t gotten us anywhere over the past ten years.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Islam, National Security, Religion, Terrorism
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James Joyner says:

    My problem with all of this is what to do about it. American troops went into Saudi Arabia in 1990 to defend Saudi Arabia against an anticipated invasion by the vastly superior Iraqi army. They remained afterwards at the invitation of the Saudi government.

    Understanding that some nutbags were outraged by the presence of infidels so near the holy sites of Islam is interesting academically. But how far do we go in altering our policy choices around the desires of nutbags?

  2. Fog says:

    Doug, trying to understand an enemy is to humanize them, and the first rule of war propaganda is to do the exact opposite.

  3. @James Joyner:

    Understanding that some nutbags were outraged by the presence of infidels so near the holy sites of Islam is interesting academically. But how far do we go in altering our policy choices around the desires of nutbags?

    In that particular case, I’m not sure that it does any good. Desert Shield was an appropriate response to an act of unprovoked aggression, the first such major act in what was becoming the post Cold War world. And the Saudi’s wanted us there.

    The general principle of understanding how our actions might be viewed by others, though, is something that seems worth keeping in mind.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    The troops on the peninsula (which date back to Truman) is merely a superficial claim of Western occupation. Al-Quaeda’s ideology, common with similar groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, going back a hundred years sees Western penetration of Muslim culture and it’s weakening and decay at all levels of society.

    On a related note, this ideology believes that the United States was committed to genocide in Bosnia because it was too slow to intervene.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    You’ve got to be very, very patient. I’ve been sitting on the bank of the river for a very long time and I still haven’t seen my enemies’ bodies floating by.

  6. Boyd says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Doug, you seem to imply that we didn’t consider or understand how our actions might be viewed by Islamic extremists. I don’t think you have anything that supports that position, though.

    On the other hand, those of us with experience in Desert Shield/Storm understand very well that we considered, at many levels and across much time, how the US’s actions would affect people in the region, including civilian government leaders (and royalty), military leaders, the “common man” in the street and the wild-eyed fanatics.

    In other words, if I’m right that you’re implying the US didn’t do what you say we should do, you’re flat-out wrong. If that’s not what you’re implying, I don’t understand your point behind this post.

  7. @James Joyner:

    Understanding that some nutbags were outraged by the presence of infidels so near the holy sites of Islam is interesting academically.

    A perfect example of Doug’s point. Opposition to US involvement in the middle east is widespread in those societies. It’s easy to glibly dismiss the complaints as nutbags, but by doing so you are arguing that 60-70% of the people in those socities are nutbags. Or you can deal with the fact large numbers of perfectly normal people from the Middle East don’t want us there, whatever the Saudi Royal Family thinks about it.

    But how far do we go in altering our policy choices around the desires of nutbags?

    More accurately, how far do we go when the supposed beneficiaries of those policies are deliberately inflaming their populations against us in order to distract from domestic problems?

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    And, in addition, with state-controlled media in those countries our ability to influence opinion is quite limited.

  9. Scott O. says:

    @James Joyner:

    American troops went into Saudi Arabia in 1990 to defend Saudi Arabia against an anticipated invasion by the vastly superior Iraqi army.

    That’s what we were told. I’ve since heard that it may have been an exaggeration if not outright fabrication.

  10. Jay Tea says:

    To add to James’ point, the “occupation” ended when Saudi Arabia asked us to leave — and we did.

    But there’s a principle here that some folks seem to be missing, and I heard it summed up in a very pithy way:

    “You can’t reason someone out of a position that they didn’t get into through reason.”

    Understanding the motivations of irrational people is NOT the same as catering to their delusions. It’s sometimes essential to figuring out how to deal with them. To use a ludicrous example, if they say that they have to kill you because Mr. Blinky, the demon who sits on their right shoulder, is controlling them, then the immediate threat might be resolved by shooting or stabbing over their right shoulder and “killing” Mr. Blinky. Alternately, patiently telling them that there is no Mr. Blinky doesn’t do much about the chainsaw they’re swinging at you.


  11. bains says:

    Doug, while I agree with your overall point, there are a couple of items worthy of drawing out.

    One, a shrewd political operative will latch onto something that can be used to motivate their less informed ‘constituency’. Bin Laden knew that US forces were not occupying Saudi Arabia (and in fact, understood the nuanced reality); he also knew that he could animate his to be supporters by claiming US occupation. His expulsion from SA only played into this meme. He knew not only his enemy, but he also knew how malleable his supporters would be given the right caricature construct.

    Two, this is not a new phenomena; it has been used in virtually all conflicts in time immemorial – from domestic disputes to neighborhood quarrels to sports rivalries to politics at all levels to international conflicts. Create a caricature upon which you can affix nefarious motives to persuade your passionate but poorly informed supporters of your righteousness in fighting for (yours really but) their adopted cause. Manufactured outrage in some instances, but almost always emotionally amplified.

    I understand you are chiding Wehner for what you see as his caricature construction, but it is something we all do. It is particularly evident in the comment section of all respectable publications, and on the front pages of many ostensibly non-partisan ones.

    And it is the most serious impediment to real conflict resolution.

  12. bains says:

    To demonstrate my point consider this from @michael reynolds:

    Republicans have a sick relationship with guns. It is a mental disorder, and that’s not exaggeration.

    On its face hyperbole, but its effectiveness is based upon a long held caricature construct that has been very useful to the left for years. As with what you see as Wehner’s construct, michael wants the debate framed in terms of that caricature – the crazed gun nut Republican – rather than address the real concerns of his opponents.

    And as I said above, everyone does this.

  13. anjin-san says:

    But how far do we go in altering our policy choices around the desires of nutbags?

    People who do not agree with our aims are automatically “nutbags”?

    I wonder how Americans would react to any foreign troops being on our soil under any circumstances. With extreme prejudice, I expect.

    Frankly James, you sound like a narrow minded jerk here. From our point of view, a presence in Saudi Arabia was a reasonable action. Our point of view is not the only one in the world that has validity.

    There is a very tiny percentage of Muslims that have declared war on us. It is unfortunate, but we can show these folks no quarter. As a society, we really need to put a little more effort into understand the motivations and views of the billion or so Muslims we are not at war with. Unless of course, we want to end up fighting most or all of them.