Posted by: sean | January 6, 2010

When is a failure a success?

Matt Duss has noted here and here Republicans’ efforts to score the failed attack by the so-called underpants bomber sent by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula as a success for their own political ends. Spencer Ackerman makes a similar point here, labeling Obama’s use of the word “attack” as “Derridean,” implying that Obama is saying that near is just as far as far.

My friend Elias has addressed the idea that we can’t really judge AQAP’s capabilities on the basis of a single failed attack, since it’s likely that had things gone a little differently, many commentators would be making the exact opposite point (see Ackerman’s response and Elias’s response to that).

On this last point, I totally agree with Elias, both that Al-Qaida (as a whole) has gotten weaker since 2001 and that we shouldn’t base that assessment on the failed Christmas attack. The point I’d like to make, though, is that the Al-Qaida that did 9/11 and is hiding somewhere in North Waziristan and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, while affiliated, are not the same organization. As such, it’s not very helpful to lump them together when talking about their capabilities or even their strategies.

So back to my point about whether this attack was a success or a failure, I think Duss is right that Republicans are touting success for their own cynical reasons, but in all fairness, I can think of a few reasons why the whole thing could be net gain for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula:

  1. It shows reach for an organization that until now had only acted regionally.
  2. Along with the failed attempt on Bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia, it shows that the organization that was nearly eradicated back in 2003 has been rejuvenated enough to attempt more and more ambitious attacks.
  3. It is likely to goad Washington into more drone attacks, which are as unpopular in Yemen as they are in Pakistan.
  4. It is likely to push the US into seeing Yemen even more through a counter-terrorism lens, which will likely mean more US support for Saleh, further weakening what little power and legitimacy the government has left in a country that is facing state failure on at least two if not more fronts.

Obviously, the attack would have been more successful for AQAP had it, well, succeeded, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a net loss for them, or a net gain for the US for that matter. Ackerman may call that “Derridean,” but I don’t think it’s really parsing words or being post-modernly abstruse to say that even while failing tactically, it’s possible for a group like AQAP to have some success (if only limited) strategically. After all, we even have an accepted term based on historical precedent for the converse situation, a tactical success that is strategic failure. Or maybe Plutarch was just the very first postmodernist.



  1. […] Sean picks up the thread of the now Derridean debate on how we should interpret the panty bomber episode. […]

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