A Strategy for the Age of Trump

Trump holds a rally with supporters in an arena in Youngstown, Ohio

To succeed, Trump needs to retool the national-security apparatus, shaking up its turf-obsessed, risk-averse culture while sharpening its tradecraft.

September-October 2017

At the core of any strategy to defeat a seditious ideological movement is the need to impose a suffocating sense of futility. The rise of a self-proclaimed Islamic State, appropriating territory and resources, requires two sets of responses, both of which the administration has put in motion. The first is a decisive military operation to deny the group any territory from which it can plan and stage international terrorist operations. The second is a diplomatic collaboration of willing Arab and Muslim countries, supported by others, in a social and informational campaign to blunt ISIS’s ability to project itself as a viable entity. It will be difficult, but is necessary, for affected countries to engage families, religious authorities and children in social programs to inoculate their youth, including the very young, against the appeal of extremism. Respected figures in these societies must stigmatize the participation of any family member in murderous activities, making clear, as non-Muslims cannot, that the narratives of Islamist terrorist groups go against the true teachings of Islam and are offensive to their religion. Only when these communities regard anyone joining a terrorist movement as a person of inferior character and upbringing will the lure of terrorist appeals be blunted.

ISIS is not the first entity to claim sovereignty and, at the same time, propound a borderless “caliphate” based on a novel interpretation of Islam. The fusion of imputed religious authority with temporal political authority first appeared in the Islamic constitution imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Khomeini’s dictum that “the road to Jerusalem goes through Karbala” implied a territorial writ beyond the borders of his own country. The regime in Tehran, despite thirty-eight years in power, has languished in the lowest tiers of global metrics of governance and legitimacy while topping the chart of state sponsors of terrorism and per-capita executions. The crISIS of the Islamic world, and its destructive impact elsewhere, will not end until political legitimacy, nondiscrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and responsible religious order separate from sovereign politics are achieved.

The fourth strategic danger to a world hospitable to American values and interests is illicit commerce paired with state corruption, a compound problem that, to date, has been addressed by governments only in narrow, specialized terms. The interagency bureaucracy is studded with anemic and duplicative programs targeted variously against illicit trafficking in weapons, drugs, persons, blood diamonds, wildlife poaching, counterfeit currency and passports, missile and nuclear technologies, and other evasions of lawfully regulated global commerce. Officials in many governments are complicit in corruptly facilitating cross-border illicit commerce, which sustains transnational criminal and terrorist entities. It is high time for the United States, and all stakeholders in a well-functioning international order, to determine that these secretive trade arteries are interconnected, have a cumulative effect and must be comprehensively obstructed. Together, they constitute a growing cancer directly undermining many U.S. policies and programs around the world.

Good governance is a work in progress for every society. Transnational networks of banks, front companies and shippers smuggling all manner of contraband rob governments of revenues from taxation, and make it harder for developing countries to become competent stewards of their own national interests. Fragile and failing states offer a breeding ground for extremist ideologies. The Atlantic Council’s May 2017 Report of the Task Force on the Future of Iraq describes a pervasive corrupt system in which businesses and citizens must endure extortion demands from local officials, adding, “The humiliation that accompanies these routine interactions alienates citizens from state institutions that are supposed to serve them and renders the state increasingly vulnerable to instability and violence.”

The global illicit economy is a burden, not only on developing countries, but on the security and prosperity of the United States and its allies. “Ungoverned spaces” of the world constitute a void where bad actors forming alliances of convenience generate physical, cyber and economic threats. Following the 9/11 attacks, as the Bush administration focused on preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons, tens of thousands of U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed or wounded by easily obtainable conventional munitions. Humanitarian workers and peacekeeping forces are often unable to operate in conflict-scarred areas thanks to nonstate actors’ ready access to military-grade weaponry. The many separate U.S. and allied policy responses should now be fused into an overarching campaign to suppress the global illicit economy.