Thinking Outside the Tank

Thinking Outside the Tank

Mini Teaser: Policy is only as strong as the thinking behind it. We need new ideas--and institutions--to win the war on terrorism.

by Author(s): Steven N. SimonJonathan Stevenson

THE AGE OF sacred terror dawned on September 11, 2001.1 Yet the United States still has no satisfactory grand strategy for neutralizing a stateless, religiously inspired network of militants who seek to bring down great powers by acts of apocalyptic destruction. Instead, current policy thinking cleaves towards two extreme positions--one morally and politically unpalatable and the other risky and destructive.

The first, premised on the belief that it is too late to fine-tune the policies that have alienated Muslims, involves the abject capitulation of the United States to the implicit demands of Bin Ladenism. The United States would abandon Israel, jettison its strategic relationships with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and forsake its leverage and standing in the Arab world. The second envisages a full-scale Western mobilization against transnational Islamist terrorism--a total war on terror. Under this scenario, the West's intelligence, law-enforcement and military assets would be brought to bear against any actual or potential terrorist strongholds or supporters. Meanwhile, Muslim governments would bandwagon operationally and politically behind a hegemonic America. The former would amount to negotiating with terrorists, and indeed yielding them victory. The latter would amount to furnishing Osama bin Laden, at prohibitively high risk, with precisely the violent "clash of civilizations" that is integral to his apocalyptic eschatology.

Both positions are admittedly caricatures of viewpoints that are not quite so unsubtle. But the larger point is that post-9/11 strategic thinking has not found a realist middle ground. Nowadays the working premise of strategy, whether capitulatory or confrontational, is that talking to Muslims is essentially futile--that they must be either appeased or dominated. The West is hardly so intellectually barren as to be left to such crude and unsatisfactory dispensations. The trans-Atlantic pragmatism that successfully steered grand strategy through the Cold War ought to hold more nuanced answers--a "third way" through which the United States can both honor its commitments and strike an accommodation with Islam sufficient to marginalize Bin Laden and his followers. That is the core challenge of terrorism."

Yet government agencies have their hands full just keeping terrorists at bay. In the rush of operations, they are not empowered or practically able to take a fully balanced strategic view or, in most cases, to look far into the future. The Bush Administration's Middle East Partnership Initiative, its repackaging of Helsinki process programs, and the Djerejian panel's study highlighting the need for more robust public diplomacy in the Muslim world point tentatively in the right direction. But they also reflect an approach to defining and tackling terrorism's root causes and attenuating terrorist motivations that is interstitial rather than systemic. The integrity of State Department policy planning--which was formidable under George Kennan and Paul Nitze during the Cold War and later under Dennis Ross in anticipating early post-Cold War challenges--has proven extremely difficult to maintain against the relentless day-today demands of foreign relations and crisis management.

These became even more varied and complicated in the 1990s. Moreover, those who have executed U.S. foreign policy have usually had little time for internal or external analysts. "Occasionally an outsider may provide perspective", Henry Kissinger has noted, "[but] almost never does he have enough knowledge to advise soundly on tactical moves."2 The Defense Department has an important policy-planning role in determining the size and makeup of military forces, as well as their roles and missions, but this does not extend to subtler inquiries about terrorist threats, motivations and ideology. The National Security Council is charged primarily with coordinating rather than formulating policy, and during the Clinton Administration, its "strategic planning" unit was essentially a speechwriting office. The CIA's remit is to inform rather than devise policy. And while the National Intelligence Council forecasts problems authoritatively, it does not offer remedies.

IN LIGHT of these gaps in the government's intellectual capabilities, it might be tempting to invest confidence in the ability of American institutions of higher learning to meet the intellectual requirements of a new strategic epoch. After all, the nexus between the federal government and academia began in earnest in World War II and momentously demonstrated its efficacy with the Manhattan Project. University professors readily became veritable intellectual soldiers in a cause behind which there was broad intellectual consensus. Today, however, the discipline of Middle Eastern studies--as well as the broader academic sphere of political science--has become so politicized and polarized as to render the academic establishment incapable of channeling the efforts of its constituents into a cohesive intellectual mobilization in the interest of national security.

The Vietnam War as well as the Church Committee's revelations of intelligence excesses made many academics wary of working on national security issues for the U.S. government. New intellectual trends spurred by the 1960s' philosophical ferment, particularly in Paris, reached this side of the Atlantic. "Post-colonial" studies and gender studies triggered by the feminist movement crystallized wariness into opposition. Deconstructionists, in their scorn for purported objectivity and value-free judgments, contributed to a broadly subversive mindset. An institutionalized academic refusal to perpetuate Western (particularly American) hegemony, and a commitment to "using the father's tools to dismantle the father's house" emerged on campuses. To undermine authority became the aim of scholarship. None of the social sciences or humanities was immune to this dimension of the zeitgeist. Notwithstanding compelling reasons for opposing Soviet communism and expansion, an ideological perspective developed that minimized Soviet (and other) transgressions and maligned Western civilization.

Those engaged in Middle Eastern studies were disposed to target what they perceived to be pro-Israel, anti-Arab U.S. foreign policy. To give substance and amplitude to these criticisms, they interpreted the late Edward Said's powerful Orientalism thesis as attributing Islam's decline and humiliation to Western imperial policies and scholarship, and used that interpretation to justify Muslim victimology and rage.3 In its current entrenched maturity, this hostile attitude, in turn, has antagonized an academic minority inclined to promote U.S. national interests--in particular, neoconservatives. Now, spurred by the academy's failure to anticipate the September 11 attacks, tough critics such as Martin Kramer, Stanley Kurtz, Daniel Pipes and Stephen Schwartz rail like 19th-century pamphleteers against "apologists" for radical Islam and related political violence like Joel Beinin and Richard Bulliet.4 Dismayed by what they regard as reactionary shortsightedness, they rail back, often denigrating their adversaries' scholarship. In the acrimonious dialogue now under way, while both sides have scored debating points, the War on Terror has further politicized--and therefore poisoned--the discussion. Scholars are now farther than ever from furnishing creative analytical support to policymakers.

The sad fact is that American Middle East experts have made precious few contributions of lasting value to U.S. policymaking over the course of a generation. A conspicuous exception is William Quandt's important role, as member of President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council staff, in formulating the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, but the very singularity of that example serves to underline academia's broader futility. Now academic divisiveness has precluded a consensual and analytically sound assessment of Middle East and Islamic issues. Most American Middle East scholars would view involvement in formulating any U.S. strategy for confronting the ideological challenge of militant Islam as perpetuating a pernicious Western effort to control a justifiably unruly region. Yet employing their reactionary rivals would risk lending new credence to the Orientalist thesis. Stronger official oversight of government-funded academic research would only conjure fears of "thought police." And selectively enlisting those few academics, among them Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis, who did not downplay the dangers posed by Bin Laden before 9/11 would lack credibility owing to their association with the ideological stances of senior members of the Bush Administration.

In short, academia's civil war is not amenable to expeditious resolution. And the government needs answers for the long war it faces. In February, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Margaret Tutwiler, who served in the first Bush Administration, soberly testified before the House and Senate that "it will take us many years of hard, focused work" to restore America's deteriorating image and standing in the Muslim world. Islamic and Middle East studies are now too important to leave to academics.

DURING THE Cold War, the federal government realized it needed help to cope with the Soviet threat. This prompted a massive intellectual mobilization that paralleled the immense restructuring of the national security architecture. Among the most important elements of that mobilization was the rise of the "think tanks"--that is, independent research institutions that could contemplate and analyze the ramifications of nascent government strategies that government officials had their hands full merely to implement, in many cases devising new strategies wholesale and determining how to apply them.

Spurred by the recognition that America's intellectuals were national-security assets, Project RAND began in 1945 as part of the Douglas Aircraft Company--at the prompting of General "Hap" Arnold and other U.S. officials--to facilitate teamwork among the military, civilian government agencies, industry and the academic community through research and development. In 1948, aided by a $1 million Ford Foundation grant, Project RAND was transformed into an independent non-profit research institution--the RAND Corporation. Located in Santa Monica, California, away from the bustle and diversions of Washington, RAND attracted towering intellects like Herman Kahn, Albert Wohlstetter, Thomas C. Schelling, Bernard Brodie and William Kaufmann. Their energy, dynamism, inter-disciplinary sensibility and constructive iconoclasm are the paramount qualities that think tanks seeking to deal with the problems of transnational Islamist terrorism should engender.

And new approaches are needed. Better salesmanship of U.S. policies vis-a-vis the Islamic world will ultimately be unavailing if they are not firmly grounded in a detailed understanding of the full range of Islamic thinking and belief systems across different sects, nationalities, ethnicities, tribes, genders and occupations. Only comprehension at this deeper level will yield workable means of influencing Muslims to substantial strategic effect. Charlotte Beers--a former advertising executive and Tutwiler's predecessor, tasked in late 2001 to promote American values to Muslims--devised several naively perky advertisements featuring American Muslims extolling U.S. multicultural tolerance. The ads themselves were a public-relations disaster and have been ridiculed with some justification by Muslims and Westerners alike. Lost in the orgy of derision, though, was the fact Beers was given an impossible job. With no coherent U.S. strategic policy for striking a better accommodation with Islam, even a more nuanced and better calibrated campaign would have been unable to outflank Al-Qaeda. When one such revision was attempted, it portrayed women in hijabs shopping in a supermarket, thereby validating a particularly conservative yet scarcely universal Islamic practice.

Post-9/11 U.S. grand strategy is still inchoate. The challenge of ripening and refining it would best be handled wholesale rather than piecemeal. Bold new government solutions are now required to fashion intellectual incubators for the kind of leading-edge analysis--unencumbered by distracting ideological feuds--that the government nurtured during the "golden age" of strategy in the 1950s. The objective: a U.S.-led strategic victory over a globalized Islamist insurgency, animated by a complex and compelling ideology and fueled by manifold grievances.

Several salient observations can be made at the outset. As think tanks like RAND became integrated into the U.S. national security establishment during the Cold War, they became increasingly bound by intellectual and bureaucratic strictures. The routinization of deterrence and progressive emphasis on procurement during the Cold War diminished the marginal utility of the bold creativity that emerged from RAND in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, early in the Cold War, RAND had no real private-sector competition because think tanks were new. Competition from military institutions was also thin: Since experience with nuclear weapons was so sparse, military strategists enjoyed no comparative advantage over civilian ones. But as more think tanks sprouted up and were forced to clamor for government contracts, each institution had to focus more tightly on more immediate priorities, to tailor output to very specific contract requirements, and to account precisely for every nickel spent. They became micromanaged. Because they could retain people only for existing or proposed contracts--or out of their own revenue--think tanks could develop intellectual capital and effectively stockpile it only with some difficulty.

RAND analysts like Bruce Hoffman and Brian Jenkins did, to be sure, perform top-notch analyses of terrorist threats well before 9/11. But government interest in this work was too sporadic to keep it well funded, and it was supported out of RAND's own pocket or as a distinctly subsidiary aspect of Pentagon-funded studies of "low-intensity conflict." Other American think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute had also produced estimable research. But many of them subtly changed character, moving away from non-partisan research towards something more akin to considered political advocacy--an evolution that reflected their natural utility as "holding pens" for former officials awaiting another turn in government after a change in administration.

Nevertheless, plenty of analysts at extant institutions are capable of the kind of freewheeling thinking that occurred early in the Cold War. It still falls to their clients--generally the U.S. government--to provide the wherewithal needed to unleash their minds to hatch a truly grand strategy. Any argument that hard security priorities make the associated costs prohibitive is dubious. For example, Congress has authorized substantial federal funding for "centers of academic excellence" for homeland security. No doubt these are potentially valuable proving grounds for ideas that will counter threats to U.S. critical infrastructure. But they are not more important than formulating new government policies designed to understand and diminish the very sources of those threats.

WHAT IS needed to bridge the epistemological gap between the outside analytic world and government agencies is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC)--whose employees generally have some level of government clearance and access to classified information as well as government officials--rather than a wholly independent think tank. This characteristic would ensure both the applicability of the analysis to the problems of the analysts' clients and the bureaucratic capacity of the analysts to explain their ideas to those who implement policy. Ties between the think tank and the federal government would not be so cozy as to inhibit "outside the box" thinking. That capacity would be preserved by a purposefully expansive mandate and the kind of flexible budgeting that prevailed at RAND in the early days of Air Force Project, but has long since eroded. The U.S. government need not reinvent the wheel. Since there already exists an array of competent FFRDCs, the most expeditious solution would be for the government to change its funding practices so that a certain nucleus of counter-terrorism researchers in one or more extant FFRDCs were given that kind of expansive mandate. The alternative would be for the government to fund an entirely new think tank, dedicated to formulating a counterterrorism grand strategy.

On the more strictly technological side of government policymaking, the success of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in anticipating future military requirements and generating supporting research proves that a government-sponsored institution, given sufficiently broad operating parameters, can both think outside the box and serve the practical needs of its "clients." The vast majority of DARPA's work, of course, is in the relatively arcane arena of engineering. In contrast, a new think tank would be charged with refining precisely the sorts of concepts that generate media interest, public attention and congressional scrutiny. On the rare occasions when DARPA has ventured into such conspicuous and politically sensitive territory, its inventive take on policy has not fared well. Two potent recent examples in the counter-terrorism area are the Total Information Awareness (TIA) data-mining program and the terrorism "futures market" designed to collect and sift information about terrorist risks. Both met with public consternation and were suspended by Congress. Oversensitivity to public opinion would defeat the purpose of the new arrangement. But to avoid the difficulties that DARPA has experienced, the institution in question would need a dedicated external relations department to vet new ideas and articulate them clearly for public consumption.

YET A NEW analytic architecture is not enough. There must also be a pool of intellectuals and leaders in government service able to act. The Achesons, the Byrneses, the Dulleses, the Forrestals and their like had come of age and learned about international relations during the Second World War. They studied history as well as experiencing it firsthand, and though largely men of privilege, were imbued with a strong sense of public duty. Their ready assumption of that duty taught them how to navigate the federal system--how to win friends and influence people. The seismic geopolitical changes that occurred in 1939-45, the instant revolution in military affairs visited by the atom bomb, and the national mobilization already in place as the war ended made it easier for those "present at the creation" to hit the ground running. The upshot was a cadre of leaders who put grand strategy into practice.

Where is the foreign policy intelligentsia now? Like the truth itself, they may be out there somewhere, but they have not coalesced into an identifiable group. This shortfall in the nation's intellectual capacity only compounds the disadvantages posed by the dysfunction of Middle East studies. Part of the problem is the increasingly ahistorical and provincial mindset of recent generations of American students. According to a 2003 American Historical Association study, although the number of history majors in American undergraduate programs began to rise in 1998 after years of shrinkage, the number of graduate-level history students has continued to contract. Moreover, the study noted the parochial tendencies of American history students, pointing out that "history graduate programs at all types of institutions are prone to ignore large areas of the world in their course offerings. More than half of the history graduate programs do not offer graduate-level courses in fields outside of the United States and Europe." In an epoch proclaimed "the end of history", in which profit-maximizing has been elevated over public duty, this bias may be understandable. But since 9/11, when Islamic civilization became a central strategic concern, it has hardly been salutary.

Moreover, the toxic rifts that have arisen in Middle East studies over Orientalism and U.S. support for Israel have also disinclined students to take on Middle Eastern history in particular. "Why spend my career being abused?" they ask, and decide to study, say, China instead. The horror of 9/11 and the gathering recognition of the acute relevance of history to managing the problem of religious terrorism may move increasing numbers of young intellectuals to study world history and correct the imbalance. But even those who were immediately inspired by the crumbling of the Twin Towers will not be ready for action until they finish school and intellectually mature, several years down the road. This reality only amplifies the importance of having institutionalized arrangements in place, overseen by Congress, that give young scholars a functional alternative to embattled academia when they are ready.

Their challenge will be very different than that of the 1950s. The first nuclear age catered to distinctly American intellectual predilections: an orientation towards the future, an urge to dominate it through superior energy and focus, and faith in technological progress and the capacity of the capitalist system to produce it. These strong suits are surely assets in the campaign against terrorism. But the absence of a cohesive and hierarchical adversary state and the asymmetric aspect of terrorists' tactics make them a very different, and on balance more complicated, foe than the Soviet Union. The Soviets' strategic mindset resembled that of the Americans insofar as both aimed for international ideological primacy. The Manichean nature of the conflict for both the United States and the Soviet Union simulated a zero-sum game, in which there was ultimately room for only one system.

The leadership of Al-Qaeda may more closely resemble the Soviet politburo than it might first appear. As a secular religion, Marxism-Leninism was probably as potent and as absolute as Bin Laden's militant brand of Wahhabism. But the compulsion of preserving the state stabilized U.S.-Soviet relations. Thus, during most of the Cold War, both sides were more or less satisfied with nuclear parity, and mutual deterrence made nuclear weapons unlikely warfighting tools. By contrast, Al-Qaeda's leadership appears to view them as prime tools of religious deliverance.5 Furthermore, today's threat from a flat network of non-state actors is far more heterogeneous than the highly centralized, state-controlled Soviet threat.

Given that academic hostility to the American strategic enterprise developed even in the presence of the Soviet Union's straightforward enmity, the more complex character of the Islamist threat suggests that even less should be expected from the academy now than during the Cold War. This consideration makes a more fruitful relationship between the government and think tanks all the more important. But the intellectual makeup of any elite group of strategists now would be substantively quite different from that of its Cold War antecedent.

While the rational-choice theory pioneered at RAND in the 1950s--often criticized as insufficiently historical and empirical--will have a role to play, historical methods of analysis will be more important in determining the intellectual warp of a current band of "new stream thinkers." And despite America's preoccupation with religion, our religious passions usually stop at the water's edge. Faith-based diplomacy is not America's thing, and thus far we have been ill prepared to engage in a debate with others committed to a different faith, especially Islam. Although regional experts will be important, the new strategists' approach will also have to avoid artificially chopping up Islam into regions of greater or lesser concern--for example, the Persian Gulf versus sub-Saharan Africa. This tendency is generally unsuited to the permeating and global nature of the current terrorist threat, and in particular has led to the neglect of potentially significant threats emanating from countries like Nigeria. So there will be considerable demand for experts on Islam as a whole and for sociologists of religion. Development economists will have to apply their knowledge particularly to the Middle East, whose oil-based economies have hindered balanced development and stalled their broad integration into the world economic system. Political scientists will be needed to determine how to transform authoritarian regimes that have alienated Muslim populations and moved them to look to Bin Laden for leadership into more participatory systems.

THE CENTRAL issue of deterrence will admit of less elegant solutions in the age of sacred terror than it did during the Cold War. But if it is a messy problem, no worthy research cadre will be able to dismiss the possibility of deterrence even in the face of a seemingly non-deterrable enemy. In spite of the religiously absolute imperatives laid down by Al-Qaeda's leadership, the highly dispersed and pragmatic character of the transnational Islamist terrorist network means that terrorists' religious and political intensity and tactical mindsets are highly variable. Like more manageable "old" terrorist groups, the network anchored by Al-Qaeda encompasses professional terrorists and wavering fellow-travelers as well as maniacal true-believers. Thus, it would be a mistake to cast all transnational Islamist terrorists and even most of their more peripheral supporters as impervious to political and tactical influence.6

Indeed, there may be useful distinctions to be made even within the hardcore category. For some Muslim terrorists, weapons of mass destruction are indispensable instruments of eschatology. For others, however, they seem to be merely prime warfighting assets, useful in compensating for the conventional military disparity between Western militaries and terrorists with no state apparatus. Terrorists in the first category are liable to use WMD as soon as they have them. But those in the latter group, though also willing to sacrifice their lives, would be more inclined to weigh the political, economic and tactical tradeoffs that crossing that threshold would entail.

In addition to developing the substance of U.S. strategy, think tanks during the Cold War made themselves useful as off-the-record venues for gathering people whose meeting and discussing certain subjects (for instance, nuclear surprise attack) would have been too politically sensitive for governments themselves to arrange. Likewise, those institutions dedicated to addressing transnational Islamist terrorism could serve as clearinghouses for frank exchanges between Muslim and Western analysts about, say, pathways towards political reform in the Muslim world. Indeed, a think tank strategizing for the age of sacred terror would be well-nigh obliged to venture deeply into intellectual milieus outside the United States (let alone the Beltway) in which overtly official teams might not feel terribly comfortable--for example, Paris, where some of the most probing thinking on Muslim extremism and counter-terrorism is underway.

Fashioning a comprehensive counter-terrorism policy, then, will require experts on a highly complex Muslim world to identify who falls into what categories, and operational analysts in the mold of the great nuclear strategists of yore to formulate non-proliferation and deterrence strategies for handling different varieties of terrorists. The key structural attributes of the new elite, however, will be similar to those of the old ones: its removal from the day-to-day demands of policy implementation and its exclusive mission, which would be sufficiently broad to accommodate the kind of originality, and experimentation that marked the pioneering efforts in the 1950s and 1960s and made holistic sense out of disparate analyses.

THE GREAT Cold War strategists were all about thinking outside the box, in a structured yet liberating environment, in order to ameliorate new strategic problems. Their main accomplishment was the avoidance of nuclear war over the course of a forty-year confrontation. It was the product of an evolving vision of American foreign policy that tied short-term actions to long-term results--that is, tactics to strategy. The methodology and substance of those strategists' solutions were very different from what is required now. But the need for policy-level linkage of tactics to strategy remains, and it is impossible to meet unless the strategy is formulated first.

The mission of the institutions chosen or created to get the funding would be to help develop that strategy for the global campaign against terrorism. It is hard to overstate the importance of doing so. Al-Qaeda and its followers lack the brute military strength of the Axis powers, but their potential political appeal is far wider, extending to an entire culture. At least in terms of the mobilization required of the United States and its partners, we are indeed at war. To work, any strategy must call on all of the instruments of American power--hard and especially soft power, the assets of both the government and the private sector. Any think tank charged with building that strategy would constitute the leading edge of that effort, and, most importantly, determine its direction.

1 See Daniel Benjamin & Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror (New York: Random House, 2002).

2 Henry A. Kissinger, The White House Years (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 39.

3 See Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (New York: Pantheon, 1979). For an acknowledgement of the influence of Said's thesis as well as a withering critique of that thesis, see Keith Windschuttle, "Edward Said's Orientalism Revisited", The New Criterion (January 1999).

4 Representative works for each side include, respectively, Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001); and Joel Beinin, "The Israelization of American Foreign Policy Discourse", Social Text (Summer 2003).

5 See Steven Simon, "The New Terrorism: Securing the Nation Against a Messianic Foe", The Brookings Review (Winter 2003).

6 RAND analysts have made this point. See Symposium: Diagnosing Al Qaeda, August 18, 2003 (; and Paul K. Davis and Brian Michael Jenkins, "The Influence Component of Counterterrorism", RAND Review (Spring 2003).

Steven Simon is senior analyst at the RAND Corporation and co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror (2002). Jonathan Stevenson is senior fellow for counter-terrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and is writing a book about strategic thinking on apocalyptic outcomes.

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