How to Fight Terrorism

How to Fight Terrorism

Mini Teaser: Radical Islam is its own worst enemy. It will marginalize itself unless the United States overreacts.

by Author(s): Daniel Byman

George Friedman, America's Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies (New York: Random House, 2004), 368 pp., $25.95.

Adam Garfinkle, ed., A Practical Guide to WInning the War on Terrorism (Stanford, CA: Hoover Press, 2004), 230 pp., $15.

Ray Takeyh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The Receding Shadow of the Prophet: The Rise and Fall of Radical Political Islam (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 187 pp., $24.95.

After overthrowing the Taliban and embarking on an impressive worldwide police and intelligence campaign against Al-Qaeda, there are no more obvious steps to take in the War on Terror. Unfortunately, though Al-Qaeda itself may be on the defensive, many observers believe the ideology it champions has become stronger since September 11. We continue to pour money into intelligence, homeland defense and the military, but this spending is primarily to defeat today's terrorist cells. More spies and better defenses do little to defeat a hostile ideology.

The United States needs to go beyond these traditional tools and develop a long-term strategy for defeating the ideological movement we face. Admittedly, we talk the talk. We can all agree with the 2003 White House National Strategy for Combating Terrorism that the United States must "win the 'war of ideas'", "support democratic values" and "promote economic freedom", and we can all endorse the 9/11 Commission's call for improving America's global appeal by correcting ignorant or distorted portrayals of the United States. But what do these proposals mean in practice? Is it truly possible to win the "hearts and minds" (or, more realistically, the minds) of citizens of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where those holding favorable opinions of the United States are as out of the mainstream as Nader voters in America? Even more difficult, how should the Bush Administration and its successors balance these efforts with other U.S. priorities? Is the jihadist threat uniquely existential, requiring the United States to bend its policy toward Iraq and Israel to meet this larger concern, or is it simply one danger among many?

Unfortunately, many books related to the War on Terror offer answers that are a soporific combination of soft analysis and weak policy recommendations. George Friedman's work typifies the rather pedestrian studies that have emerged in recent years. In contrast to the 9/11 Commission's definitive account of Al-Qaeda's emergence, the U.S. response, and the various intelligence failures, America's Secret War offers an anecdotal and often shallow review of several key events before and after September 11. For example, Friedman contends that the fundamental pre-September 11 weakness of U.S. intelligence was a lack of language skills and analysts. Although a real deficiency, the reader is left to imagine how more Arabic-speaking analysts would have uncovered the plot beyond Friedman's generic words about using logic and intuition. Similarly, he notes that "a civil war broke out in Saudi Arabia", engendered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq--an interesting contention, but one that dramatically overstates the scale of violence in the kingdom. Friedman also makes many statements that are simply wrong. For example, he contends that the Saudis only really discovered the Palestinian issue in 2002 and that Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan was risk free for him, both of which reflect a remarkable ignorance of the kingdom and its politics. (The comparison with F. Gregory Gause III's informed and subtle chapter on Saudi Arabia in A Practical Guide to Winning the War on Terrorism is worthwhile.) Making mistakes about Saudi Arabia is forgivable, as the ruling family is both secretive and enigmatic. Friedman, however, also embraces some bizarre theories about U.S. policy. Among other things, he contends that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was designed primarily to put pressure on Saudi Arabia--a revelation that both Washington and Riyadh would find surprising. Aside from such mistakes and simplifications, Friedman's work is frustrating because he provides neither references nor context for his controversial points, making them much less convincing than the 9/11 Commission's exhaustive study of a similar period.

Most painfully, Friedman dodges the hardest questions. He does not ask, for example, why there have been no follow-on terrorist attacks on the United States so far, or what measures the Bush Administration should take with regard to Iraq, despite focusing considerable attention on the day-to-day events related to the Iraq War and its aftermath. He offers no approach for soothing or overwhelming the rage felt in the Muslim world. Ironically, Friedman--the founder of Stratfor, which bills itself as "the world's leading private intelligence firm"--offers few predictions on the future of the great events he claims to chronicle.

Yet those looking for answers have some hope. Amid the flotsam and jetsam, sound works have floated to the surface, several of which take on unusual aspects of the struggle against Al-Qaeda and help advance our thinking. Two extremely different works that have appeared recently move us toward specifics with regard to the broader battle of ideas and the struggle for the Muslim world. The first, a volume edited by Adam Garfinkle, offers many insights into the public diplomacy challenges, as well as reviewing sources of terrorism, assessing key countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and describing emerging challenges for European and American Muslim communities. The second, a joint effort by Ray Takeyh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev entitled (a bit laboriously) The Receding Shadow of the Prophet: The Rise and Fall of Radical Political Islam, addresses how various Islamist movements have fared worldwide. The authors look not only at well-known Islamist hotbeds such as Egypt and Algeria, but also at the fate of Islamism in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union.

Neither work is perfect. Garfinkle's volume in particular suffers from a common weakness of edited volumes. Few of the chapters speak directly to the issues raised in the others, and there are some obvious gaps in subject matter. (Garfinkle himself notes that the book unfortunately lacks essays on Egypt or Afghanistan.) The chapters are also uneven in quality. Nevertheless, both works offer valuable insights on how to think about the struggle against terrorists, many of which go against what currently passes for wisdom on these subjects.

From these two books, a complex picture emerges. First, efforts to "win hearts and minds", or more prosaically, sell ourselves better in the Muslim world, face an exceptionally hard slog. Many of the problems are intractable, and in any event, massive changes in how public diplomacy is conducted are necessary if we are to have any success. Second, the long-term challenge (but not the immediate danger) of radical Islam may be overstated. Although terrorists linked to Bin Laden are likely to continue killing in large numbers, their cause is marred by the brutishness of their actions, the limited appeal of the overall ideology, and the Islamists' abysmal record in power.

Winning Hearts, Swaying Minds

One of the most difficult tasks in the coming years will be decreasing popular support for Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Muslim world. Although the United States will not sway the hardest core of the militant ranks, militants might receive less money and fewer people would join their ranks, if America were less hated among the populace at large. Governments in the region would have less incentive to distance themselves from Washington in order to curry favor with public opinion. Over time, local populations might cooperate more willingly with the United States and allied regimes in rooting the militants out.

Popular support for jihadist causes, particularly their anti-U.S. stance, is often wrongly cast as a problem of perception rather than substance. Americans are extremely discomfited by the idea that terrorists and their supporters may hate our policies. Instead, they prefer to believe that much of the problem is a giant misunderstanding: If the United States could only communicate its message more effectively, support for the jihadists would plummet. In particular, the Muslim world should recognize that the United States opposes tyranny, favors equality and in general is on the side of Muslims.

Islamists treat the Iraq War in particular as a direct assault on Muslims--a stance that ironically shows the depth of U.S. problems. Among Islamists, resistance in Iraq is widely viewed as legitimate, a position endorsed even by many pro-regime clerics who have criticized Al-Qaeda in the past. U.S. actions in Iraq are almost universally seen in the Arab world as a brutal attempt to gain lasting dominance of the country's oil reserves (often at the behest of Israel). The reality--that the United States has pushed hard, however imperfectly, for democracy, and that the Bush Administration would gladly quit Iraq if it became a stable, democratic government--is widely ridiculed.

The answer, apparently, is better public relations. With perhaps the exception of the constant calls for more human intelligence, calls to reinvigorate "public diplomacy" are probably the most common recommendation for improving counter-terrorism. Both liberals and conservatives can champion the idea, as it promises to offer significant rewards with few sacrifices. Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for public diplomacy is not matched by our capacity. A task force led by Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian found that U.S. public diplomacy "has become outmoded, lacking both strategic direction and resources."

Essay Types: Book Review