The Wrong War, Again

Last week, Washington roiled in revelations about the war on terror with reports of drone strikes in Pakistan secretly approved by that government; NSA tapping of the German chancellor and French president’s phone calls along with dozens of other heads of state; and what to do once the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force ends with the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Sadly the contradiction for the Obama administration, as for that of George W. Bush, is embedded in the misguided phrase “global war on terror.” The concept of a war on terror is not only flawed, it cannot work.

Americans have long been subjected to many wars declared against drugs, poverty, crime, illiteracy, racism, and of course, terror. None have worked. The reason is that none of these scourges is a war and treating them as such produces solutions directed at symptoms and not correcting actual causes.

Terror is a tactic, ploy, and tool to achieve larger ends. Lenin understood that. The purpose of terror, he asserted, was to terrorize.

When adversaries do not need, nor possess, armies, navies, and air forces terror is a highly effective, less costly, and more relevant alternative. As the United States learned in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the most powerful military in the world cannot defeat an enemy that owns no standing army, navy, or air force  and is fueled by unaddressed, fundamental causes.

Further, the vocabulary to define properly the “terrorist” adversary along with the associated syntax and grammar to defang this threat is absent. Terms such as Islamic violent extremism or radicalism, Jihadism, and other phrases confuse rather than clarify the real issue, which is not the acts of terror, however devastating, but the underlying causes that produce such violence and contribute to the ability of these groups to attract followers.

In one sense, creating a conceptual underpinning for waging what has been mistakenly called the war on terror is simple. The issue is recognizing that these acts of violence represent political revolutions, albeit ones that incorporate larger religious characteristics and perhaps share more in common with the religious wars of the Middle Ages or the Crusades than 1789, 1848, 1917 and the Cold War. They must be dealt with in a broader context.

Geographically, the center for today’s political revolutions lay between the eastern Mediterranean and the Bay of Bengal. Obviously, the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict has inflamed the passions of Sunni and Shia alike, as well as given the more radical groups nearly unlimited ammunition in pursuing their aims. Wahabism and Salafism remain affiliated to what the West views as radicalism. Iranian Shia fundamentalism combined with Persian arrogance vies with Saudi Arabia for influence in the Persian Gulf. And the civil war in Syria is a microcosm of these competing religious rivalries and old hatreds.

A more effective way of responding to these political revolutions is emulating treatment of disease. Cures are directed at causes with the restriction that the physicians do no harm. Both defensive and preventative actions to contain the spread of infection are essential to treatment. Put differently, no matter how much the specter of another September 11th tortures the American psyche, at this stage these outbreaks are not existential as an epidemic of an untreatable and highly contagious superbug might be. That does not mean, however, that these revolutions could not metastasize into far greater threats.

In treatment, the root causes and sources of potential contagion must be treated. Nor can the toughest issues including confronting both friends and adversaries who are inextricably entwined in these political revolutions be avoided. They must be part of any solution. This will require great political courage, as neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia will react well to “tough love solutions” that are based on protecting US interests and not captured by the thrall of US domestic politics or oil wealth.

As this column has noted, it is also inconceivable that the US has not put in place an effective public diplomacy campaign that supports moderate and peaceful Islam and attacks, discredits, and delegitimizes radicalism and extremism. During World War II and the Cold War, propaganda was a powerful and effective weapon that was put to good use by the allies. This needs to be repeated across the full spectrum of black, gray, and white propaganda and public diplomacy.

The most important first step is ridding ourselves of this promiscuous use of the term war on terror and concentrate on dealing with the pathology of the political revolutions that rely, not on microbes, viruses, and germs to spread disease, but on terror, violence, and ideological rationale for achieving specific aims. If we are incapable of this understanding, the road ahead will neither be safe nor navigable.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of business and government.