Monday, May 30th 2016
Gottlied image from
“As with fascism and communism in the twentieth century, America and the world currently face a determined ideological enemy out to destroy the contemporary order. And while it is clear that America cannot (and indeed should not) incur most of the costs in this fight, it is equally clear that American leadership—both militarily and diplomatically—will be essential if it is to succeed.” This was one conclusion of Stuart Gottlieb’s May 27, 2016, essay in The National Interest, “How the Next President Can Uproot Terrorism.” He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
The lengthy article does not focus on public affairs, public diplomacy, or hearts and minds, but Gottlieb offered a number of comments on the ideological and religious dimensions of the current contest, and he entered the fray on what to call the conflict and the enemy. Here are a few quotes:
- We in the West are constantly being told that Al Qaeda and related groups have nothing to do with religion, and nothing to do with Islam. And of course it is true that the vast, vast majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world absolutely reject Al Qaeda and its affiliated and inspired groups—and are especially horrified that they claim to be operating on their behalf.
- . . . the fact is, ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—with Western imperial powers assuming control or influence over many Arab and Muslim lands—the movement has become as much cultural and ideological as spiritual and religious, presenting itself more and more as an ideological and political alternative to Western democratic capitalism and the modern globalized international system.
- It is this ideological element that is the most troubling, because it means two things: first, Al Qaeda and similarly inspired groups can use Western foreign policies—wars in the Mideast, support for Arab dictators and oil monarchies, support for Israel—as a primary propaganda strategy to attract recruits (not to imply there are easy alternatives to some of those policies); and second, that these recruits do not necessarily have to be very religious, or even religious at all, to get ensnared in the sticky web of the global jihadi movements.
- On the second point, many of today’s pundits and commentators like to refer to the fact that many Al Qaeda and ISIS foot soldiers are not very religious (or are recent Muslim converts) as evidence that the movements are disconnected from Islam. What they seem to not realize is that this is actually worse—that the movements are related to Islam in a much more cultural-ideological way, rather than a fundamentalist religious way, and that it is the underlying radical Islamist ideology (not fundamentalist Islam) that poses the greatest threat today. Indeed, most fundamentalist—or devoutly religious—Muslims are not violent at all, because most to do not subscribe to, or outright reject, the militant interpretations.
- Finally, even in the realm of the language used by the Bush White House after 9/11 we saw examples of costly overreaction. At its core, terrorism is a propaganda-fueled phenomenon, an ongoing political battle to win hearts and minds and entice new recruits for the cause. So it is important that the language used when fighting terrorism is not unnecessarily inflammatory. Much of the hot rhetoric of the Bush administration—“Islamo-fascism,” “smoke ‘em out,” “bring it on”—played right into the hands of the radicals.
- Rather, the problem is that the administration believes that even if it keeps the most hard-line counterterrorism tactics and practices, as long as it speaks about terrorism in a different way—for example, eliminating the phrase “war on terrorism,” and never uttering the words “Islamic terrorism”—and as long as it is viewed as withdrawing from the Middle East and other parts of the world deemed provocative, then America will be, to use one of the administration’s favorite lines, engaging in a “smarter” fight against terrorism.
- And, finally, it is the mindset that motivates the administration to downplay every instance of terrorism inside the United States as, for example, “workplace violence” (the Fort Hood shooting), or acts of “isolated extremists” (the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber), or a “gun control” issue (the San Bernardino shootings), without leveling with the American people about the true nature of this globalized threat.
- To be clear, following the Bush record of hyperbole and overreaction, it was perfectly reasonable (and wise) for the Obama administration to offer a calmer tone. And it is certainly true, as administration officials like to remind us, that overhyping terror threats only benefits the terrorists—whose sole purpose, after all, is to terrorize.
- But Obama’s decision to cling to soothing rhetoric even in the face of the dramatic uptick in terror violence worldwide—he recently dubbed ISIS as merely “a bunch of killers with good social media,” and described bathtubs as a greater hazard than terrorism—helps explain why a record number of Americans (roughly 60 percent) now distrust his administration on issues relating to terrorism, ISIS and foreign policy generally. Such discontent plays right into the hands of a nativist demagogue like Donald Trump.
- It was not sufficient, because the softer language used by the administration has been totally detached from its hard-line policies—creation of a surveillance state, ramping up drones, dispatching dozens more Special Operations units around the world—which has led to a profound disconnect with the American people and with America’s allies.
- And it was not sufficient because even if America needs to recalibrate its role in the Middle East, constantly telegraphing its intention to withdraw from the region dovetails perfectly with militant Islamist ideology—again showing the danger of not fully “knowing our enemy.” Indeed bin Laden staked his entire theory of global jihad on the belief that America (and the West generally) is a “weak horse” unable to match the “strong horse” of martial Islam. The same way Bush’s rush to war in Iraq threw fuel on the embers of militant Islam, so too did Obama’s rush for the exits—and now the entire region (and beyond) is mired in terrorist violence.