Andrew Hammond, gulfnews.com
Washington’s overwhelming emphasis on hard power has fuelled significant controversy, alienating many across the world
Last Monday marked the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Half a decade on, the global terrorism environment has been reshaped by the rising prominence of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), originally a splinter group of Al Qaida whose own fortunes have declined significantly.
In this landscape of change, one constant is that international terrorism has remained a continuing concern of international policy makers, as the recent Daesh attacks in Paris and Brussels underline. One of the key challenges world leaders face is that there remains a major weakness in the ongoing US-led global campaign on terrorism.
That is, Washington’s response has been hyper-militarised — dominated by counterterrorism and security, while other soft power instruments such as public diplomacy have been underinvested in. To be sure, even this unbalanced strategy has secured some key successes, including the unseating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and potentially the progressive degradation of Daesh positions in Iraq and Syria too.
Yet, an overwhelming emphasis on hard power has fuelled significant controversy, alienating many across the world. While US President Barack Obama recognises this much more so than his predecessor George W. Bush, the fact remains that US policy is still viewed internationally as overly military and security-focused. For instance, since Obama assumed office there has been a big increase in drone attacks and this is controversial both in the US and overseas.
US policymakers have highlighted the need for a paradigm shift in the campaign on terrorism. Last year, for instance, prior to a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for a “shift in gears onto a path that will demand more from us… politically, economically and socially… a truly comprehensive and long-term strategy to destroy [terrorism’s] very roots”. And with the recent 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Kerry compared the challenge with what Washington and its international allies faced in tackling fascism with that previous generation.
One of the most glaring gaps that now badly needs to be addressed is the need for a turbo-charged soft-power effort to win ‘hearts and minds’ around the world. In numerous key states such as Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan, opinion polls show that positive sentiment toward the US has fallen off the cliff in the last decade and a half. 2014 research by Pew Global, for instance, showed that just 10 per cent, 12 per cent, and 14 per cent of the populations in these three countries respectively have a positive image of the US.
This is so important because the antiterrorism contest is, in essence, one whose outcome is related to a battle between moderates and extremists within Islamic civilisation. And unless this is better recognised and addressed, with the soft power elements of the campaign on terrorism dialled up significantly, the US-led international strategy will continue to face serious setbacks.
The soft-power roadmap for what is needed is relatively clear. Seizing the moment requires the US and international partners to give much higher priority to activities such as public diplomacy, sustainable development assistance and exchange programmes.
And at last year’s White House summit, Obama rightly noted that this is an expensive, demanding and complex generational project that the US government cannot achieve alone. Hence the reason why multiple US and international leaders from other arenas like the private sector, NGOs and faith communities also attended the session too.
While Kerry last year drew an analogy with the Second World War, it is the Cold War that perhaps provides an even better comparison with what is now needed in the campaign against terrorism. Just like the Cold War, which was ultimately won by a strategy of US-led international containment and cultural vigour, the challenges posed by the campaign against terrorism need a much smarter balance between hard and soft power, with resources to match.
Numerous US officials, including former Bush and Obama defence secretary Bob Gates, have highlighted the gross mismatch between the current budgets of the Pentagon and other US international programmes. Today, for instance, Washington spends about 500 times more on its military than it does collectively on international broadcasting and exchanges which proved so successful during the Cold War.
Of course, a holistic international plan to tackle violent extremism will inevitably have a military and counterterrorism component. However, soft power needs to become a much bigger part of the overall mix, as even the former Pentagon chief Gates advocates.
Looking beyond the Obama presidency, it is much more likely that his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the White House, will offer the most effective policies in the campaign on terror. Serving as the US diplomat-in-chief from 2009-2013, she championed a policy of so-called smart power: reorientating the balance between soft and hard power in favour of the former.
By contrast, Republican front-runners, billionaire businessman Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, have called for more hard-line actions, echoing the excesses of the Bush administration. Referring to Daesh, Cruz has controversially called for a “fundamentally different military strategy” of “carpet-bombing [Daesh] into oblivion” which critics have claimed would fall foul of the Geneva Convention given that it would not differentiate between civilian and military targets. Trump has also said he would “bomb the [expletive] out of ‘em [Daesh]. There would be nothing left”, while, incredibly, he has also proposed a blanket ban on Muslims travelling to the US.
Taken overall, the US and its international partners must urgently address this Achilles heel in the campaign against terrorism. While a very limited window of opportunity exists to get this agenda turbo-charged before Obama’s term of office ends, a sustained commitment will be required for many years beyond his presidency by his successor.