Andrew Hammond, Gulf News
image (not from article) from; see below citation of "turbo-charged."
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. A decade-and-a-half later, and following the US-led offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq, 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.
Yet, while the international landscape has changed, international terrorism remains a continuing concern of policy makers, as recent Daesh attacks across Europe underline. One of key challenges world leaders face is that there remains a critical weakness in the US-led global campaign against terrorism. That is, the response has been hyper-militarised — dominated by counter-terrorism and security — while other soft-power instruments, such as public diplomacy, have been underinvested in. To be sure, even this unbalanced strategy has secured key successes, including the unseating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
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 than his predecessor George W. Bush, the fact remains that US policy is still perceived internationally as overly-military and security-focused. For instance, since Obama assumed office, there has been a substantial increase in drone attacks and this is controversial — both domestically and overseas.
US policymakers themselves 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 as the world observed the 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 in that previous generation.
One of the most glaring gaps, that now badly needs to be filled in, is the need for a turbo-charged soft-power effort to win ‘hearts and minds’ around the world, especially in what Obama has called the Islamic world. Despite the early promise of his Cairo speech in 2009, in which he sought to reset US relations with Muslim-majority countries, there remain pockets of very high anti-Americanism.
For instance, in key nations such as Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan, opinion polls show that positive sentiment towards the US has nosedived in the last decade-and-a-half. A 2015 research by Pew Global, for instance, showed that just 10 per cent, 12 per cent and 14 per cent of the population in these three countries, respectively, have a positive image of the US.
This is very crucial because the anti-terrorism campaign is, in essence, one whose outcome is related to a battle between moderates and extremists within the Islamic world. And unless this is better recognised and addressed with soft power, 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 a much higher priority to activities such as public diplomacy, sustainable development, economic 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 government cannot achieve alone. Hence, multiple US and international leaders from other arenas like the private sector, NGOs and faith communities also attended the session.
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 also need a much smarter balance between hard and soft power, with resources to match.
Numerous US officials, including Obama, former president George W. Bush and former US defence secretary Robert 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 exchange programmes that proved so successful during the Cold War.
Of course, a holistic international plan to tackle violent extremism will inevitably have a military and counter-terrorism component. But 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 Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for the White House, will offer the most effective policies in the campaign against terror. Serving as the US secretary of state from 2009-2013, she had championed a policy of so-called smart-power: Re-orienting the balance between soft and hard power in favour of the former.
By contrast, Republican nominee Donald Trump has called for more hard-line actions, reminiscent of the excesses of the Bush era. Referring to Daesh, Trump has echoed Senator Ted Cruz’s call for “carpet-bombing [Daesh] into oblivion”, which critics have claimed would fall foul of the Geneva Convention since it would not differentiate between civilian and military targets.
Indeed, at the very time when the US should redouble its efforts to win the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ in Muslim-majority countries, the controversial businessman has all the makings to be a diplomatic disaster, not least with his proposed 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. Obama’s successor must turbo-charge this agenda and, to be successful, it will require sustained commitment for many years.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Diplomacy, Affairs and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.