Defeating Islamist-Jihadism: A lesson from the cold war

Ed Ross Contributor
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Every war requires a unique grand strategy, but certain strategic principles never change. They apply to all wars and are essential to victory. So why is the Obama administration deliberately avoiding the one most essential to winning the war with Islamist-Jihadism?

In the sixth century BC, Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War (: Sūn Zǐ Bīng Fǎ), Know thy self, know thy enemy; a hundred battles, a hundred victories.”

Applying this simple precept, especially the part about knowing your enemy, has been integral to every American victory in war; and it was absent in our most humiliating defeat—Vietnam. It played a leading role in winning the Cold War, the war most comparable to the ongoing war with Islamist-Jihadism. It lasted for decades, involved multiple enemies unified by a common ideology—international communism, involved several hot wars, and it was a war of irreconcilable beliefs.

Professional Cold Warriors understood the key to winning their war was “know thy enemy.” They read Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, and the writings of many others who championed the communist cause. They studied what communism was, how it worked, and how it didn’t work. They studied the strategies it used to subvert governments, fuel insurgencies, and undermine democracy. And they studied what attracted people to its teachings.

Equally important, they didn’t keep what they learned to themselves. They knew it wasn’t sufficient for people in government and the military to know these things. They discussed and debated communism in the public forum; and they used every opportunity to educate the American people about its evils.

President Ronald Reagan, who led America to victory in the Cold War, wasn’t afraid to call the Soviet Union, the preeminent communist power, an “evil empire.” He understood as well as anyone that our ultimate goal had to be the defeat of communism itself, not just the containment of the Soviet Union, China, and lesser communist states.

And that’s just what we did, not by force of arms, but by force of a superior idea and a superior political and economic system. The Soviet Union collapsed. China changed; Beijing adopted its own one-party brand of capitalism. North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba were left to change or wither on the vine. They’re still nominal communist states, but it’s only a mater of time until they no longer exist in their present form.

The ideology that unifies our enemy in the current “long war” is Islamist-Jihadism. We must do everything possible to increase public understanding of it, so we can recognize it in all its forms, thwart its believers who would attack and kill us, and ultimately defeat it.

Yet, the Obama administration and the mainstream media repeatedly caution us not to highlight or dwell on our enemy’s ideology lest we arouse bigotry against the believers of Islam and victimize innocent Muslims. We’re told that in order to win the support of Muslims in general we must go out of our way to convince them we are not at war with Islam; and that means downplaying the role of Islamist-Jihadism in the continuing terrorist attacks against us.

Of course, there is a major difference between communism and Islam. One is an inherently flawed political philosophy and the other is one of the world’s major religions. Islamist-Jihadism, however, is a fundamentalist aberration of Islam; and, like international communism, it espouses a political philosophy—Jihadism—for a violent war against freedom and democracy.

An inability to intellectually and operationally separate Islamist-Jihadism from greater Islam is at the heart of the debate over whether dealing with Islamic terrorism is a criminal-justice problem or requires the strategy and tactics of war. If it’s not a war, we can deal with individual acts of terrorism and terrorists like Nidal Hasan, Umar Abdulmutallab, and Faisal Shahzad as if they were, at best, individual criminals or, at worst, members of a criminal syndicate. The emphasis is principally on how they do what they do, not why they do it.

The good will and cooperation of non-Islamist-Jihadist Muslims is a good thing; and we should do what we can to encourage it. We want them as allies. Failing to identify Islamist-Jihadism as the enemy, however, is counterproductive. It fails to recognize that moderate Muslims around the world see it as a threat to Islam. It stifles support for them in their efforts to counter it. It deprives us of tools we need to prevent Islamist-Jihadist terrorist attacks before they happen. And it allows Islamist-Jihadism to grow stronger, putting ultimate victory over it in doubt.

What message are we sending to Muslims around the world, especially those in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia when we refuse to identify Islamist-Jihadist for what they are? How can we expect them to stand up and speak out against Islamist-Jihadism in a hostile environment if we won’t?

Hasan, Abdulmutallab, and Shahzad, all younger Muslim men from families you would least expect to produce a terrorist, were caught after the fact. Only the failure of Abdulmutallab’s and Shahzad’s detonators prevented them from killing Americans. There are hundreds more like them in the pipeline. Unless we understand what motivates people like them to become terrorists—it’s certainly not poverty or lack of education—how do we dissuade others from following their path? How do we identify them before they kill people? Terrorists learn from their predecessors mistakes. The quality of detonators will improve.

Unless and until we accept that we are at war with an ideology we will never defeat it. The fact that Islamist-Jihadism has its roots in Islam presents us with a difficult challenge—how to attack and defeat one without attacking the other. But understand, attack, and defeat Islamist-Jihadism we must.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.