A decade later, what about victory?

Christian Whiton Fmr. State Dept Sr. Advisor
Font Size:

In the weeks and years that followed the 9/11 attacks, Americans rose to defend civilization against terrorists and their sponsors around the globe. Despite occasional setbacks and persistent controversy, the U.S. and its allies have disrupted terrorist groups and prevented a repeat of 9/11. But a decade later, we have yet to fully grasp what the enemy is and how to defeat it permanently — much less organize our instruments of national power for victory.

There are limits to what can be achieved by force of arms alone — something our senior military officers have stressed repeatedly. Kinetic warfare — the use of destructive power — is essential in dealing with those who have crossed over to become terrorists. But until something stops the intake of terrorists and terrorist-sympathizers from among the ranks of Islamists, the military must contend endlessly with new terrorist offshoots.

That “something” should be political warfare waged against the enemy and its ideology. In earlier conflicts, we took on communism, fascism and other ideologies that motivated our enemies. More than mere public diplomacy or propaganda, this political warfare included diplomatic, technological, financial, economic, moral, legal and cultural acts focused on undermining the enemy’s reason for existence and means of support.

The most important element was a clear strategy. During the final years of the Cold War, President Reagan targeted communism and its chief government purveyor for peaceful disposal on “the ash-heap of history.” His vision for ending the contest: “We win, they lose.”

With that clarity of purpose, it was possible to organize the tools of power at the disposal of free governments. But no such clarity exists today about the post-9/11 world — especially not in the Washington foreign policy establishment.

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush was eager not to appear to be declaring war on the Muslim faith. But his administration overcorrected, and never fully grasped the need to assail Islamism — the tyrannical ideology that motivates most terrorists in the world, seeks the form of government found in Iran and wraps itself sanctimoniously in the Muslim religion.

Having settled on an incomplete political goal and strategy, implementation was an uphill battle from the beginning. Bush and his lieutenants mistakenly thought that increasing knowledge among Muslims about the free world and its virtues would suffice in undermining the terrorists’ appeal. Aides skilled in public relations were dispatched on “listening tours” but seldom appreciated that they were part of a competition of philosophies of how government and society should be ordered, or that such competitions are seldom won by diplomats with bland talking points delivered in English.

President Obama and his allies on the global left have made matters worse still. Mr. Obama’s outreach to the “Muslim world” — a make-believe construct that lends itself to the Islamists’ vision — has primarily involved apologizing for alleged sins of the U.S. and its allies going back decades. Meanwhile, the chief purveyor of Islamism, the government of Iran, has been handled with kid gloves and its godsend domestic opposition largely ignored by Washington and other capitals.

As a result, while our military and intelligence capabilities have been honed to strike terrorists, the other parts of government have not delivered. Despite talk of deploying “smart power,” foreign aid has not been more closely tied to economic and political reforms. The State Departments lacks the tools and motivation to identify and promote reformers within Islam. The “civilian surges” that it was to deliver in Iraq and Afghanistan never materialized.

Just this year, the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community completely missed the onset of the Arab Spring. Our intelligence agencies are no longer in the business of influencing foreign political outcomes. Institutions meant to bridge this gap, like the National Endowment for Democracy, are past their prime and shy away from supporting front-line dissidents.

The effects of this are on full display with the Arab Spring. As events of major consequence have transpired, Washington has been left dumbstruck. When the Obama administration has acted, it has done so erratically and arbitrarily. Can anyone doubt that an uprising in China, for example, would again reveal a Washington with little idea of how to act and with few tools to influence the outcome? As a result, such matters are unfortunately left to chance.

There has been no repeat of 1947, which was the year the U.S. government drastically reordered itself to fight the then-new Cold War. Indeed, many of the tools available to Washington today derive from that year and have been stretched to manage today’s threats, with mixed results.

A decade after 9/11, it is reasonable to ask government officials if there is a strategy or even a vision of ending — not just managing — the threat we have faced. To get there, we need to think again in terms of undermining or ablating a hostile ideology. While soldiers and sleuths have a key role to play in this, victory will again require organizing the full tools of national power and bringing them to bear against the enemy.

Christian Whiton was a senior advisor at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. He is a principal at DC International Advisory. You can follow him in Twitter @WhitonDCIA.

Christian Whiton