Using his trademark subterfuge, President Obama on Monday said there must be no “religious test” for refugees coming to America. What he meant was that asylum seekers like the Paris suicide bomber who posed as a Syrian refugee probably won’t be asked about their views on radical Islam, much less disqualified for subscribing to the Islamist political ideology. Unfortunately, by refusing even to name the force that animates our enemies, we ensure that we will never fully defeat them. Worse still, this refusal prevents us from even beginning what is most necessary to turn the tide on radical Islam: political warfare.
In statecraft, political warfare is the reverse of espionage. Whereas spying involves the “pull” of information our enemies don’t want us to have, political warfare is the “push” of ideas, information, people, and events with which our enemies would rather not contend. During the Cold War, the West had great political warfare victories, ranging from support for Eastern Bloc dissident groups like Polish Solidarity to aiding the underground “samizdat” press and other media efforts that weakened the Soviet Union. CIA operations helped the Christian Democrats beat the communists in Italy and funded intellectuals in Europe who were left-leaning but anti-Soviet.
Political warfare can play a similar role against radical Islam. The last two administrations have mused about reviving somewhat similar practices, albeit under more politically correct monikers. George W. Bush spoke of winning “hearts and minds,” and his aides called for a “war of ideas.” Obama asserted that, “Ideologies are not defeated with guns but better ideas.” Don’t tell that to the armies that defeated Nazism, but at least both men pondered discrediting the world view that drives our enemies.
Unfortunately, neither president followed words with effective actions. Bush aides misinterpreted the mission as one of improved “public diplomacy” — basically explaining American foreign policy better. Obama tried apologizing for America, beginning with his 2009 speech in Cairo that lamented past U.S. conduct in the Middle East. Whereas Bush failed to grasp what kind of ideological missions and warriors we needed (hint: not U.S. diplomats sent on “listening tours”), Obama seems to think political correctness and semantics will get the job done, especially through vows like, “We will never be at war with Islam,” which miss the point.
Luckily, we don’t need to go to war with Islam, the religion of a quarter of the world’s population. But we do need to fight the ideology of Islamism — or radical Islam — which seeks to establish a brutal theocratic tyranny and the subjugate the impure.
Successful political warfare against this ideology could involve three broad steps:
First, we should tell the truth about radical Islam and adopt a policy of opposing Islamism globally. This seems impossible for a president whose administration labeled the Islamist killing spree at Ft. Hood as “workplace violence,” who called the January attack on a kosher deli that targeted only Jews “random,” and who described last week’s Islamist massacre as a “setback.” There is an obvious common thread that runs among the perpetrators of these assaults and organizations as diverse as ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Iranian regime: radical Islam. Being honest about this threat is not anti-Muslim. In fact, political warfare ideally would involve getting Muslims to turn decisively against the Islamists.
Second, we need to focus on nonviolently undermining Islamist governments like Iran’s. While ISIS may earn headlines, Iran’s theocracy has tentacles throughout the Middle East and may soon be armed with nuclear weapons. A political warfare program against Tehran could empower anti-theocracy dissidents like those who took to the streets of Iranian cities in 2009 and 2010. Obama and Hillary Clinton all but ignored these young, pro-modern Iranians. We should give them open moral support and covert organizational support, and provide tools to overcome regime censorship so they can communicate with their compatriots.
Third, we should work with allies to suppress radical Islam culturally. Instead of lamenting universities where Islamists shout down secularists and mosques run by radicals, we should support institutions that give power to modern Muslims who believe in separating mosque and state. We needn’t set up a Dick Cheney School for Moderate Islamic Thought: we can act covertly and delicately — just as we did in the past. Domestically, we can follow Britain’s lead in getting tough on Islamist fronts posing as legitimate organizations. We can also update the anti-communist McCarran Act for the current threat.
The advantage of political warfare is that it involves more than dropping bombs and throwing money at the Pentagon (even though both may be necessary). It complements the crucial role of the armed forces, and indeed won’t work unless we have a strong military that is seen turning the tide on ISIS and other battlefield threats. However, by emphasizing non-violent statecraft against radical Islam, Republicans would come across as tough, but not overly hawkish, spendthrift, or reminiscent of George W. Bush. They also would be seen as reformers since doing this right would require fixing the CIA and reviving lost Cold War tools of political warfare like the U.S. Information Agency. It works politically and is essential if we ever want to win this war.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor during the George W. Bush administration. He is the author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.