RETAKING THE OFFENSIVE AGAINST RADICAL ISLAM
By Ilan Berman
Rowman and Littlefield, $29.95, 117 pages
Reviewed by James S. Robbins
When the war on terrorism began, the task seemed straightforward — deter, disrupt and destroy the terrorist network threatening the United States. Through the years, however, as our awareness of the nature of the threat has grown, our strategies have not kept pace. Today, there are significant gaps in American counterterrorism strategy, a problem that my colleague, Ilan Berman, seeks to address in his new book “Winning the Long War.”
Mr. Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, has written a compact, swift-moving book in which he seeks to set the agenda for future strategic frameworks that will better address both the root causes of Islamic radicalism and the ongoing struggles we face with its most dogmatic and violent adherents.
In order to pursue this struggle effectively, the United States first needs properly to identify the foe. Mr. Berman argues that herein is the primary strategic failure of the American war strategy with its emphasis on al Qaeda and similar groups. In the Berman model, the United States and Western world face a tripartite challenge of which al Qaeda and its allies constitute only a part.
The threat from al Qaeda and similar terror groups is ongoing and well-understood. But a second looming strategic challenge is the rise of what Mr. Berman calls the “Iranian Islamintern,” referring to Tehran and its group of satellite organizations that he compares to the Stalin-era Communist International, or Comintern.
There has yet to be a coherent government strategy that conceptualizes this threat adequately, taking into account its various manifestations — terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, state proxies such as Syria, facilitators — such as North Korea — of weapons of mass destruction, and the Iranian Islamic state apparatus itself. A strategy designed to counter small, dispersed and decentralized violent nonstate groups is completely ineffective against this complex system, which is ultimately grounded on Iran’s sovereign status. And the failure to address the Iranian threat as a system is as fruitless as beheading the hydra.
Mr. Berman presciently notes the importance of aiming messages at “the fault line between the [Iranian] ruling regime and its captive population,” pointing out that the United States has “consistently neglected opportunities to engage the Iranian people at the expense of its regime.”
This difficulty was vividly on display last month when the Iranian people took their case against the theocracy to the streets and the United States was unable to articulate a coherent and effective message of support. The issue is not whether the United States can unilaterally create change in Iran, but how our country can give support and sustenance to the forces of change that are already present in the country.
When the Iranian people rose up against their government, the United States was caught unaware precisely because the government lacked the plans, strategic perspective and institutional structure necessary to respond on the fly.
This underscores the third challenge, engaging the Muslim world at large. The hearts and minds of undecided Muslims constitute the battleground for radicals and moderates alike. This is a very difficult challenge since, as the author points out, there is no great mass of Muslims yearning to be free and imploring the United States to give it to them. The war of ideas is much more subtle. However, the government lacks both the means and message to fully engage on that front.
Mr. Berman makes a persuasive argument for resurrecting what used to be called “political warfare,” the comprehensive merging of tools of national power under a coherent strategy working cooperatively toward a common goal. The United States excelled at this in the early days of the Cold War. The reorganization of the national security apparatus in the late 1940s has been held up as a model ever since.
Mr. Berman notes the creation of organizations such as the Psychological Strategy Board, which was established under President Truman, and the means of communicating the American message, such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. These government organs worked cooperatively toward the strategic goals of containing Soviet expansionism and undermining the communist message.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has wandered far from this focus. The Broadcast Board of Governors, which currently oversees VOA and other communication efforts, sees itself as “separate from public diplomacy,” an astonishing perspective since if this government-funded organization is not advancing America’s message to the world, what is it doing?
The BBG believes that cultural programming will have a greater impact abroad than promoting ideas, although the government is neither qualified nor needed as an arbiter of international taste in matters of pop culture. Entertainment is already one of our country’s most successful export industries, and a contentious issue in the Muslim world. The current approach is seriously malformed; it will not win adherents to the cause of progress, but will drive away those who see the United States as a source of moral corruption.
The United States has not significantly increased its meager budget for public diplomacy since Sept. 11, 2001. This is an area in which small investments can go a long way, but the government has chosen not to prioritize it. Thus, our country lacks both the messages and the mechanisms effectively to pursue public-diplomacy campaigns, which Mr. Berman calls “tantamount to strategic surrender.”
Mr. Berman has done great work in identifying the gaps in American strategy and proposing some solutions, and policymakers would do well to consider them. The book does not (nor does it claim to) have all the answers, but it asks all the right questions.
James S. Robbins is senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.