What’s in a name? This spring, the Obama administration ignited a political firestorm when it replaced the phrase “war on terror” with the more antiseptic “overseas contingency operations.” The turn of phrase led critics of the administration to conclude that, when it came to confronting our terrorist foes, the White House was trading substance for style.
Recent events have done little to dispel that notion. As John Brennan, the president’s top adviser on counterterrorism, told an audience at the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies back in August, Team Obama defines the current conflict quite differently from its predecessor - as neither a “war on terrorism” nor a “global” struggle.
The kerfuffle over what to call the struggle with radical Islam is symptomatic of a larger ideological drift. Eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, America still has precious little idea about who we are fighting or the dominant battlefields in this struggle.
This intellectual malaise can be traced back to two conceptual problems.
The first is one of focus. Since Sept. 11, America has been waging what is essentially a derivative conflict. We were attacked by al Qaeda, so we automatically assume it is the only group we are fighting. Indeed, as Mr. Brennan has pointed out, Mr. Obama himself believes we are strictly “at war with al Qaeda” and “its violent extremist allies.”
In fact, the list of challenges now arrayed against the United States is much broader. It includes a transnational network of Sunni jihadists, an Iranian-sponsored terrorist conglomerate, and, above all, a mass of “undecided” Muslim voters whom we need to convince to sit out this fight. To date, we have approached each of these constituencies separately, and tactically - without a clear understanding of how each should fit into the larger war effort.
The second problem stems from our perception of the current struggle as, more than anything else, a military battle. That view is understandable; as the experiences of the past 1 1/2 decades in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans and Southwest Asia have shown, the armed forces of the United States quite simply have no equal. But, precisely because of this brilliance, America is in real danger of succumbing to the old adage that “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Our successes on the battlefield the world over have led more than a few observers to conclude that the current conflict can be won predominantly by force of arms.
Nothing could be further from the truth. A great many battlefields in the war on terror are not military at all; they are economic, ideological and informational. They require nonmilitary strategies that are as smart and as agile as those that are being employed by our adversaries. That, in turn, means the entire U.S. government - and not just the Pentagon - has to be involved in prosecuting this war.
At least some U.S. policymakers have begun to understand this reality. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates famously put it last year, the current conflict in which the United States has found itself “cannot be overcome by military means alone.” Rather, it “will be fundamentally political in nature and will require the integration of all elements of national power.”
But such a “whole of government approach” is still far more rhetoric than reality. The new White House has wasted no time in dramatically changing course on a number of foreign policy fronts, from a still-notional “reset” of relations with Russia to intensive “engagement” with Iran. When it comes to the struggle against radical Islam, however, the status quo is still very much in effect.
This constitutes a critical error. In what defense planners term the “nonkinetic” areas of the current conflict - ideology, strategic influence, economic warfare, international law and democracy promotion - the United States can and should be doing much more.
After all, it is these fronts, and not the military ones, that are likely to be our principal battlegrounds in the years ahead. Al Qaeda and its affiliates know full well that they are no match for U.S. forces in conventional military terms. Their only hope is to outflank and outthink the United States in the arenas of politics and ideology.
So far, the United States has been allowing them to do just that. It is long past time for us to stop.
Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of “Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).