During the Second World War, operatives from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) met with revolutionary leaders around the world, some of whom would later become violent adversaries of the United States. What the OSS operatives discovered is that the heroes of these insurgents were other revolutionaries named John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. That was the world’s view of America in the 1940’s.
America used to be the inspiration for those around the world who were seeking to throw off the yoke of oppression and injustice.
Somewhere along the way, officials in Washington, D.C., squandered that global trust. Somehow a succession of Republican and Democratic Presidents and Secretaries of State have transformed America into the villain of all groups that are fighting oppression. In most cases, the U.S. is the villain because it has opted to support ruthless tyrants in exchange for oil, military bases, transit rights and other pieces of silver. That practice continues today in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria, Vietnam, Uzbekistan and across Central Asia.
Into this leadership vacuum has slithered al-Qaeda and other associated groups and the response to them has primarily been a military one. Killing terrorists who can endlessly replenish their ranks is a mindless tactic as it creates a war without end. All wars must have victory as their objective and domestic politics should never be allowed to interfere with that quest for victory.
The politically incorrect reality is that torture, secret police, secret prisons, discrimination, minority rule, intolerance, exploitation, business monopolies, cronyism and corruption fuel and sustain revolutionary and insurgent movements. It has been that way for millennia. The organizations that emerge out of this frustration are merely symptoms of the underlying problems. Defeating them achieves nothing in the long run, therefore current counter-terrorism policy, which is based on targeted killings, is not a strategy, it is at most a temporary tactic. As will be explained below, it is a dangerous and ultimately a losing tactic.
The strategic policy of the United States should be to take the place of al-Qaeda and regain the leadership role for oppressed peoples that the U.S. held in the 1940’s.
The ultimate solution to terrorism is simple and yet exceedingly complex. One must eliminate those causes that are fueling terrorism, just like extinguishing a fire requires eliminating the oxygen that generates the fire. While there will always be injustice in some form and always those who will turn to violence to advance their extremist positions, most of the world’s terrorism problems result from a small list of areas in conflict. They require an international focus and final resolution. Such an achievement has the potential to diminish terrorism to the point where it can be managed as criminal conduct by law enforcement authorities. The to-do list will surprise no one.
1. There are oppressive governments in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Iran, Syria, and Uzbekistan;
2. Independence is needed for Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and Southwest Sahara; and
3. Regional efforts are needed to bring together parties in Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
These steps need to replace the current Western policy of and reliance on counter-terrorism, which tends to focus almost exclusively on targeted killings. This tactic is far from being surgical and therefore it fuels cycles of revenge, which aids terrorist recruitment. In addition, targeted killing tends to result in an ever-expanding target list that begins to encompass people who are merely suspected of providing support to an insurgency (however minor), a standard that is not morally defensible.
The final flaw in reliance on targeted killings is that time and technology are not on the side of America and the West. The stunning improvements in high brissance super-explosives, plastic bombs and weapons, the emergence of dirty bombs and the increasing ease at which chemical and biological weapons can be manufactured bodes ill for all those who think that targeted killings can keep an enemy at bay. While conventional governments used to hold the edge in sophisticated weapons and technology, the tide is slowly and steadily shifting to the insurgents.
In addition to technology, events are also beginning to outpace the United States and its allies, and the Obama Administration seems oblivious to the situation. In the case of al-Qaeda, many of its supporters seem to view it as a success (using the past tense). They appear to believe that it has served its purpose by challenging the West, but the effort did not achieve any significant change. While the U.S. spends tens of billions of dollars per year and focuses massive efforts against this minuscule organization, the world has largely moved past al-Qaeda, leaving both it and the U.S. behind. Over the course of this last year oppressed peoples have shifted to the Arab Spring. That movement has the real potential for bringing al-Qaeda type governments to power. They will of course not call themselves that, but they may be indistinguishable from al-Qaeda.
The U.S. Government continues to fight the last war, while ignoring the current war.
The CIA and the Pentagon are exhausting themselves trying to whack a mole in the yard, not realizing that their house is on fire and they have no means to extinguish it, because they spent their budgets on mole-whacking weapons instead of on fire fighting gear.
President Obama’s chief terrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, recently took to the airwaves in the United State and appeared on various news channels. If one watched the interviews back to back, Mr. Brennan did nothing but repeat a memorized speech of bland policy statements about the al-Qaeda threat and the need to continue bankrupting the U.S. to pay for this war. Brennan’s reliance on timid talking points displayed a lack of confidence and was ultimately uninspiring. It raised the issue as to why anyone in the Administration would allow him to appear on national television and whether U.S. efforts against terrorism are equally confused and unimaginative.
Wars are won by a mix of careful insight, creative solutions and daring actions.
For decades the policy of the United States seemed to be that most of the world’s problems could be solved if the scourge of godless Communism could be eliminated. That tunnel-vision policy was half successful. Communist parties in most of the Developing World were decimated. The mass killings ultimately achieved nothing because Communism, like terrorism, are merely symptoms of underlying problems. The campaigners against world Communism never asked the key question, which is, “when we destroy the Communists, what comes next?” What came next in some countries was Islamic Movements.
As the United States continues to attack al-Qaeda, it is again failing to ask the question, “what comes after al-Qaeda?”
What we have seen in Egypt and elsewhere is that there is worse in the wings. While it is politically incorrect in the United States to ever voice this, the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden may ultimately be found to be relatively moderate when compared to other emerging Islamic groups.
The irony is that as the U.S. focus is now on hunting down the new leader of al-Qaeda, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leading Egyptian physician and intellectual. If the U.S. succeeds in killing him in Pakistan it may eventually regret that act. Perhaps the more logical course would be to allow Dr. al-Zawahiri to return to Egypt and enter its current chaos in a dramatic attempt to head off an even more tragic shift to the left in that country.
If Egypt, the Middle East’s most populated country, destabilizes, the repercussions cannot be calculated.
Despite that, Obama Administration officials could not in their wildest dreams ever imagine agreeing to a truce with Dr. al-Zawahiri.
In wartime, there must be one goal, which is to prevail in the most expeditious way possible and in the manner that will result in the lowest loss of life and cost. In pursuit of that goal, rulers, dating back to the Achaemedian King Cyrus the Great in the mid-6th century B.C., made deals with their enemies in order to save lives and shorten wars. While it might seem unpalatable to ignore Dr. al-Zawahiri’s crimes against America, the benefits might outweigh the detriments. It should also not be forgotten that the United States has pardoned worse people. Take for example the informal pardon issued to Japanese General Shiro Ishii in 1945. The monstrous General Ishii makes Dr. al-Zawahiri look like a choir boy in comparison, yet the Truman Administration decided that it needed his grisly knowledge of chemical and biological weapons. This, despite the fact that some of that knowledge came from Ishii’s experiments on American POWs.
In the case of Dr. al-Zawahiri, U.S. officials remain blinded by politics and revenge, regardless of the consequences. It is scary that they might choose to win a battle even if it loses them the wider war. It reminds one of the story of the scorpion that stings the tortoise carrying it across the river, even though that act will kill them both. When questioned, the scorpion’s response is that it is his nature and he cannot change.
The United States Government has to change and it has to adapt in order to defeat an evolving array of global enemies. This is a time for new thinking and daring changes to U.S. policy. Washington, D.C. think tanks cannot help the Obama Administration as they are filled with the same tired Government officials that staff the Senior Foreign and Senior Intelligence Services. Too many officials, agencies, consultants and companies in the United States have too vested an interest in this war on terror continuing indefinitely and are in no mood to talk about conflict resolution. A permanent gloom seems to permeate the U.S. Government and it has paralyzed any innovation.
President Obama himself no longer speaks of reform or promise or any other lofty ideas. The new election year policy is simply to promote fear of any alternative to President Obama.
The America of the 1940’s still exists outside of Washington, D.C. It is the noble principles of that period that must once again guide America’s foreign policy so that it can regain the philosophical territory that has been seized by opportunist terrorist groups. This is the path that leads to victory.