Beyond “Violent Extremism”
Yesterday afternoon I spoke at the plenary session of the Soref Symposium, the annual spring conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the future of public diplomacy and the "war of ideas" in the Obama administration. Those aren’t my ordinary digs, and I appreciate that Rob Satloff reached out to put together ...
Yesterday afternoon I spoke at the plenary session of the Soref Symposium, the annual spring conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the future of public diplomacy and the "war of ideas" in the Obama administration. Those aren’t my ordinary digs, and I appreciate that Rob Satloff reached out to put together a diverse panel including me, himself, and former Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy James Glassman. There were some pretty sharp differences in our arguments and overall orientations, something which I always like to see, and hopefully the discussion framed a productive agenda for the coming years.
Since I spoke from notes, not from a prepared text, I will have to wait to post a full transcript as soon as it is ready. But let me just highlight a few of my key points: first, "combatting violent extremism" is an inadequate framework for America’s engagement with the Muslim world; second, the challenge today is rooted in the appeal of "resistance", which is in turn rooted in mass, popular, and political issues rather than religious ideologies; and third, the appropriate response is not to conflate the various elements of "resistance" into a single threat but to disaggregate them, reframe the issues and eliminate its political appeal.
I began by quoting the President, who in Ankara gave a powerful statement of how the new administration sees this:
“the United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject. But I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim work cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.
This is exactly right. The “war of ideas” and the emphasis on “combatting violent extremism” represents a dangerously narrow focus for America’s engagement with the Islamic world, one which the Obama administration has already begun to reverse. The focus on violent extremism, while important, presents a far too narrow conception of America’s interests in the Arab and Muslim worlds, privileges and reinforces al-Qaeda’s conception of the nature of the confrontation, and — most ironically – comes at a time when al-Qaeda is weaker than it has ever been as a political force in the Arab world. Al-Qaeda should be marginalized, recognized for the radical fringe movement which it is.
Al-Qaeda itself, at least in the Arab world, is virtually unrecognizable from its post-9/11 profile. While U.S. strategic communications efforts may have helped along these trends, for the most part they were the product of the Arab world’s own internal dynamics – as Arab regimes such as the Saudis and popular Arab movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas turned against al-Qaeda out of their own self-interest. Al-Qaeda thrived after 9/11 by hijacking the popular issues about which mass Arab publics cared — Palestine, Iraq, Arab despotism — but over the last few years has lost its ability to claim this mantle of generalized resistance. It has been on the wrong side of most of the major arguments in the Arab world in the last few years, especially Hezbollah (most Arabs supported it, al-Qaeda couldn’t get over the Shia issue), Hamas, and participation in democratic elections. And it was badly hurt by revulsion over its methods in Iraq and by its attacks on local targets which killed a lot of local Muslims which is inherently unpopular. Even its rising profile in South Asia doesn’t matter much in the Arab world — for Arabs, Afghanistan and Pakistan might as well be on the moon.
At the same time, I think that the U.S. got smarter about this towards the end of the Bush administration, when its approach shifted from the crude "why do they hate us" lumping together of widely disparate movements to a more careful exploration of the lines of division within Islamist movements. The Iraq experience showed this graphically: years of undifferentiated warfare against an insurgency seen as monolithic and infused with radical extremist ideology only strengthend that insurgency, while the decision to work with the "Awakenings" and to cooperate with "former" insurgents proved far more effective (at least in the short run). This was one of the sharpest points of disagreement on the panel, I should note: Rob Satloff strongly disagreed with this premise, arguing that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood should be considered part of the problem — "non-violent extremists" acting as a conveyor belt towards violent extremism. That discussion will continue — I have a piece coming out on precisely this point.
But al-Qaeda’s decline doesn’t mean that support for American foreign policy is rising. It has always been the case that al-Qaeda can lose without the U.S. “winning” with the mainstream publics which most matter. Indeed, despite some optimism over Obama’s election and appreciation of his outreach efforts, thanks in large part to Israel’s recent war with Gaza the spirit of “resistance” is strong and rising. Responding effectively to that requires different tools and conceptual frameworks than those which were appropriate for the struggle agaisnt al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda offered a radical religious ideology which sought to hijack popular political issues to broaden its appeal, and primarily drew upon a small, marginal fringe of Arab and Muslim societies. It had no political demands which could be addressed. But today’s discourse of resistance is mass-based rather than concentrated in a small radicalized fringe, and is fundamentally political rather than religious. That means a political response, not a response focused on delegitimizing violent extremism, and a public diplomacy oriented towards mass publics rather than strategic communications oriented towards a concentrated, marginal niche.
I argued that the focus of our engagement with the Muslim world must be to reframe and transcend the binary oppositions which fuel the appeal of the advocates of resistance. That engagement must be oriented not toward "counter-radicalization" but towards public arguments about the political issues about which mass publics and elites care — whether through traditional means such as broadcasting and appearances on satellite television or massively ramped up exchange programs, or through the kinds of internet-based new media technologies which Jim Glassman so passionately advocates.
Either way, such a "great conversation" will have to tackle head-on the major political issues — above all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the Obama administration should be and is taking a very public lead role in pushing for a just two-state solution. (The withdrawal from Iraq and the renunication of torture and closure of Guantanamo are two other areas where significant positive actions have already been taken in this regard; the de-emphasis on democracy and human rights issues is, on the other hand, a step backwards.)
America’s public engagement in this environment should — and will — focus less upon al-Qaeda and more on building broad support for American foreign policy goals, establishing long-term foundations of trust and mutual respect, supporting engagement with potential adversaries, and moving beyond the counter-productive binary oppositions and threat inflation which have blocked progress for so many years.
My remarks contrasted sharply with the vision outlined by General Michael Herzog (Ehud Barak’s chief of staff at the Israeli Ministry of Defense) in the plenary session. Herzog offered this graphic, if familiar, imagery: Iran is the head, Syria the body, and Hamas and Hezbollah the two arms reaching out to strangle Israel. I countered that this conflation of different challenges was misleading, dangerous, and unhelpful. Hamas and Hezbollah are two of the most popular forces in the Arab world — why "give" them to Iran? Treat Hezbollah as a Lebanese issue, Hamas as a Palestinian issue, and resolve them on their own terms. Address Syria’s national interests in a direct dialogue. And engage with Iran seriously, not just as a show before getting on to sanctions or military confrontation.
Framing the region’s politics as a binary choice between Israel and the US vs Iran only strengthens Iran by making it about "us" — the same mistake the U.S. made in the first few years after 9/11. Believing that Arabs would rally to the side of Israel against Iran — especially without any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue — is wishful thinking of the highest (and most strategically dangerous) order. The lessons of the last few years should be that the better approach is to take away the appeal of "resistance" by reframing the confrontation, disaggregating the challenge, and dealing pragmatically with the political issues rather than engaging in rhetorical wars of ideas. Riding the tiger of anti-Iranian sentiment would be counter-productive — increasing rather than decreasing Iran’s appeal in the region, strengthening its most repressive and autocratic forces, and sharply conflicting with President Obama’s vision for the region.
I expect that many people in the room — and many people reading this — disagreed with at least some part of it. But hopefully it will push the debate forward.