X + 9/11

Everything I needed to know about fighting terrorism I learned from George F. Kennan.

George F. Kennan celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year. The dean of U.S. diplomats is best known for his strategy of containment, which he first articulated in the so-called long telegram that he sent from Moscow in 1946 — and soon thereafter unveiled in his 1947 article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," published under the pseudonym "X." Several conferences honoring Kennan have praised his enormous contribution to U.S. Cold War strategy, yet the most fitting tribute would be to apply his seminal theories to our present era — to examine the sources of terrorist conduct.

Containing the Soviet Union and fighting terrorism are strikingly different undertakings. Kennan examined the behavior of a sovereign state with defined borders, an established populace, a recognized government, and an official ideology. Terrorism, by contrast, does not operate within clear boundaries or abide by diplomatic niceties. Containment cannot deal with such an elusive adversary. But neither is war a fully adequate concept for addressing terrorism as an ongoing challenge. Terror is the tactic, not the adversary itself. To deal with terrorism over the longer term, we must go beyond the symptoms of the problem to address its underlying causes — which is precisely where Kennan’s strategic logic takes us.

In his X article, Kennan argued that Soviet power was the product of both ideology and circumstance. Russia’s antipathy toward the West was born of historical insecurity. In that context, communism was less a goal than a means — a way for Moscow to maintain control at home and spread its influence abroad. "This means that truth is not a constant but is actually created, for all intents and purposes, by the Soviet leaders themselves," Kennan wrote. "It is nothing absolute and immutable." This observation led Kennan to two conclusions: First, the United States was engaged in a long-term struggle, because the Soviet leaders — confident in their ideological infallibility and secure in their belief of ultimate triumph — were in no hurry to achieve their goals. But, Kennan was quick to add, this messianic conviction did not mean the Soviets were necessarily committed to a do-or-die struggle to the end. He did not assume that Soviet ideology was so powerful that it could not be overcome, or that the zealotry of the present generation of leaders would necessarily be passed to the next. If the Western powers remained vigilant, Kennan believed, the Soviet system would inevitably turn inward to deal with its inherent contradictions.

Kennan was not soft on communism. His containment strategy targeted the Soviet regime, whose aggressive impulses had to be kept in check. But he also argued for a strategy of engagement with the Russian people, whom he refused to consider permanent U.S. enemies. Kennan later lamented that containment came to be seen in almost exclusively military terms; what he had in mind was the full range of economic, political, psychological, military, and cultural tools at the United States’ disposal.

Today, the United States and its allies again confront a seemingly implacable adversary. The challenge is to address and understand the sources of terrorist conduct, even as we counter the efforts of those who would attack us. Like the Soviets before them, Islamic militants are a product of both ideology and circumstance. Although the militants can trace their ideas to strains of puritanical Islam from the 14th century and to the Wahhabi and Salafi movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, much of their pathology is unrelated to religion. Al Qaeda is, to a large extent, a symptom of social dislocation.

The benefits of economic globalization have largely bypassed Arab countries, even as it has exposed them as never before to outside influences. In oil-rich states, elites have used their wealth and power to maintain authoritarian rule and avoid economic and political reform. It is no surprise that the citizens of these countries view the outside world through the prism of exploitation. Meanwhile, the pervasive exposure to Western mass culture has served both to attract and alienate these societies. It’s an old story: The more modern and dynamic society undermines the traditional society’s values, practices, and allegiances. The recurring response to such an existential crisis is a surge in millenarian beliefs and an inclination toward nihilism. As has been the case in countless struggles before, terrorism is the quintessential weapon of the weak against the strong.

These conditions, however, need not be permanent. Hard as it may be to penetrate the anti-American sentiment prevalent in the Muslim world, the United States must undertake a strategy of engagement similar to what Kennan proposed for the Russian people. The two worlds are not as far apart as many think. A 2003 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reveals that citizens in Muslim countries place a high value on freedom of expression and the press, multiparty political systems, and equal treatment under the law.

Western nations should not assume that "we" and "they" have nothing in common. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his followers deplore the materialism and vacuity of modern society. So do many in the West. Terrorists and their supporters rage against the inequities and degradation wrought by globalization. So do many thoughtful critics who would not dream of resorting to terrorism to achieve their goals. One of the core failings of communist ideology was that Karl Marx failed to understand that many of the class antagonisms he identified could be overcome peacefully rather than via class struggle. Similarly, the terrorist struggle is neither inevitable nor unending.

The most immediate task for Western governments is to continue to wage a broad-gauged campaign against al Qaeda and its leadership, while strengthening defenses against terrorist attack. But in the long term, the challenge is not only, or even principally, a military one. Indeed, many of the grievances that terrorists exploit — economic inequality, alienation brought on by globalization, and a sense of cultural humiliation — are remediable, at least potentially. Western countries have already advanced several elements of an engagement strategy, including the U.S.-sponsored Middle East Partnership Initiative, which funds programs that promote economic, educational, and political reform, and the European Union’s Barcelona Process, which aims to create a free-trade zone with several Arab countries by 2010. The United States and its allies need to coordinate and sustain such efforts, and extend their engagement beyond pro-reform elites to nongovernmental activists and civil-society leaders. Just as the United States’ cultural and exchange programs in Europe after World War II helped overcome old animosities, a new wave of programs should be put in place as a long-term investment in the future of the West’s relationship with the Muslim world.

A policy of engagement with the Middle East also requires the development of a regional security framework. NATO could play a role in such an endeavor, by deepening and broadening its Mediterranean Dialogue, which currently encompasses seven Arab and North African states. What is needed over the longer term, however, is something broadly analogous to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) — a region-wide framework that was founded in the 1970s to foster East-West cooperation and helped pave the way for the end of the Cold War. The CSCE was the logical culmination of Kennan’s strategy for Europe, and it could be applied to the Middle East as well. Some elements of this security framework may include the participation of the United States; others may not.

Even as it wages a resolute campaign against international terrorism, America should not believe that it is engaged in a fight to the finish with radical Islam. This conflict is not a clash of civilizations, but rather a defense of our shared humanity and a search for common ground, however implausible that may seem now. Rapprochement is no more possible with Osama bin Laden than it was with Joseph Stalin back when Kennan was writing, and it will remain a distant hope for some years to come. Yet there is reason for optimism if we take the longer view, as Kennan did. "The issue… is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations," he wrote. "To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation." 

It was good advice then. It is good advice now.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola