The Problem With Big Speeches at High Altitude

At Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry had some lofty ideas for combating violent extremism. But getting things done in the Middle East is about seeing reality at sea level.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures on January 23, 2015 during a speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

George Shultz once facetiously (but correctly) quipped that when you don’t have a policy, the pressure grows to give a speech.

George Shultz once facetiously (but correctly) quipped that when you don’t have a policy, the pressure grows to give a speech.

Coherent policy or not, words really are important — particularly if you’re the secretary of state in charge of the diplomatic vision that defines the department. Still, the rhetoric needs to be anchored in reality, both in seeing the world the way it is and in seeing it the way you eventually want it to be.

Reading John Kerry’s words at Davos last week at the World Economic Forum, however, started me thinking about the relationship between rhetoric and reality.

Kerry’s speech offered up a big vision of how to counter “violent extremism” — the Obama administration’s euphemism of choice and a substitute for the much less politically correct, but frankly more accurate, “war on terror” used by his predecessor.

That vision spanned the globe — from Nigeria to Somalia, Iraq to Pakistan, Syria to Ukraine — and spanned most every dimension of human enterprise: politics, psychology, economics, education, military force, intelligence, and basically everything else under the sun that could be employed to capture the hearts and minds required to counter radicalism and strengthen the forces of moderation. Kerry eloquently identified the enemy as a form of “criminal anarchy, a nihilism which illegitimately claims an ideological and religious foundation.” And he challenged the international community to rise to the occasion as the “inheritors of an activist tradition that is utterly unafraid of great challenges and, in fact, is most effective when we are put to the test.”

Much of what the secretary said is accurate. Kerry is right about the rise of violent extremism being a “challenge to the nation-state and the global rule of law.” And, in referring to this year’s 70th anniversary marking the end of World War II, he’s also right to suggest that countering terrorism requires the kind of effort the West launched to defeat fascism.

Still, as a statement of the Obama administration’s view of the world of terror, Kerry’s Davos speech reflected some key anomalies and flaws. It’s a vision as inspiring as it is unrealistic and unrealizable. Indeed, when it comes to combating terrorism, Kerry’s words focused too much on the way he wants the world to be, rather than on the more inconvenient reality of the way the world actually is — and the limitations of America’s capacity to transform it. And as a result, the Davos speech created a huge expectations gap between the comprehensive goals Kerry laid out and the capacity of the United States to deliver on them. Let’s go to the videotape:

“And the place to begin is quite simply by defeating Daesh.”

Call it what you will (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh), focusing on the Islamic State makes sense. It’s the reason the president, who for so long willfully avoided militarizing the U.S. role in Syria, finally began to use force. But Kerry’s World War II analogy in this speech — the notion that the United States is going to defeat the Islamic State like it defeated the Nazis — strains credulity to the breaking point. America’s involvement in World War II lasted nearly five years. The country has already been at war with radical Islamists for three times that long. Nearly a decade and a half after the 9/11 attacks, despite all our success against al Qaeda core, we have yet to take care of old business. The most immediate threat to the U.S. homeland isn’t the Islamic State, but an affiliate of al Qaeda — AQAP. Indeed, as the recent Paris attacks revealed, Anwar al-Awlaki, dead now for nearly four years, continues to speak to us from his grave.

This isn’t Europe in 1945. The Saudis and Egyptians aren’t the French and British. And there’s no place in the Middle East like Japan or Germany — where citizens would wholeheartedly admit defeat, welcome their conquerors, and renounce the sins of their former leaders. If you want a better analogy time-wise for fighting the scourge of radical Islam, it isn’t the short war of 1939-1945, but the long Cold War of 1945-1991.

Even if you attach the qualifying word “ultimately” — as both the president and the secretary have done in the context of “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State — Washington faces a task of heroic proportions. As significant as whacking 6,000 Islamic State fighters may be (perhaps out of a total of 30,000-plus), it isn’t sufficient.

Ultimately defeating the Islamic State would require good governance on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, not to mention equitable power-sharing among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. The United States can weaken the Islamic State, help local allies, and even take back lost ground in Iraq. Washington can and will do its best to prevent and preempt Islamic State-directed terrorism against Europe and the U.S. homeland.

But defeating the Islamic State? Not without a long-term solution in Iraq and Syria. It’s good that Kerry knows where to begin, but figuring out what comes later is the bigger challenge.

“Obviously, the biggest error that we could make would be to blame Muslims collectively for … crimes that the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose.”

Fair enough. No reasonable person would disagree with the sentiments Kerry expresses here. But there’s no reason to move to the other extreme either, to create the impression that the threat we face right now is evenly distributed across the globe or is driven by some detached, anonymous, and mysterious force. The challenge the civilized world — from Morocco to Marseilles — faces is anchored in a particular region and in a particular set of grievances. Let’s be plain: It’s even specific to a particular religion — hijacked though it may be in the name of some hideous, sociopathic enterprise.

In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. Of the 24 countries most restrictive to the free exercise of religion, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.

Why the president and secretary of state insist on running away from these facts is not entirely clear. Political correctness? Sensitivity to abetting mindless Islamophobia? Or is it that some of America’s Arab allies (see: Saudi Arabia) are also tethered to a fundamentalist form of Islam that makes free exercise of religion impossible, castigates Jews and Christians, denies women equal rights, and spreads a fundamentalism to mosques and madrasas throughout the Muslim world. Indeed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that billions of dollars in private Gulf money — and, until fairly recently, official monies too — flow to the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, and other Islamist groups.

Kerry rightly talks about how bad or no governance in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Nigeria fuel radical sentiments — yet he didn’t address in his speech the fact that in repressing legitimate nonviolent dissent, America’s own Middle Eastern allies help feed the very extremism they presumably want to counter.

“We have to take more risks. We have to invest more resources. We need a global partnership that legitimately implements this broader strategy.”

Who could argue with that? But the kitchen sink of remedies that the secretary identified in his Davos remarks — from creating economic prosperity to supporting accountable political and justice systems, from countering Ebola, AIDS, and poverty to building “vocational education, training in modern technology, ensuring the workforce [has] the participation of women and minorities” — boggles the mind. I’m all for these things, but aren’t we creating a mission of unrealistic size, limitless scope, and unrealizable expectations?

The secretary concluded by posing two choices, neither of which, frankly, is palatable: “We can sit back and we can assure ourselves that somehow [violent extremism] may not touch us … or we can go forward with a truly comprehensive and long-term strategy to destroy its very roots.”

The latter would be nice. But the secretary’s transformative approach to countering extremism and violence worldwide is just a more peaceful analogue to the Bush 43 administration’s transformative efforts to remake Iraq in 2003. Kerry’s notions would have been much more believable and effective had he opened with a vision but then spent most of the speech concentrating on three or four priorities when it comes to combating terrorism: intelligence cooperation, counterterrorism, more effective integration of Muslim communities (particularly in Europe), and a campaign in the Arab World to support Muslims in countering their own extremists.

Terrorism exists in this region primarily because the Arab Middle East is a broken, angry, and dysfunctional place. Washington can’t fix it; only those who live in the region can — and only when they begin to take a long look in the mirror and own up to the responsibility of taking care of their own people.

Hey, look: I get it. Davos is a place for big ideas. But the Middle East right now isn’t the time or place for it. Rather, the administration should make efforts to transform and fix where it can. But always preempt, prevent, and contain. It’s far from perfect. But in terms of protecting American interests and the U.S. homeland, it’s not only more realistic — it stands a much better chance of keeping us safe and secure.

Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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