Inside the Fight Over Obama’s Terror Summit

The State Department is squabbling over acronyms, the White House may come up empty-handed, and the right is blaming it all on Islam.

<> on February 17, 2015 in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 17: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a roundtable discussion of the opening session of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism February 17, 2015 at Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. The discussion brought together city representatives who have been working on countering violent extremism from the three pilot cities in the U.S. of Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St.Paul and Boston and two cities in Europe. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This week, senior dignitaries from 60 nations are descending on Washington for President Barack Obama’s long-postponed summit on countering violent extremism: a massive three-day spectacle of law enforcement officers, diplomats, faith leaders, educators, and entrepreneurs talking about ways to neutralize the root causes of terrorism.

Under normal circumstances, it’s the type of confab that would generate little attention outside the Beltway. But these are not normal circumstances.

On the right, neoconservatives have blasted the White House for not focusing exclusively on radical Islam given that the deadly attacks in Paris, Copenhagen, Ottawa, and Sydney were carried out by radicalized Muslims. Meanwhile, Muslim and civil rights groups have criticized the summit’s repeated references to “Muslim threats,” noting that incidents of extremist violence attributable to Muslims are only a fraction of those carried out in the United States.

Welcome to the tortured politics of hosting a counter-extremism summit in Washington, D.C. If the debate over how much to focus on Islam were the only hurdle for this White House, the summit would be a manageable affair. But the internal politics of the summit have been as heated as the external politics. And it hasn’t helped that at least some State Department officials only learned about their involvement in the summit on Jan. 11, when the White House issued a public press release in the crazed aftermath of the Paris attacks.

“The White House made the announcement and then everyone at State started scrambling,” said one State Department official.

The more substantive internal issue at play, according to U.S. and foreign diplomats, is the summit’s emphasis on a broad approach to countering extremism that risks yielding few actionable goals. From poverty, corruption, and girls’ education to unemployment and building “resilient communities,” the State Department leadership is bent on mashing together a variety of potential drivers of extremism into its part of the conference.

“I don’t expect anything to come of this summit,” said one individual directly involved in the event’s planning. “Extremism varies from country to country, neighborhood to neighborhood, and city to city. How are you going to achieve anything with 60 nations involved?” While remaining broadly supportive of the exchange of ideas that results from foreign governments meeting to discuss extremism, the source said the diversity of threats across 60 countries makes it difficult to produce a coherent takeaway.

Senior administration officials counter that radicalization is a global problem that requires a holistic and multilateral approach. “This not a one-size-fits-all policy,” a senior administration official said Monday in a background call with reporters. “If we’re just going to push out one model from that top … it won’t be effective.”

The Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, originally scheduled for last October, officially began on Tuesday.

The first two days of the summit will be hosted by the White House and underscore U.S. efforts to improve ties between law enforcement and Muslim communities, with a particular focus on three pilot programs in Minneapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles. The third day of the summit is hosted by the State Department and will focus on international programs aimed at countering violent extremism. Both events will feature remarks from the president.

Obama critics point to the unwieldy nature of the conference as evidence that the White House should have focused more narrowly on Islamic extremism. But counter-extremism experts inside and outside of government say that criticism misses the point and carries its own set of problems.

“Just focusing on one brand of extremism alone really alienates not just a lot of people who’ve spoken out forcefully against [radical Islam], but the members of the anti-ISIL coalition,” said one official, noting the variety of Muslim and Arab-majority countries involved in the fight against the Islamic State militant group.

A number of officials pointed to Britain’s botched Prevent program, an Islam-centric counter-extremism effort launched in 2005 that backfired by alienating Muslims and making cooperation with law enforcement officials even more difficult.

“From a policy perspective, that’s the wrong approach to take,” said another U.S. official.

Outside specialists involved in the conference say the debate about focusing on Islam is a sideshow. The real issue, they say, is a change in the State Department’s counter-extremism approach, which has broadened exponentially in recent years.

For Foggy Bottom’s portion of the event, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken delegated substantial power to Sarah Sewall, the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.

Over the last year, Sewall has gone to great lengths to establish her own brand of extremism prevention — changing the original approach known as CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) to PVE (Preventing Violent Extremism). Where CVE focused narrowly on the counter-messaging of radical ideologies (especially under the department’s counterterrorism adviser), PVE constituted a vastly broader approach to fighting extremism that includes “ensuring inclusive governments,” strengthening civilian institutions, “building secure and resilient communities,” and “amplifying” the voice of Muslim educators and leaders.

She elaborated on her new approach in a Jan. 20 speech in Brussels. “Where there is weak governance or a lack of quality education, economic opportunity, or respect for human rights, citizens are most at risk to being alienated by or from their governments and each other,” she said. “This is not just about ideological affinity; it is about alienation and anger that drives communities to align or tolerate the violent extremists.”

Despite Sewall’s efforts to proliferate the PVE branding beyond her office, it’s had difficulty penetrating elsewhere in the building, according to multiple State Department officials. “If you ask people in Sewall’s office, they’ll be able to tell you what the difference is between PVE and CVE, but it’s a bit unclear to everyone else,” said one official. A number of diplomats described it as rich in buzzy catchphrases, but poor in real-world feasibility.

The battle of the acronyms has also been seen as a proxy fight between Sewall’s office and the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, which previously took the lead on counter-extremism efforts. Officials say relations between the counterterrorism bureau’s coordinator, Tina Kaidanow, and Sewall have been rocky as Sewall takes on more of the portfolio.

As an example of the counterterrorism bureau’s diminished role, it will only hold one meeting this week related to the summit: a ministerial-level gathering focused on the foreign-fighter threat from conflicts in Iraq and Syria. While the topic is important — and many believe crucial to the ultimate goal of the summit — it will be the only thing the bureau has a significant impact on.

Defenders of Sewall’s PVE approach say that the previous strategy was too narrow to tackle the complex problems of radicalization and extremist violence. While some have conceded that point, they don’t think PVE, given its breadth and depth, is well-suited for a one-day ministerial meeting.

Another way to judge the conference will be if it produces any new initiatives or “deliverables.” The only response administration officials have been able to offer is that it may result in international progress on counter-extremism efforts in September during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to assess and see our progress in September on the margins of UNGA, and then have a sense of really what this, as a catalyst activity, has been able to motivate,” said a senior administration official.

That response has fueled concerns that the summit itself is overly duplicative of other counter-extremism forums at the U.N. and the Global Counterterrorism Forum, an existing consortium of nations that meet to discuss different counterterrorism methods.

“Are we just having a big meeting, in advance of another big meeting?” asked one insider.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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