Killing the Islamic State Softly

Military power will win battles in Syria and Iraq, but only soft power can win the war.

BAGHDAD, Iraq:  A Iraqi boy shakes hands with a US soldier during the Food Distribution Mission operated by Alpha Company, 425th Civil Affairs Company and 304th PYSOP Company of Task Force 4-64 Armor in Baghdad's Janain area, 29 August 2005.  AFP PHOTO/LIU Jin  (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, Iraq: A Iraqi boy shakes hands with a US soldier during the Food Distribution Mission operated by Alpha Company, 425th Civil Affairs Company and 304th PYSOP Company of Task Force 4-64 Armor in Baghdad's Janain area, 29 August 2005. AFP PHOTO/LIU Jin (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

As we grapple with the continuing challenges of the Islamic State, it is clear that significant military efforts will be required. There are times when hard power has to be at the center of a campaign, especially against an apocalyptic cult that believes in burning, drowning, and torturing its victims while selling children into sexual slavery, among other horrors.

In terms of the military campaign, there are a series of clear steps that we should collectively undertake: building a robust command and control network; increasing intelligence sharing across the coalition; doubling the scope of the bombing campaign; upping the level of cyberattacks; cutting off financing; formalizing a special forces task force; putting in 15,000 troops to train local forces; conducting a multi-axis ground campaign against Mosul with Kurdish Peshmerga from the north and Iraqi security forces from the south; and drawing on the nascent Arab security coalition led by the Saudis to conduct ground operations in Syria.

There’s a growing consensus on the outlines of this military campaign, though admittedly, it won’t be easy to execute. What is far more difficult to outline is what tools and strategies will comprise the long game against the Islamic State.

In their seminal 2007 report, Professor Joseph Nye and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage correctly pointed out that to solve the biggest problems we need a mix of hard and soft power — which they termed “smart power.” Of note, that commission included members like former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; Sen. Jack Reed, now the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. Mac Thornberry, now the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; and Marine Gen. Tony Zinni, a former Centcom commander. The most important line in that report is simple: “Soft power is the ability to attract people to our side without coercion.” That is the contest we are currently losing, and bombs and troops can’t comprehensively defeat the Islamic State without it.

The interesting question is this: What would a smart power campaign directed against the challenges represented by the Islamic State (which are of course broader than just that group) look like? What are the techniques; levels of resources; and strategies of cooperation, collaboration, and communication?

This is of course a big, complicated campaign, but if we are going to have a hard power campaign, what does the soft power side look like? I laid out some of this several years ago in a TED talk, but much has changed since then. As a starting point for today’s challenges, here are four suggestions on the soft power side of the equation:

1. Recognize that the cost will be high. At one point during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States was spending close to $1 billion dollars per day. A soft power campaign against the Islamic State will not be as expensive, but it will be costly. Job creation, education, medical diplomacy, and infrastructure redevelopment could run up to $200 billion annually. But shared among a global coalition of 60-plus nations, it’s not an unmanageable cost. In addition to the hard power contingent of about 15,000 troops, we should be thinking about a surge of at least 5,000 more humanitarian workers from places like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), including refugee camp organizers, humanitarian logisticians, medical personnel, and educators.

2. Seek a collective, truly international strategy for the region. Under the aegis of a big international organization like the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross, convene the international soft power community. This would include national organizations like USAID, the British Department for International Development, and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency; the largest international humanitarian organizations (Doctors Without Borders, Feed the Children, Red Cross/Red Crescent); and other international nongovernmental entities (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and regional agencies). This should be convened early in 2016 to produce a roadmap, donor pledges, and an accountable steering committee.

3. Focus on drafting and resourcing a powerful collective strategic narrative. At the heart of this strategy should be constructing a narrative to counter violent extremism in the Islamic world and build alternatives in those affected societies. In this area, one basic failure here is our approach. Too often people say to me, “You’re right: We have to get better in the war of ideas.” Nope. “The war of ideas” is as flawed a theory as “the war on drugs.” We need a “marketplace of ideas.” In practice, this means focusing on showing alternative positive paths, not simply portraying the negative side of radical Islam.

It is not axiomatic or an obvious given that what we believe in (democracy, liberty, freedom of expression, gender and racial equality) will sell best in that marketplace. So we need to show why we believe they are the right ideas, and that will require using better means of delivery (Internet, television, radio, leaflet); being able to respond rapidly to changing events (reshaping messages, highlighting successes on our side and failures on the part of the extremists); and providing more culturally attuned offerings (film, novels, poetry, games). The key to competing in the marketplace of ideas will be showing a vision of life that is positive and fulfilling (and in accordance with mainstream Islam). Not an easy sell, but impossible to achieve if we don’t try.

We also need to study and counter the narrative being received from the other side, which is nuanced and sophisticated, both in message and delivery. A recent article in the New York Times lays out what we are up against, and we need to recognize it will be a challenge to overcome it. This is the most important thing we can and must do.

4. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Not everything will be solved by employment, of course, but as an alternative to active jihad, the chance to build a life — steady employment, a healthy family, a financially viable community-based circle — will help keep some away from the fight. In any given insurgency, about one-third of the participants will be hard-core adherents who will not be won over by alternatives, no matter how cleverly presented or richly resourced; but about one-third are very winnable when presented with an alternative (e.g. a job), and another third will waver but conceivably could be weaned away or prevented from engaging to begin with. A private-public Marshall Plan-like mentality, which builds a business infrastructure in Syria and Iraq through a combination of grants and investment, can help. Organizations like the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, private-sector investors, and sovereign wealth investment funds could add to the effort.

Some cynics will say that this sounds laughable — yet over the past two decades, we have seen relatively quick economic recovery in bitterly war-torn zones from Rwanda to Colombia to Sarajevo. It can be achieved if the people of the region essentially want to love their children more than hate the sect next door. History has plenty of examples of rapid improvement in similarly terrible circumstances, including, of course, both Europe and Japan after WWII.

All of this will be expensive and hard, but compared to the alternative — simply relying on bombs or guns to defeat the Islamic State — it will be more efficient and effective, especially over the long term. We need hard power now to strike the Islamic State; but over time we need to bring soft power into the mix. And that is the only choice for dealing with the turbulence emanating from the Arab world today.

Photo credit:  Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj