Earlier this week the Washington Institute for Near East Policy released a report entitled, Fighting the Ideological Battle: The Missing Link in US Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism.
The report has gotten more than its share of attention by being framed as “challenging the administration’s shift in its recently unveiled National Security Strategy…” (Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press and others)
This framing has encouraged long-time administration critics to renew charges that this White House — and John Brennan, in particular – is soft on terrorism. (Andrew Bostrum, Washington Times) Without the fuss I probably would not have seen the report, so — however tawdry and misleading – marketing has its benefits. The product is better than the marketing.
I perceive the report less a challenge than a constructive contribution to the tough task of effectively targeting how we should confront violent extremism. Most aspects of the Washington Institute report are entirely coherent with key elements of the speech Mr. Brennan gave at CSIS in August last year. (Please see a prior post: An Exegesis on the Words of John (Brennan))
To encourage you to download and read the full report, here are three contiguous paragraphs from the close of the analysis, just before the recommendations.
Unfortunately, despite the sharp rise in terrorist plots and cases of homegrown radicalization, specific policies and programs aimed squarely at countering the radical narrative remain few and far between. The Obama administration’s efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, eliminate certain interrogation techniques, and change the tone of U.S. engagement with Muslim communities worldwide have met with a generally positive response abroad. According to the June 2010 Pew survey, confidence in the U.S. president increased 43 percent from 2007 to 2010. Yet such efforts do little to address the immediacy of violent extremism. Even the targeted killings of al-Qaeda leaders plotting attacks today may in the long run create new recruits hungry for revenge. It is axiomatic that the United States cannot simply kill its way out of the problem; it must find ways to take on the extremist ideology directly. To date, however, official policy as articulated in the National Security Strategy limits U.S. efforts to “combating violent extremism”— which, although necessary, is not sufficient for creating an acceptable end-state in which both the violence and the ideology that fuels it are taboo within Muslim majority nations around the world, and are no longer animating the global terrorist threat of most concern to the United States. Once individuals cross over into violence their radicalization is complete; the last step in a process has been reached. Even as law enforcement, military, and intelligence successes against al- Qaeda grow, the ideological challenge, unless actively confronted, will continue to metastasize.
The National Security Strategy states that America is “fighting a war against a far-reaching network of hatred and violence,” going on to refer exclusively to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Recognizing that the more “kinetic” side of counterterrorism gets the lion’s share of the administration’s attention—especially with U.S. troops still deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorists trying to attack us at home—the White House needs to direct more attention to combating the ideology that animates the violent groups. The government should assign bureaucratic priority to this endeavor and raise public consciousness of the need to stem the spread of radical extremist ideology. To be sure, officials need to make very clear that they do not consider Islam itself a danger, only the distorted version of Islam perpetrated by radical extremists. But they— and, in particular, the president—must also come to terms with the fact that individuals implicated in each of the recently exposed plots in the United States were imbued with a common radical ethos.
Counterradicalization in all its forms is an essential complement to counterterrorism. The latter we do relatively well, the failure to connect the dots prior to the attempted bombing of Flight 253 notwithstanding; the former we barely do at all. The result: a group of middle class Muslim Americans from northern Virginia videotape a militant message, leaves for jihad at the advice of a Taliban recruiter, and is arrested in the home of a known militant in Pakistan. “We are not terrorists,” one of them said as he entered a Pakistani courtroom, “We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism.” All elements of national power should be used to counter this proposition and its myriad implications, so that the very notion that Muslims have a religious duty to commit acts of terror is challenged and debunked. There are no guarantees that if the United States had been fully engaged in this effort for the past ten years, the young Virginia men would not have boarded that flight to Pakistan. But unless we accelerate and expand our efforts now, we can be assured that others will follow in their footsteps.
The recommendations which follow are entirely sensible. With more time than I have it would be possible to find administration documents, speeches, and such saying almost the same. The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are much more differentiated than the Washington Institute’s report is from the National Security Strategy.
I can, however, imagine at least one senior administration official taking serious exception to one of the report’s specific recommendations: “Designate a single address for the coordination of U.S. public diplomacy, strategic communication, and counterradicalization strategy within the White House. Empowering someone close to the president to orchestrate the overall effort to combat radicalization both at home and abroad is critical to maintaining strategic focus over the longer term.”
I’m pretty sure John Brennan considers that his address. He is in the midst of a significant refurbishment. I don’t think he intends to move any time soon.
Much of the fussing over the report focused on whether the term “Islamic terrorist” or “Jihadist” should be used in referring to some violent extremists. This week the blog On Faith has aggregated a diverse set of opinions around the question, “What to call terrorists?” You can access the site at: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/2010/07/what_to_call_terrorists/all.html