Security Studies Program Seminar
Can We Win the War on Terror?
Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution
March 12, 2008
What have we gotten right, wrong, and what should we do?
- The balance sheet in this war is mostly negative: Iraq is a quagmire, Iran is on the loose, Al-Qaida has havens back on the Afghan-Pak border. The U.S. hasn't been hit, but everyone else has (Britain, Spain, Middle East).
- Policy options:
- The policy of transformation is right, it will just take more time and effort. Keep going, work harder, don't draw judgments yet. This seems a bit silly though—its been seven years now.
- We are more or less on the right track, but need to be more vigorous. This war needs to be like WWII. We are now fighting the wrong war. However, this is thinking about it the wrong way. Wrong conception. The analogy to WWII is bad, as we're not even close in terms of resource allocation. Also, not clear mass mobilization would actually reduce the terror threat.
- Better analogy for policy: the Cold War.
- Most important similarity: long-term ideological challenges that can't be won decisively like a war. It is a long term fight to remove the legitimacy and plausibility of the Islamist ideology.
- Four lessons of the Cold War:
- 1) Containment is a better strategy than the available alternatives. “Rolling back” terrorists/communists is too hard; similarly, surrender is unappetizing. Like during the Cold War, containment is a tough sell: we like decisive action or isolation. We like to apply immense power and we hate to live with threats. Today containment means: intelligence, law, police, homeland security, and sometimes military action. It means to accept you can't get rid of the threat, and to let the ideology wither.
- 2) Values and ideas are important to winning the struggle. Our ideas were better, and theirs were contradictory. We needed to maintain the health and vigor of our society and our ideas in order to win. We did not always live our values, but we understood, on balance, their import. Today abiding by values and ideas means: stopping aggrandized executive power, unlimited detention, torture, etc.
- 3) Even superpowers need friends: alliances are critical. NATO, UN, Bretton-Woods institutions. People only follow when you have legitimacy and believe in your good ideas. Mere decisiveness is not enough. Today: Bush spurns the world, and this is a bad idea.
- 4) Divide and conquer; don't force your opponents together. We made mistakes early in the cold war, but eventually took advantage of communist divisions. Today: we lump together all terrorist organizations and all Islamists of all kinds. But actually these are different threats that require different responses.
- What are the reasons for terrorism? Easier to say which reasons aren't. Poverty, appeasement, not good reasons.
- There is no great correspondence between terrorist targets and social freedom. Also, failure to respond to previous attacks seems to be a poor explanation: suicide terrorists can't really be deterred by a strong response. Iraq also seems not to have added much to deterrence.
- Poverty is a bad explanation at the individual level: terrorists tend to be middle class, well educated, etc. Doesn't work at the country level either; Saudi Arabia and Egypt pretty wealthy and produce most terrorists. Meanwhile, Haiti and Madagascar don't produce terrorists.
- What does matter:
- Lack of democracy matters a little; repression leads to anger humiliation, frustration that leads to attacks. But these people don't hate illiberal regimes for their illiberality, they hate them for their sin! This is not a sufficient condition: China is deeply illiberal, but not really a target of Islamic terrorists. Nor is it a necessary condition: Britain and America are very liberal societies that get targeted. Finally democracy is hard, so it's difficult to change this factor.
- Most persuasive: humiliation, alienation, and injustice on the part of muslims. Enraged by double-standards, mistreatment, and unfairness. Caused by and combined with the shocks of globalization and modernization.
- So, what should we do?
- Restore the moral authority of the United States in the world. Will help us with the tens of millions of other people on the fence. Will also help us with our allies.
- Stop hyping the threat. This is not fascism. It's not communism either! Not on the same scale.
- We need to be optimistic. We can win this thing. It will be a surprise like the end of the Cold War.
Phillip Gordon is a Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is titled Winning the Right War: The Path to Security for America and the World (Times Books, 2007).
Rapporteur: Brendan Rittenhouse Green
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2008