The Folly of Deterring Extremists

Today in Secret History:  February 7

On February 7, 2005, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz sent a memo to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (“Don”) recommending approval of The National Defense Strategy, an annual document that, well, along with the other dozens of national security strategies and documents, unclassified and classified, basically collects dust.

I mean, if there is a national defense strategy worthy of being called a strategy, doesn’t an annual document sort of prove that there isn’t one?  An annual budget?  Absolutely.  And there used to be a day not too long ago when the Secretary of Defense actually even submitted a meaty annual report to Congress, but that has since gone by the wayside.  But I digress.

On February 7, Paul reported to Don that the draft had been through “the interagency” review and that the only objection “was State’s proposal to delete the section on “Countering Ideological Support.”

“I think we should retain it,” Wolfowitz recommended, and they did.  (An interesting aside is that in the memo from Under Secretary Douglas Feith to Wolfowitz, he actually said that State and the National Security Advisor’s staff recommended deleting the section. Wolfowitz chose just to mention State.)

So, what was so offensive about the section on counter ideological support?

The section on Countering ideological support for terrorism reads:

“The campaign to counter ideological support for terrorism may be a decades-long struggle, using all instruments of national power to:

  • Delegitimate terrorism and extremists by, e.g., eliminating state and private support for extremism.
  • Make it politically unsustainable for any country to support or condone terrorism; and
  • Support models of moderation in the Muslim world by:
    • Building stronger security ties with Muslim countries;
    • Helping change Muslim misperceptions of the United States and the West; and
    • Reinforcing the message that the Global War on Terrorism is not a war against Islam, but rather is an outgrowth of a civil war within Islam between extremists and those who oppose them.

The debate within the world of Islam between extremists and their opponents may be far more significant than the messages that non-Muslim voices transmit to Muslim audiences.

Countering the ideological appeal of the terrorist network of networks is an important means to stem the flow of recruits into the ranks of terrorist organizations. As in the Cold War, victory will come only when the ideological motivation for the terrorists’ activities has been discredited and no longer has the power to motivate streams of individuals to risk and sacrifice their lives.”

Other than encroachment on State Department’s turf – and what a wonderful job they’ve done at winning the battle of hearts and minds – the theme of extremists (versus, of course, the good moderates) triumphed as the U.S. assumption.  Hence the 2011 National Defense Strategy can continue the same line, saying that efforts to just kill terrorists “cannot be decisive and do not constitute a viable long-term strategy for combating extremism.”  The 2011 strategy suggests the “whole-of-nation” approach – one of those current Washington cheers that is supposed to convey that everything’s working – and support for “responsible states.”

“In the long run,” the 2011 strategy says, “violent ideologies are ultimately discredited and defeated when a secure population chooses to reject extremism and violence in favor of more peaceful pursuits.”

There is so much wrong with this sentence.  It continues to disconnect terrorism (whoops! violent ideologies) from U.S. and western policy and actions, and ignores that there is no such thing as a secure population in this part of the world.  But most offensive, it speaks in do-gooder terms that are unhelpful and even counterproductive as a strategy for the military.

“We will adapt deterrence principles to our efforts in countering extremists,” the 2011 Strategy announces.  We’ll influence “states and other stakeholders” and make them accountable for supporting terrorists, the document opines.  And we’ll “deny terrorists the benefits they seek.”

That’s a strategy?  Saying the United States has lost the battle of hearts and minds is a no-brainer, but it is also a perennial lament that just results in the bureaucracy developing more institutions and more paper and more websites to do better.  Ultimately though, the “ideological” and “deterrence” paradigms drag terrorism back to a Cold War model.  Terrorists do not fight because they are terrorists (i.e., communists), and that if we could just convince them to be plumbers, they’d stop fighting.  Terrorists fight because that is what they think they must do to defend Islam from the very undifferentiated monoculture that this battle seeks to create.

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