Here's a question that ought to be at the center of the presidential campaign, but has been strangely absent: What strategy should the United States pursue to counter the problem posed by violent radical Islam?
Sure, several candidates vow, if elected, to escalate the ongoing military campaign against Islamic State. But Islamic State is merely an expression of a much larger and more complex phenomenon. Carpet-bomb Islamic State into extinction tomorrow and the larger problem remains.
To label that problem “terrorism” is to privilege convenience over understanding. It's like calling big-time college football a “sport.” Doing so entails leaving out all the grimy, money-soaked activity that occurs off the gridiron.
What Americans refer to as terrorism is more accurately this: a violent outgrowth of chronic political dysfunction and economic underdevelopment affecting large parts of the Islamic world, exacerbated by deep-seated sectarian divisions and the pernicious legacy of European colonialism and further complicated by the presence of Israel, all together finding expression in antipathy toward the West and especially the United States. For the “war on terror” to succeed, it will have to remedy the conditions giving rise to that antipathy in the first place.
For several decades now, U.S. forces have ventured into this region hoping to do just that. They have bombed, raided, invaded and occupied. They have eliminated the noxious, liberated the oppressed, succored the afflicted, promoted democracy and undertaken ambitious nation-building projects. While expending trillions, they have fought, suffered and died. Certainly, they have killed in exceedingly large numbers.
Their exertions, however, have accomplished next to nothing. The Greater Middle East trembles on the brink of disintegration. From Libya to Iraq to Afghanistan, evidence abounds that the American military project has failed. If anything, the application of U.S. power has made things worse.
Even in a presidential election year, members of the nation's political elite pretend otherwise. In establishment quarters, devoid of creativity since the early days of the Cold War, expectations that U.S. military might – more bombs, more raids, more boots on the ground – will someday put things right persists. U.S. military exertions in the Greater Middle East have long since satisfied the colloquial definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Those most deeply invested in the status quo – those benefiting from a condition of perpetual war – dismiss alternatives out of hand, arguing that no choice exists but to press on.
Yet alternatives discomfiting the establishment just might work to the benefit of the American people. Consider the following three-point strategy to remove the threat of radical Islam.
Point one: Self-protect. Terrorism poses a modest, immediate threat to the United States. In the near-term, the appropriate response is to provide adequate resources and effective leadership to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, and agencies responsible for securing U.S. borders. In simplest terms, “keeping America safe” begins with keeping the bad guys from getting to us.
Point two: Restore stability. In the medium term, tamping down the turmoil roiling the core of the Middle East is a priority. Absent a willingness to occupy Iraq and Syria for a decade or more with a force of several hundred thousand troops, this is not a task the U.S. military can accomplish.
Instead, it's a job that the major regional powers must take on. For Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, yes, Israel, the so-called caliphate represents a truly existential threat. The task confronting the U.S. is a diplomatic one: nudging these antagonists to recognize the interest that they hold in common and to act accordingly. Easily achieved? By no means. Yet nudging holds greater promise than committing U.S. troops to a fight that rightly belongs to those closer to the scene.
Point three: Promote agents of change. Not all the news coming from within the Islamic world is bad. Many young people there prefer modernity to martyrdom. Here lies the long-term solution to the problem we face. When Muslims find their path to reconciling faith with modern life, peaceful coexistence with the West becomes a possibility. That it may take decades or even generations for that path to materialize is no doubt the case. Over time, however, a sustained campaign of cultural and educational exchanges will help persuade young Muslims that we are not their enemy.
All of this will require patience on our part. But who really thinks that more bombs will yield a better outcome?
Andrew Bacevich is author of the new book "America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History."