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Military force will not defeat Islamist revivalism

Authors: Dana H. Allin, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Steven Simon, Lecturer, Dartmouth College
October 9, 2006
Financial Times


The recently declassified findings of a US National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism have caused a furore by stating the obvious: the Iraq war has radicalised Muslims and rallied many of them to the terrorist cause. The findings are controversial only because George W. Bush refuses to entertain any second thoughts in the war against what he now calls Islamo-fascism. Not long ago Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, said that raising questions about this “war” was tantamount to appeasing “a new type of fascism”. Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, says we are in a third world war.

This mindset is dangerous. The concept of an all-fronts war against Islamist extremism—and its conflation with the separate problem of Ba'athist despotism—was part of the intellectual trap that carried us into Iraq. That adventure has not gone well, yet the same illogic is now applied to Iran. There is no doubt that Iran’s thuggish regime poses a serious obstacle to Middle East peacemaking and, if it develops nuclear weapons, a potentially existential threat to Israel. The tools to contain that threat must include the deterrent power of US military force. But dismissing diplomacy with Iran or Syria as “appeasement” is not serious. And the idea that Israel’s recent battles in Lebanon were to be encouraged as part of a proxy war between Washington and Tehran shows ignorance—or indifference—to the narrative impact of the televised bombing of Muslim civilians.

The Lebanon war illustrated why it is dangerous for the US president to confuse himself with Winston Churchill. Israel is a close ally of the US and the commitment to its security is a pillar of US foreign policy. This does not mean, however, that Israel’s security strategy and US interests always coincide. Israel has to fight its own battles, but the way it fights them can worsen America’s own problems with the Arab and Islamic world. Neoconservatives may look at Israel’s Lebanon war as the moral and strategic equivalent of the anti-fascist struggle in the Spanish civil war, but many Arabs surely looked at the bombing of Sidon as their own Guernica.

When US interests and Israeli interests diverge, the purpose of US statecraft should be to bridge them. In the first days of the Lebanon war, that should have meant mobilising support for the formation of an international force, deployment of the Lebanese army to the border and presenting a workable plan to strip Hizbollah of its heavy weapons. That is still what is required. The degradation of Hizbollah capabilities helps in this regard; the destruction of Lebanese lives and infrastructure hurts. Most damaging is that Mr Bush insists on portraying this fight in terms that push millions of Muslims to choose the other side.

The world does have a problem with Islamist revivalism. Much of this revival is driven by local conditions, shaped by a simple but compelling set of beliefs spread by global communications, and has taken the form of a global social movement. There is no question that jihadism is fuelled by this sort of hard Islam and that its Shia variant is backed by Tehran to revive its own revolution, boost Iranian influence and challenge US dominance. But the Islamist resurgence is not monolithic and it is not something that we can be “at war” with in the sense that we can defeat it with military force.

As for Mr Gingrich’s third world war, what on earth could this mean? In the last century the US fought in two world wars and a global cold war. The first butchered a generation and set the conditions for the rest of the 20th century’s disasters—ot a promising precedent. The second laid the groundwork for something better but it was a total war against powerful states that had conquered much of Europe and Asia.

The cold war was different. It had various phases and a variety of campaigns. But in the long run, the west’s success derived from sober principles of containment, laid down at the outset by George F. Kennan, a prominent US foreign policy planner. These principles are relevant now. Build up strength and resilience in the west rather than destroying the strength of our opponents. Keep the moral high ground and keep our nerve. Contain challenges against us “by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force” and be ready to follow up with diplomacy. Do not go off half-cocked into ill-considered wars without understanding whom we are fighting, or how.

Dana H. Allin is a senior fellow and editor of Survival at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Steven Simon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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