Winter 2007–08 issue
of Survival, Philip Gordon argued that America’s strategy against terror is failing ‘because the Bush administration chose to wage the wrong war’. Survival invited former Bush speechwriter and Deputy Assistant to the President Peter Wehner and Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, to reflect on Gordon’s arguments. Their
comments are available in the above PDF and Philip Gordon’s response is below.
I am grateful to Peter Wehner and Kishore Mahbubani for taking the time to comment on my essay, ‘Winning the Right War’. Their comments are valuable not only because both are prominent and influential thinkers but because their divergent views on the subject help to frame the debate: Mahbubani essentially agrees with me but wishes I had ‘gone even further’ in my analysis, while Wehner disagrees and complains that I’ve written a ‘one-sided’, ‘ideological’ brief. Standing between them does not make me right, but it does underscore how, more than six years after the start of the ‘war on terror’, some well-informed observers remain almost diametrically opposed over how to wage it. That, in fact, is why I wrote Winning the Right War (the book from which my Survival essay was drawn) and why I wrote it now: with six years of evidence behind us and with an American presidential election looming, the time seems right for a serious debate about the nature of the Islamist terrorist threat and the policies most likely to defeat it. I am grateful to Peter Wehner and Kishore Mahbubani for taking the time to comment on my essay, ‘Winning the Right War’. Their comments are valuable not only because both are prominent and influential thinkers but because their divergent views on the subject help to frame the debate: Mahbubani essentially agrees with me but wishes I had ‘gone even further’ in my analysis, while Wehner disagrees and complains that I’ve written a ‘one-sided’, ‘ideological’ brief. Standing between them does not make me right, but it does underscore how, more than six years after the start of the ‘war on terror’, some well-informed observers remain almost diametrically opposed over how to wage it. That, in fact, is why I wrote (the book from which my essay was drawn) and why I wrote it now: with six years of evidence behind us and with an American presidential election looming, the time seems right for a serious debate about the nature of the Islamist terrorist threat and the policies most likely to defeat it.
I have no ‘rebuttal’ to Mahbubani since he agrees with the broad thrust of my essay, but I do have some comments since we hardly agree on everything. He takes me to task, for example, for concluding my analysis of the sources of the terrorist threat by saying that ‘none of this means that the United States should simply change its policies to make potential terrorists happy’. He asks whether America shouldn’t ‘change those policies which are contributing to the enormous sense of resentment towards America in the larger Islamic world’.
I would say of course it should, when it can, and my book gives a number of examples of how it might do so – by banning torture both in law and in practice, closing the Guantanamo prison, changing tactics in and withdrawing troops from Iraq, showing more respect for other countries’ perceptions and interests, and doing more to support the Palestinians, to take just a few. My point, however, was to note that taking actions to lessen resentment of the United States can not simply mean giving in to extremists’ demands. Osama bin Laden wants Israel to disappear, the United States to withdraw entirely from the Middle East, and the region’s current leaders to be replaced with an Islamic caliphate that would impose sharia law, but I doubt Mahbubani would recommend supporting such an agenda in the name of reducing resentment any more than I would. The challenge is to address legitimate social and diplomatic grievances that produce terrorism without caving in to an insatiable terrorist agenda.
Mahbubani, like many others, clearly feels that America’s strong support for Israel is a major part of the problem. He gives me credit for ‘somewhat courageously’ noting that by ‘unreservedly justifying any Israeli military action as a necessary part of the "global war on terror" … the United States has reinforced the grievances that inspire people to become terrorists’. This is an important point that requires careful attention. As Mahbubani certainly knows, there are good reasons to be sceptical about bin Laden’s claim to be particularly interested in the fate of the Palestinians. Al-Qaeda grew and planned some of its most spectacular attacks during the 1990s, while the Oslo peace process was in full swing, and only started to focus on Israel later, as it realised that the issue had some resonance among its potential recruits. Even if the United States could somehow force Israel and the Palestinians to conclude a lasting peace tomorrow, many of the factors fuelling Muslim support for terrorism would still exist.
That said, I agree – and argue in Winning the Right War – that the Israel–Arab dispute contributes to the resentment that fuels the Islamist terrorist threat. Just because terrorists and extremists opportunistically exploit the Palestinian issue does not mean that it is not an issue. Indeed, ‘opportunism’ is possible only where real anger and emotion create an opportunity to exploit. For extremists like bin Laden, of course, even a comprehensive Israeli–Palestinian peace would not be enough, since he also insists that America will not live in peace until ‘all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad’, which may be a long time in coming. But for many Muslims around the world who may be tempted to join, support or sympathise with al-Qaeda or similar groups, the issue of Israel and its relationship with its neighbours is crucial. And I agree with Mahbubani that pretending that the issue is irrelevant to the ‘war on terror’ is a critical mistake.
I also broadly agree with Mahbubani that modernising trends in the Muslim world will undermine, more than any US intervention or use of force, fundamentalist Islam, but I have to admit I was surprised by his comments that ‘not a single Islamic society (with the brief and rare exception of the Taliban in Afghanistan) has been taken over by a fundamentalist group’ and that ‘virtually all the Islamic societies are run by modern or modernising elites’. It seems to me that the radicals who took over Iran in 1979 were ‘fundamentalist’ by any meaningful definition, as is the Sudanese regime today. Moreover, it is more than a stretch to view the current leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran as ‘modern or modernising elites’. I do agree that modernisation is going to be a long-term solution to the problem of Islamist terrorism (even though it is also a short-term cause of it) but I wonder if Mahbubani is not being too sanguine about how far along that process has already progressed. Perhaps his forthcoming book will shed some light on this.
Finally, I would like to correct Mahbubani’s assumption that in the current American political context ‘not a single American strategic thinker would dare suggest’ that the United States establish diplomatic relations with Iran. In fact, some of us are recommending just that. I wrote in Winning the Right War that
the United States should agree to talk to Iran about any issue – and even offer to open up full diplomatic relations. America maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and today it has diplomatic relations with dozens of countries that it does not particularly like; indeed one could argue that such relations are most needed when there are contentious issues to sort out.
This is one of the many areas where US policy must change.
Peter Wehner is apparently less convinced of the need for change. Indeed in his defence of the Bush administration, his main argument is not that fighting Islamist terrorism is hard (which would be fair enough) but rather that the ‘war on terror’ is actually going very well. Our cooperation with allies is ‘unprecedented’, we’re thwarting plots, al-Qaeda is on the ropes, the ‘surge’ in Iraq is succeeding, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has persuaded Libya and Iran to give up their nuclear-weapons programmes. His Monty Python citation – ’what else have they done for us?’ – implies that the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ has had all sorts of benefits for civilisation, and the problem is merely that the locals are unable to see the light. While Wehner is right to insist that not everything is going wrong, I do not share his assessment of progress in the ‘war on terror’ so far, or his refusal to accept the negative consequences of some US policies.
Take, for example, his rebuttal of my argument that Bush-administration policies have left the United States isolated in the world. I agree that various countries’ intelligence agencies have continued to work with our own (out of self-interest) and also that the Proliferation Security Initiative was an innovative and useful initiative for which the Bush administration deserves credit. But does Wehner really want to deny that US standing in the world has fallen considerably over the past six years and that this has consequences for our foreign policy? In Iraq, the always-thin ‘coalition of the willing’ is shrinking further (the United States now provides 93% of overall forces), and even the British are essentially pulling out. In Afghanistan, NATO allies are refusing to provide adequate forces in part because European leaders find it difficult to persuade their publics to support deployments that are seen as part of Bush’s ‘war on terror’. In the Muslim world, where the war for ‘hearts and minds’ is really being fought, resentment of the United States is at an all-time high, even as some of the autocracies Wehner mentions quietly work with the United States.
As I wrote in my article and book, this matters not because we should want to be liked by others, but because millions of people around the world are judging US actions to determine whether they want to be on America’s side, fight against it or sit on the fence. If we can’t get most of them into the first category, or at least the last, all the military and intelligence cooperation in the world will not make us safe. I do agree with Wehner that there is often tension ‘between acting in our national interest and gaining higher approval ratings in foreign countries’. I just think we’ve gotten the balance wrong, and that we’ve failed to realise that ‘gaining higher approval ratings in foreign countries’ can itself be in our national interest.
Wehner also wants to claim successes in the effort to destroy al-Qaeda and in the war in Iraq, but neither claim stands up to scrutiny. We have indeed killed and captured a number of al-Qaeda leaders, but it is simply wrong to argue that the organisation is on the ropes or that the Iraq War has not contributed to its recruitment effort. According to the July 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, al-Qaeda has over the past two years ‘re-established its central organization, training infrastructure and lines of global communication’, and used its association with affiliates in Iraq to ‘energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives’. In Iraq, the recent improvement in the security situation is obviously good news, but it is also highly tenuous and so far unaccompanied by the political agreements or ethnic reconciliation that will be required if the United States is going to be able safely to end its costly deployment. In any case, Wehner’s conclusion that ‘repairs are being made’ misses the point: even if Iraq does gradually edge toward the uneasy peace that is now at the more optimistic end of expectations, the war will have proven to be a massive setback in the effort to counter Islamist extremism and stabilise the Middle East. The Iraq war has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, killed tens of thousands of people, displaced millions internally and externally, inspired radical Islamists, strengthened Iran, destabilised Iraq’s neighbors, and deeply damaged America’s reputation as a competent, respected, and feared world power. It will take much more than a decline in roadside bombs or suicide attacks, however welcome, to compensate for all that.
Toward the end of his response, Wehner points out that I failed to notice a mistake in a Glenn Kessler Washington Post article I cited, which referred to a ‘Sunni mosque’ even though the mosque in question was Shia. I regret not noticing that error (which was surely inadvertent, as the mosque was clearly identified in the speech Kessler was citing as ‘one of the most sacred places in Shia Islam’) but the point is that contrary to Wehner’s claim, the difference in this case is incidental. Kessler’s point, and mine, was that it is a mistake to view all sorts of different Muslim groups as one monolithic lump, ‘a thinking enemy’ as Bush put it. This same error is apparent in the passage from journalist Amir Taheri, whom Wehner cites, claiming that ‘Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey have effectively defeated their respective terrorist enemies’ and the ‘Islamofascists have also suffered defeat in Kashmir, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Chechnya’. Aside from the fact that it would be news to many of these countries that they have defeated their terrorist enemies, is it really useful to lump those enemies all together despite their vastly different aims? That is the sort of thinking that can lead the United States to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a response to an al-Qaeda attack on the United States.
I have other disagreements with Wehner (for example, I do not see how he can argue that our demonstration of ‘resolve’ over the past few years has cowed terrorists more than emboldened them), but let me instead end on a point of agreement. In discussing trends in Iraq and elsewhere, Wehner points out evidence of Muslims turning on the extremists in their midst and increasingly rejecting suicide bombing as a justifiable tactic. Like Wehner (and in a way Mahbubani as well), I think these are important developments and that they point the way to a more hopeful future. Al-Qaeda has no positive vision to offer, its tactics are tarnishing the reputation of Muslims everywhere, and it is killing fellow Muslims and civilians all over the world. In the long run, this is not an approach likely to win broad-based support; on the contrary, unless we artificially prolong its life, it will in time be seen as the nihilistic and counterproductive strategy that it is. All this leads me to recommend the grand strategy that I spell out in Winning the Right War: contain the threat through intelligence, judicial, police and sometimes military means; address the diplomatic, economic and social sources of frustration in the Muslim world; re-establish America’s squandered moral authority and the appeal of US society; engage allies and adversaries alike diplomatically; and seek to diminish our dependence on imported oil which is as bad for oil exporters as it is for us. If we do all that, and stop playing into the extremists’ hands, I believe we can have the same sort of success we had the last time we faced a long-term, ideological threat, during the Cold War. And Islamist extremism will end up on the same ash-heap of history that Communism did.