If we really want to end terrorism, it is time for an approach that works.
First published in November 2019.
The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a raid on a compound in the Idlib province of northwest Syria drew a variety of celebratory tweets and a press conference from Donald Trump and the inevitable comparison between Trump and Obama in the situation room. And in a nation that loves to leap to the conclusion that our mission has been accomplished, voices on the right wing are claiming that Trump has kept his promise to defeat ISIS.
Al-Baghdadi, born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, was a scholar in the religion of Islam when he was recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood at the turn of the century, but found the organization to be insufficiently active. In response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in our second war with that country, he founded the Army of the People of the Sunna and Communal Solidarity and was captured by U.S. forces and detained for six years at Camp Bucca, a facility that functioned as a networking opportunity for future leaders of ISIS.
Accept for a moment the notion that ISIS has finally been defeated. That organization was founded in 2010 as a successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and a year later, Osama bin Laden received the same fate that al-Baghdadi has now earned. I agree that both deserved what they got, while at the same time understanding that killing any number of individual terrorists is an insufficient action if our goal is to bring terrorism to an end. It will do no more good than killing an increasing total of the Viet Cong did in our efforts to reshape southeast Asia. This is especially the case as Trump’s decision to move forces around the region has put the status of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurds in question.
What is happening in Syria now is a repetition of our experience in Afghanistan in which we supported some warriors when they offered us some geopolitical advantage and then abandoned them once our short-term goals had been achieved. We have spent decades meddling in the region, setting things in motion when we poorly understand the situations, only to fleewhen the consequences became too costly. Only to have to return when the consequences of our withdrawal become too costly.
And round and round the cycle goes. Our combination of theologically motivated support for Israel, of a commitment to fossil fuels, and of a fear that democratic governments in the Third World are a threat to our hegemony has brought us to the present state of affairs. By referencing our addiction to oil, I do include climate change, no matter how much the right wing denies the science. Contrary to the efforts to mock liberals for drawing a connection, the Middle East is drying, leading to food insecurity in the region. This is not the sole cause of the civil war in Syria or of any of the other uprisings in the surrounding nations, but it is a contributing factor. As with so many things driving these conflicts, we in the West are far too willing to dodge our responsibility while telling others to take hold of theirs.
Our current policy of killing our way out of terrorism not only will not work, but also makes us into the terrorists that we claim to be fighting. This does not mean that we should never go after people like al-Baghdadi. He was a valid military target, having committed a variety of war crimes. But in the same sense that the death penalty for domestic murderers does not have a deterrent effect on murder generally, killing individual terrorists will not change the behavior of groups of people who have a variety of grievances against the United States and other nations, whether those are reasonable complaints or not.
What would work is a list of choices that will require a radical reshaping of our foreign policy. This includes nation building, actions that the right wing ought to support, since such a program would be an investment in stable and productive societies. Nations that trade with us tend to fight fewer wars with us — this is called the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and while we can quibble about possible exceptions, as a general rule, it is true to say that countries that cooperate with each other in the movement of goods, services, and people across their borders tend to go to war with each other less often. And residents of a prosperous society have less motivation to become immigrants of any type. Yes, there is a high upfront cost. But when I compare the cost of the Marshall Plan and similar programs with how much we expended in fighting World War II, I have few reservations against spending money on nation building.
To avoid a revised version of colonialism, we have to work within the wishes of the peoples of the region. There is a notion that said peoples are not ready for self-government — this has been the claim of western powers who wanted to use dictators to guarantee capitalist control of oil — but the various popular movements from North Africa across to Iran demonstrate that the desire is there. America cannot and should not lead, but we can support these popular goals through, among other things, medical and educational aid and assistance in setting up local businesses.
This is called soft power, a term that was coined by Joseph Nye, at one time the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a member of the Clinton administration, as a contrast with hard or military power, but also disparaged by right wingers for its lack of force. But as discussed above, hard power has proved itself to be insufficient. If we really want to end terrorism — and this is a live question, since continual war benefits some interest groups — it is time for an approach that works.🔷
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