Americans love going to war, particularly against big challenges they want to overcome.
We have wars on poverty, mental illness, cancer, drugs, and, over the past decade, terrorism. Indeed, President-elect Donald Trump has declared war on ISIS and has vowed to destroy the jihadists — and fast.
As recent attacks in Berlin and Ankara attest, ridding ourselves of the jihadist terror threat is no simple matter.
But one thing is clear: Promising a quick victory, turning the challenge into an existential threat, and casting the problem as a war between civilizations or religions is not going to make the task any easier. And here’s why.
It took the Allied Powers six years to defeat the Axis Powers and win World War II. We are now 15 years beyond 9/11 and while significant gains have been made against al Qaeda and ISIS, the jihadist enterprise has proved remarkably resilient.
Despite the talk of mobilizing an international coalition along the lines of World War II or painting jihadist terror as the new fascist or communist challenge, the international community has been unwilling or unable to step up — and is unlikely to do so. After all, whatever threat the jihadists pose to Europe (and it’s not to be trivialized), they aren’t going to invade Russia, occupy Western Europe or threaten Great Britain.
Part of the problem is driven by the simple reality that transnational jihadist groups don’t offer a set of targets or objectives that can be concretely achieved.
Unlike World War II, the fight is not about destroying armies, capturing leaders and obliterating economic and industrial capacity alone.
As we’ve seen in the case of ISIS, even as its control over territory in Iraq and Syria has shrunk, it still retains the capacity to direct and, equally important, inspire attacks, particularly the killings of mostly fellow Muslims in the Middle East and non-Muslims in the West as was the case in both the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks. Weakening and defeating the organizational embodiment of an idea is one thing. Killing the idea is another altogether.
The other inconvenient reality is that most of the world’s terrorism occurs in just five countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. And terrorism cannot be addressed without dealing with the root causes of it, namely bad governance, sectarian rivalries, a vicious strain of jihadist/Salafist Islamist and ungovernable spaces such as Yemen where these groups can plot and plan. Without addressing these causes and creating real states out of the fractured polities that now exist, it’s impossible to imagine dealing the jihadists a mortal blow.
Trump has talked tough about ISIS and what he describes as radical Islamic terrorism, but has said very little about how he’s going to deal with the challenge of actually destroying the threat it poses.
Interestingly, he has ruled out nation building, spending vast amounts of taxpayer dollars in Iraq and Syria, and has hinted that he may even suspend the US effort to support the Syrian opposition to Assad.
Still, what a President Trump will actually do about ISIS remains a mystery. But as he formulates his strategy, here are a few don’ts worth keeping in mind:
Don’t overpromise or scare. Presidents need to be honest with the American people, particularly if there’s no quick or easy fix. And this is going to be a generational struggle. There’s no benefit in frightening Americans by leading them to believe that their way of life is threatened and the jihadists represent a strategic or existential threat to the country or, on the other hand, that you can effectively eliminate them. More than likely Trump’s successor will be dealing with the jihadi challenge as well.
Don’t stigmatize Muslims. In America, the 1% of the country that is Muslim will be a core part of the front-line defense against homegrown radicalism and terror. You can’t even begin to think about pre-empting the threat of terrorism at home without Muslim cooperation and without building trust and confidence between law enforcement and this community. Do not push provocative ideas such as a Muslim registry or peddle the notions that Muslims in America want to supplant the Constitution with Islamic law and practice. One of your first public outreach initiatives should be an effort to engage this community.
Don’t turn this into a war or clash of civilizations. With a billion plus Muslims in the world, the vast majority of whom do not ascribe to the radical strain of Islamist ideology powering the jihadists, America can’t afford to. We play right into jihadist hands if we paint the world the way they see it — as an unbridgeable, zero sum game conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. ISIS and its ilk would like nothing better than to draw us into this clash of worlds because they know it will lead to alienation and discrimination against Muslims, which will only help their recruitment efforts.
While we must be tough and determined when it comes to the long war against jihadist terror and ideology, we need to also be prudent and wise, particularly when it comes to our civil liberties and how we relate to our fellow citizens of the Muslim faith. After all, at the end of the day, we’re fighting not just to preserve our interests and security but our values, too.