Sunday, June 24, 2007

Winning the War on Terror

People complain that the War on Terror is stupid because you can't fight a war against a method. I disagree. The war can be won. Here's how:

Definitions first. The War on Terror will be won when terrorism can once again be treated as a law enforcement problem instead of as a military problem. Right now there are two kinds of terrorists: the ones who pose a military challenge, and the ones who pose only a law enforcement challenge. The former kind operates freely in lawless states (Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia), using them to train, gather, and recruit. These groups are large, often resembling militias, and are sometimes state-supported. The other kind of terrorist is the homegrown variety, like those who attacked London's subways and buses. We will never be able to eliminate homegrown terrorists, but when we eliminate the larger militia-like terrorists, we will have won.

Defeating terrorism therefore requires two things: eliminating state sponsors of terrorism, and eliminating failed states where terrorists can operate. It might be tempting to eliminate state sponsors of terror by force, but that misses the point. That would only be a temporary solution; states could always start sponsoring terrorists again when our backs are turned. Winning that part of the war means creating conditions worldwide where it becomes so unacceptable to support terrorists that no self-interested state would ever do it. As for the other condition, eliminating failed states may be impossible, but failed states do not have to become bases for terrorists. Africa is populated by failed states, but with the exception of Somalia, there are no terrorist bases, despite half of Africa being Muslim (since when did Africa become a place to look up to?). Winning this part of the war will require people everywhere to refuse to support international terrorists operating in their countries.

To eliminate state sponsors of terrorism, people have to hold their governments responsible for economic development. This has already happened in an unlikely place: China. Chinese people are the most nationalistic in the world, and yet the only responsibility they hold their government to is that it continues to facilitate economic growth. If the Chinese government were to fight a war abroad, the social and economic upheaval that would follow would threaten the continued existence of the communist party. Last year, in a surprising moment of candor, Chinese President Hu Jintao told Bush on a visit Washington D.C., that Bush need not worry about China on the international stage, because the Chinese government had its hands full with domestic instability, preventing any Chinese adventurism for the foreseeable future. It is unusual a head of state to tell the president of a rival country, "Our threats are all bullshit. There's no way we could carry any of them out."

China therefore serves as a shining example of what we want the world to be. But China's economic growth had little to do with US policies, so for answers on what the US can do to facilitate this transition, we turn to Libya. The US and Europe have for a long time offered to lift sanctions against Libya and engage the country economically and politically if Col. Gadhafi renounced terrorism. He finally did so last year. As a result, he is respected even more at home now, and a pampered statesman when he goes abroad (pictured is him shaking hands with EU Commission President Romano Prodi). Most importantly for the US, Libya no longer sponsors terrorism, and the success that country has met with its policy change can now serve as a model for other rogue regimes wanting to come out of the cold. The lessons from this episode are that the US should stand strong on key issues like terrorism and weapons proliferation, but offer not just punishment, but also significant incentives for cooperation. This approach seems distasteful because it requires the US to ignore human rights violations and anti-democratic policies. But the benefits to US interests are undeniable, even if the methods are unsavory. Of course many rogue nations will still refuse to cooperate. If the US and Europe actively engage countries around the world and truly support their economies, then the rogue nations will gradually be left behind in the stone age, and their people will demand answers. In the middle east, North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria) and Jordan are ready for this sort of economic support.

The second condition to win the War on Terror is for people around the world to refuse to support international terrorists operating in their countries. Citizens of failed states support international terrorists when they feel oppressed by international powers like the US, often because the US is intervening in their country in order to fight those very international terrorists (paradox!). Further US intervention can only breed greater resentment and greater support for these terrorists. There is only one proven method for fighting radical islamist terrorists: the age-old "divide and conquer" strategy.

Extremist movements are almost always composed of groups that share the same goals but differ in how far they are willing to go. The spectrum of terrorist groups ranges from groups that are willing to negotiate and only target police or military, to groups that refuse to negotiate and kill civilians without discretion. Terrorists on opposite ends of the spectrum are disgusted by each other, and would love to kill each other, but don't because they are united by a common enemy. This situation is ripe for deal making. In exchange for real political concessions, the more moderate terrorists will almost always be open to laying down their arms, and maybe even fighting alongside the government. Luckily for us, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda wannabes are of the more extreme variety, and so there is the very real possibility that we can crush international terrorism by adopting a policy of befriending moderate, reasonable terrorists who resent the presence of international terrorists on their soil. This has worked before in Algeria, as I wrote about last week. And it could have worked in Iraq. In the first couple years of the insurgency, many Sunni militants were fighting for political reasons, and were only allied with international terrorists like al-Qaeda because they were fighting Americans. The moderate Sunni terrorist groups repeatedly approached the Americans about cutting a deal, but the American ideology of "we don't negotiate with terrorists" got in the way.

I do, however, still support the US policy of not negotiating with terrorists in hostage situations and the like. The idea of that policy is that granting concessions to terrorists will just encourage more terrorism. What I am advocating for the Middle East is different. I am advocating political concessions to local, nationalistic groups that enjoy a wide base of support. In other words, treating terrorist militias with legitimate constituencies like political partners. The difference between the two policies is that my idea revolves around negotiating with terrorist groups not because we are scared of what they will do (as is the case in hostage situations), but because they represent a large enough interest that they deserve to be treated like adults. It is the same idea as negotiating with a political party; it's just that in some parts of the world, political parties have guns.

Fighting the War on Terror my way will take a long time. Decades. However, our next president has the opportunity to lay the foundations for our strategy. In the 1950s, Harry Truman laid the foundations for how we would fight the Cold War. His ideas seemed out of touch and radical, and back then, he was not a very well-regarded president. Today, he is considered one of the greatest. We should be like Harry.

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