One of the biggest questions about fighting terrorism is whether we intend to fight it on the military level or on the ideological level.
Wars have ideological components. Propaganda likely predated the written word. Undermining an enemy’s morale can be a very effective means of turning the tide of battle. But in warfare, the ideology is there to further military aims, while in an ideological war the military is a tool for achieving ideological victories over the enemy.
It’s a fundamental distinction that cuts deep into the question of what we are doing in places like Afghanistan and what we hope to accomplish there.
The dichotomy between words and bullets could occasionally be somewhat ambiguous during the Bush Administration, but there was a general understanding that we were on a mission to kill terrorists and their allies. If by killing them, we could discredit their ideology and dissuade fellow terrorists from following in their footsteps, so much the better.
The Obama Administration has shifted the primacy of the conflict to the ideological sphere. Like the rest of the left, it would rather fight ideological wars, which are its strength, than military conflicts, which aren’t.
The left believes it understands ideas, but is much weaker when it comes to military affairs. Even Stalin did his best to avoid an open conflict with Hitler. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union remained afraid of superior Western firepower and technology and pulled back from any test of American determination that risked breaking out into open warfare.
The left doesn’t really understand ideas, but it does understand word games. To alter language is to alter the consensual reality of a subject population. The Oceanian reality of the media may not do anything to the reality in Afghanistan, but it certainly shifts the reality in America. And while that may not matter in the long run, in the same way that Baghdad Bob’s pathetic bleatings did nothing to slow down the American advance, it does delay the recognition of the inevitable.
Americans are mostly in the dark on the War on Terror. They know that something has gone wrong with it, but they have trouble putting their fingers on it. They have a sinking sense that it, like the rest of the country, is headed in the wrong direction (the Iraqis no doubt had that sinking feeling too) but they don’t know which direction is the right one or what’s wrong with the direction they’re headed in.
Word games confuse that sense of direction and orientation. Like a magician’s trick, they leave you with the sense that you are being deceived, but not the knowledge of how.
One of the first word games that Obama’s crack national security team pulled was to try and retire “terrorism” from the vocabulary to avoid any questions about why they were failing to deal with a problem… that suddenly no longer existed.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that, motivated by a touch of nuance, she was moving away from the word “terrorism” to ‘”man-caused” disasters’.
Napolitano’s explanation for this clumsy word game was that she wanted “to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur”; as long as the risk was kept as undefined as possible.
Islamic terrorism receded into the distance. The great challenge was CVE or Countering Violent Extremism.
Violent extremism was a little more specific than man-caused disasters, but not by that much. The shift however was a more significant one. We were no longer fighting a war, but working to counter attitudes and ideas. And that would be achieved in ways that included everything from sponsoring Muslim rappers to dispatching the NASA chief on a new mission to seek out Muslim self-esteem.
The Department of Homeland Security’s three broad CVE objectives were understanding violent extremism, partnering with local Muslim communities and with local law enforcement. The first objective, understanding violent extremism, did not mention Islam, demonstrating that this understanding was actually going to be a very deliberate misunderstanding.
Avoiding any mention of Islam had always been the first objective of the ideological component of the war and it was the area where the ideological component of fighting terrorism most blatantly clashed with the practical component.
Since September 11, the evolving tactic of the ideological war was to minimize the effectiveness of terrorism by mentioning it as little as possible and denying its Islamic cred by refusing to associate it with Islam. Meanwhile the practical side of the war required informing as many people as possible of the threat and taking swift and decisive action against a defined enemy.
During the Bush Administration, the ideological component blunted the military component, but did not overshadow it. Under Obama, the military component receded into the ideological war with new barometers of success that did not depend on winning battles, but winning hearts and minds.
There was no reason to believe that the ideological program of denial was in any way effective. The vast majority of Muslims did not get their news from America. Nor were they likely to be fooled by politically correct distortions of news events
Whether a State Department spokesman chose to call Bin Laden an Islamic terrorist, a violent extremist or an extremely naughty boy would have no impact on the Muslim world. It would only have an impact on Americans. .
And that was not accidental.
Where the military campaign was aimed at Muslim terrorists, the ideological campaign was aimed at altering the American understanding of Islam to be more harmonious with liberal foreign policy. And once the ideological campaign succeeded in changing American attitudes, it was assumed that the Muslim world would react differently to this new America.
An ideological war that depended on winning over Muslims by modifying the behavior and thinking of Americans was based on the belief that Muslim terrorism originated from Americans, rather than Muslims. Muslim terrorism was only a reaction to American attitudes and policies. The only way to stop Muslim terrorism was to eliminate the ways in which Americans brought the terrorism on themselves.
The ideological program was damaging enough before it dominated the field, but it became truly lethal afterward. In keeping with this American behavior modification doctrine, soldiers in Afghanistan were pressed into more confining Rules of Engagement that endangered their lives. And once American soldiers changed their behavior, the doctrine went, the Afghan hearts and minds would be won.
The Bush Administration believed that the Muslim world had to change to accommodate America. Its nation building program was excessively ambitious and idealistic, but its logic was American, rather than Post-American.
The Obama Administration however believed that America had to change to accommodate the numerous grievances of the Muslim world. Bush’s military campaign had been meant to transform the Muslim world into a place more amenable to American ideas, while Obama’s campaign was meant to transform America into a place whose ideas would be less likely to provoke the Muslim world.
Asking the Muslim world to change, let alone forcing it to change, risked provoking it even more. Instead those elements of American policy that were the most offensive would be jettisoned. Americans would be taught to be more accepting of Islam. And in time that might lead Muslims to be more accepting of America.
The United States was no longer fighting a war against terrorists; instead it was fighting an ideological war against Americans. Muslim behavior was no longer being modified; American behavior was.
CVE tried to show Muslims that they had options besides terrorism by empowering political Islam while Americans were told that they had fewer options than ever. While the Muslim Brotherhood was gifted the keys to Cairo, Damascus and other Arab Spring countries, Americans were being told that Muslim terrorism was a figment of their Islamophobic imaginations.
Meanwhile Al Qaeda had successfully transformed itself into a network of global franchises, some of which were far stronger than the old core had ever been. Never one to miss a word game trick, Obama used this transformation to declare that Al Qaeda, by which he meant an organization that had become supplemental to requirements, was on the path to defeat.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was stronger than ever and its Syrian affiliate was on the road to taking over the country. In Mali, Al Qaeda armed with Libyan weapons had nearly taken another country.
Faced with these facts, Obama hid behind his failed capture attempt of Bin Laden, transforming the bid to give the terrorist leader a civilian trial into an act of personal heroism. But these were just more words with no policy behind them.
Obama had conceded Afghanistan. The Middle East was up for grabs and lone wolf attacks had become an effective Al Qaeda strategy. America had changed, as much as it could without completely giving up, but it was actually doing worse than it had before. The ideological war was broken and the military war lay squashed under its rubble.
Obama had repeatedly renamed terrorism. He had called his Libyan War a no-fly-zone and ended the Iraq War twice by renaming the mission. But these sorts of dime store Orwellianisms, like the proverbial “Man-Caused Disaster”, were a dead end.
The ideological program that Obama came into office with had little content beyond blaming America. Empowering Islamists and isolating Al Qaeda was supposed to work by neutering American foreign policy and letting the will of the people carry the day. Now Egypt’s Brotherhood regime has fallen, there are setbacks in Syria and Tunisia may go back to being a free nation.
Obama changed America, but he couldn’t change Al Qaeda. A military war had been transformed into an ideological war, and its only casualties were American ideas. No new moderate political Islam had pushed Al Qaeda out of the spotlight because it didn’t exist.
The only element of the program that still worked were the drone strikes and the strikes were also the most contentious element because they killed terrorists. The triumph of word games over war games had been so complete that the only objectionable element of military policy under Obama was the one that worked.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish