In the eight years since Sept. 11, the U.S. has devoted a great deal of funding and thinking to the struggle against radical Islam. There's at least one area where it's fallen short, though: It hasn't mounted a serious economic challenge to the activities and ideologies of terrorist groups on a grassroots level.
Lebanon is a case in point. Today Hezbollah, the Shiite militia established by Iran's Revolutionary Guard in the early 1980s, operates there as a full-fledged party, with direct control or influence over more than a fifth of the seats in Lebanon's 128-member parliament and major leverage over its political direction. In the country's south, it is also much more. In the wake of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, the group managed to leverage the Lebanese government's weakness to create a virtual state-within-a-state in the territory once occupied by Israeli forces. Now, in that 350-square-mile swath of land, the Islamist movement--and not the authorities in Beirut--operates as the unquestioned law of the land, responsible for everything from social services to sanitation to medicine.
This model can be seen in the Sunni world as well. To be sure, groups such as al-Qaida have tended to reject the idea of representative governance completely. Thus, the unexpected victory of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian elections famously garnered a warning from al-Qaida's chief ideologue, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that "power is not an end in itself, but simply a stage on the path of implementing sharia law."
But in places where governmental authority has faltered, these groups have been quick to exploit the political vacuum that has resulted. This was the case in Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, 2001. There, the ideological synergy between Osama bin Laden's network and its Taliban hosts--and the relative political weakness of the latter--allowed al-Qaida to establish a safe haven from where it could plan and execute attacks against the West. It is much the same today across the border in Pakistan's unruly northwest, where the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas remain outside of Islamabad's reach, and where, aided by this lack of central control, Sunni Islamic radicals--including, possibly, bin Laden himself--have put down significant roots.
They have done so virtually unchallenged, either politically or ideologically. Intimidated and politically weak, the governments in Beirut, Islamabad and beyond have allowed such radicals to seize and retain local control without serious opposition. And without competition, the ideology of these groups has proliferated, reinforced by their ubiquitous social welfare, educational and charitable activities.
The United States has the ability to significantly alter this equation. With roughly $26 billion in foreign aid provided annually to more than 150 nations, America is among the planet's most generous philanthropists. Since the start of the War on Terror, the State Department has sent over $5 billion in economic, humanitarian and security assistance to Pakistan alone. So far, however, these funds have not been used to seriously foster competition with Hezbollah, al-Qaida and other radicals in the places where they operate and with the people who look to them for support and sustenance.
Rather, since at least the 1970s, America has followed an even-handed approach in its foreign economic assistance, seeing itself as an "honest broker" for, and simultaneously aloof from, the political turf wars taking place throughout the Middle East and beyond. And today, despite the gravity of the current conflict, the U.S. still tends to treat the aid that it disburses to the international community as the foreign policy equivalent of a free lunch.
It was not always this way. In the aftermath of World War II, with the political fate of Europe at stake, the U.S. launched the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan. Between 1948 and 1952, that initiative distributed some $13 billion in direct aid, loan guarantees and grants for the postwar reconstruction of the Old Continent. In the process, it laid the foundation for liberal democratic values, individual freedoms and political liberty in much of what is now the European Union.
The success of the Marshall Plan begat other economic aid ventures, and the next decade saw the U.S. expand its geopolitical influence throughout Asia via investments in places like Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam. So successful were these early initiatives that Congress in 1961 passed the Foreign Assistance Act, creating the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and entrenching foreign aid as a key element of U.S. foreign policy. The goal, as President John F. Kennedy outlined in 1963, was an early Cold War economic version of what the military calls "area denial," with foreign aid serving as a "vital tool" in America's efforts "to hold back communism in Europe and now also in Asia and elsewhere."
Today, the U.S. government desperately needs to return to just such an approach, one that selects clear winners and losers--and which aids the former while disadvantaging the latter. Through steps such as the establishment of parallel educational institutions, hospitals and social service organs, the United States can force terrorist groups to do something they currently do not have to: compete in the social "marketplace," and pit their ideas and dollars against those of the United States.
To be sure, many initiatives of this sort are today being implemented throughout the world by a range of U.S. government agencies. But, hampered by America's hesitance to be seen as a meddler in internal affairs, they do so without sufficiently exploiting opportunities to leverage them as part of the ideological struggle in what former CIA Director R. James Woolsey has termed the "long war of the 21st century." Indeed, to the extent that proposals have been put forward to do so in places like Iraq, they have been explicitly vetoed by those at home who prefer a status quo approach to both foreign aid and counterterrorism.
This constitutes a fatal error. The United States clearly has a stake in the various political and ideological battles taking place from the greater Middle East to the Horn of Africa. To a large degree, the outcome of those struggles will determine whether those countries emerge as America's allies in the struggle against radical Islam, or as its mortal enemies. As such, Washington has every reason to put its money where its mouth is, and leverage its economic investment into a tool of real ideological competition and change.