When you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. So the saying goes, and it explains a lot about merica's approach to the series of conflicts through which it has lurched in a strategic zigzag during the last decade. This struggle appears neat and unified only in the name that some of its advocates have given it: The Long War.
That sobriquet has replaced Donald Rumsfeld's now unfashionable term, "Global War on Terror." The shift speaks to the lack of philosophical coherence that still plagues America's response to the 9/11 attacks. To paraphrase the old cliché, to a triumphant superpower every problem starts to look like it has a neat solution. In reality, of course, most policy conundrums have no pat answer, only a least-bad response—especially the Middle East, where only unpalatable alternatives are available to the foreign power confronting its tangled web of interstate hostility, intrastate insurgency, religious extremism and nihilistic violence.
All too often the debate in the U.S. has raged between two simplistic poles. On one side, people believe that through force, war and sanctions, regimes will adopt the "freedom agenda." On the other side are those arguing that the U.S. can have little effect in lawless climes of the world, especially not by moralizing and military means. This false dichotomy obscures the complex question of how America ought to deploy its resources in a world that hosts a contingent of souls bent on its destruction. This is a quest best embarked upon with a healthy dose of idealism and realism both.
Happily, Ilan Berman makes a start at addressing this question in a manner that transcends some of the misleading divides of right and left, hawk and dove. Instead he goes straight to the philosophical nub of the problem. Mr. Berman, a scholar at the American Foreign Policy Council, a conservative think tank, believes that ideology is a key motivator of many of the violent groups in the Islamic world. At least one component of America's response, he argues convincingly, must be ideological as well.
U.S. policy makers lapsed into complacency after the Berlin Wall came down, Mr. Berman writes. In pursuit of a peace dividend, President George H.W. Bush followed by President Bill Clinton withdrew from the most confounding conflicts and dismantled much of the infrastructure that Mr. Berman claims helped end the Cold War: propaganda tools such as the United States Information Agency and the Voice of America, along with a braintrust of hard-headed diplomats who understood the ideological dimension of America's struggle against the Soviet Union.
In his effort to place ideas at the center of a historical narrative, Mr. Berman overestimates the role that ideas played in ending the Cold War, and he certainly ignores the efforts of many foreign affairs policy makers in the Clinton administration to harness the global moment of goodwill to create a new world order that would serve America's liberal-democratic-capitalist agenda. When turning his attention to the post-9/11 era, however, he throws darts at Democrats and Republicans alike.
President George W. Bush drafted an ambitious agenda to spread freedom, Mr. Berman writes, but never allocated adequate resources to match his rhetoric. The Bush administration had the right idea about engaging in a war of ideas with Islamists, but never figured out how to take the first step. Mr. Berman scathingly mocks the early efforts to "brand America" and the half-hearted mediocrity of the Arabic-language satellite television and radio networks launched by the U.S. government.
When it came to ideology, Washington flailed, wielding against like-minded but vastly different opponents the same bludgeon of "You're with us or you're against us." Mr. Berman believes that the U.S. cannot abandon the realm of ideas to religious extremists who share little or none of America's political values: individual rights, civil liberties, political democracy and liberal markets. It's unfortunate that he chooses to conceptualize this struggle as a war rather than a marketplace of ideas, as if the U.S. could somehow demolish Islamist thinking if only it deployed its own cutting edge ideas like a new weapons system.
The fundamental point, however, is crucial and can not be made often enough (and outside of the confines of the far-right and the far-left, few make the point at all): America must spend time and money articulating its vision and values, giving aid and comfort to those who sympathize with Western ideals, while striving to convince those who don't. And it must do so cognizant of the frustrating fact that groups such as the Iranian dissidents confronting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad desperately desire a discernible distance from America, lest they be branded traitors; U.S. support for Islamic moderates is often seen as the kiss of death.
Ideas, of course, won't solve everything. Some of the most driven Islamists have no difficulty reconciling pro- and anti-American positions. Last fall, a Hezbollah operative with a thick beard and hands as wide as baseball mitts accosted me at a celebration in Beirut that I was covering, where the Islamist party feted those who had died in its struggle against Israel and thanked Iran for its patronage. Hezbollah, he told me, would always triumph because its devotees would stop at nothing, including death, to achieve the Party of God's goals. I asked him why he spoke perfect English. "I live in the United States," he answered. "I'm a citizen. I just voted for Obama. He's a great man."
When it comes to the actual solutions proposed, Mr. Berman's argument gets thornier. He makes a valiant effort to draft a blueprint that eschews the bugbears of the right and left, taking into account practical limitations like tight budgets and the lamentable fact that only the U.S. Defense Department seems to have the wherewithal to conduct effective foreign policy. Unfortunately, there's little scholarship that establishes the impact of "information operations" and other attempts to shape public opinion and mass ideology, which Mr. Berman advocates as central tactics in the ideological struggle.
Mr. Berman also never presents a compelling case for what the U.S. could achieve if it spent more money on ideological transmission; perhaps people around the world already know what the U.S. stands for, and either like it or don't on its merits. In other words, maybe it's the message that matters, not the messenger, and world reaction will fl uctuate in response to the actual policies articulated by Washington.
Mr. Berman's best proposal, and one on which he spends far too little time, is that the U.S. should invest abroad in education, hospitals and social service institutions that would "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." That same approach has expanded the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia across the Islamic world; it is about time America adopted the model.
Other suggestions are less well thought out. Mr. Berman defends the Bush administration's use of torture against "illegal combatants" even as he acknowledges that the U.S. wins more credibility when it applies the Geneva Conventions. He believes the threat of sanctions and economic isolation could change Iran's behavior but proposes no realistic way of convincing American allies to forgo billions of dollars of business with the ayatollahs. He argues that promoting democracy at the expense of more critical interests such as energy and security is counterproductive but offers no blueprint for when it makes sense to tout democracy at all.
So long as the U.S. fails to invest serious money and some of its best minds in making the case for what's right about the U.S. to its Islamist enemies, Washington's efforts will fall short, Mr. Berman claims. Americans disagree about many things, but a moderate consensus shares a common view of America's core values: individual liberty, political freedom, economic opportunity, impartial justice. For too long, the U.S. has forsworn the public sphere in most of the Islamic world, retiring from the cacophonous debates on Al Jazeera and from the airwaves of places such as Gaza and Pakistan; the debate has been shaped instead by demagogues who advance a false view of their own fight and of the American enemy.
Even if his prescriptions aren't all on target, Mr. Berman provides a compelling argument that it is time for the U.S. to enter the debate, not with a megaphone but with a steady voice, and back its ideas with money and sustained commitment. Who knows? People just might listen.