Tag: muslim world

Has President Obama Given up on Changing U.S. Foreign Policy?

Today in Politico I have an op-ed titled “How Washington changed Obama.” In the piece, I argue that the recent appointments of Leon Panetta as secretary of defense and Gen. David Petraeus as director of the CIA, combined with revelations in the recent New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza, suggest that President Obama has given up on changing U.S. foreign and defense policy:

Panetta is a dubious choice to fulfill Obama’s recent pledge to trim military spending. Any secretary charged with realizing that pledge would need extraordinary credibility with Capitol Hill Republicans, many of whom are determined to continue raining money on the Pentagon regardless of the nation’s parlous fiscal position. Despite having once been a Republican, Panetta ran for Congress as Democrat and has served prominently in Democratic administrations. He is unlikely to craft the pragmatic consensus needed to give the Pentagon a haircut.

Petraeus’s nomination poses a different problem. He has spent the past decade focused— at the behest of his commanders in chief —  on what we used to call the “global war on terrorism.” But is U.S. nation-building in the Muslim world the most important national security and intelligence problem we face today?

[…]

The U.S. desperately needs to change its focus. We account for roughly half the world’s military spending, yet we feel terribly insecure. We infantilize our allies so that they won’t pay to defend themselves and instead allow us to do it for them. We stumble into small- and medium-sized foreign quagmires the way many people eat breakfast — frequently and without much thought.

Read the rest of the op-ed here.

Cross-posted at The National Interest.

Tunisia: An Omen for Other U.S.-Backed Regimes in the Muslim World

The sudden collapse of the Tunisian government on Friday underscores the turmoil toward which the Muslim world  seems inescapably drifting.  As I wrote earlier today at The National Interest Online:

Today, as during the Cold War, policy makers in Washington seem to expect economic growth to act as a substitute for political liberty, thereby ignoring the instinctive desire for freedom. Despotic leaders love to adopt pseudo-economic “reforms” to mask their coercive measures and perpetuate the status quo, but in the end, the institutionalized oppression imposed by ruling elites cannot be appeased in that way. Time will tell whether Tunisia and its neighbors evolve toward a freer and more prosperous future. But either way, human history confirms that fundamental change is a gradual and often painful process, and that more often than not forces erected to suppress individual freedoms eventually break down or unravel…

Check it out!

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

Robert Wright at Cato Unbound

This month’s Cato Unbound features Robert Wright, who offers us an excerpt from his new book, The Evolution of God. He looks at the possibility of religious tolerance from a game theoretic and evolutionary psychology perspective: Is there a fundamental “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West? Or just a communication failure? Wright argues that we can work toward understanding by realizing the limits and biases of human moral reasoning:

You might not guess it to read the headlines, but by and large the relationship between “the West” and “the Muslim World” is non-zero-sum. To be sure, the relationship between some Muslims and the West is zero-sum. Terrorist leaders have aims that are at odds with the welfare of Westerners. The West’s goal is to hurt their cause, to deprive them of new recruits and of political support. But if we take a broader view—look not at terrorists and their supporters but at Muslims in general, look not at radical Islam but at Islam—the “Muslim world” and the “West” are playing a non-zero-sum game; their fortunes are positively correlated. And the reason is that what’s good for Muslims broadly is bad for radical Muslims. If Muslims get less happy with their place in the world, more resentful of their treatment by the West, support for radical Islam will grow, so things will get worse for the West. If, on the other hand, more and more Muslims feel respected by the West and feel they benefit from involvement with it, that will cut support for radical Islam, and Westerners will be more secure from terrorism.

This isn’t an especially arcane piece of logic. The basic idea is that terrorist leaders are the enemy and they thrive on the discontent of Muslims—and if what makes your enemy happy is the discontent of Muslims broadly, then you should favor their contentment. Obviously. Indeed this view has become conventional wisdom: if the West can win the “hearts and minds” of Muslims, it will have “drained the swamp” in which terrorists thrive. In that sense, there is widespread recognition in the West of the non-zero-sum dynamic.

But this recognition hasn’t always led to sympathetic overtures from Westerners toward Muslims. The influential evangelist Franklin Graham declared that Muslims don’t worship the same god as Christians and Jews and that Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion.” That’s no way to treat people you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with! And Graham is not alone. Lots of evangelical Christians and other Westerners view Muslims with suspicion, and view relations between the West and the Muslim world as a “clash of civilizations.” And many Muslims view the West in similarly win-lose terms.

So what’s going on here? Where’s the part of human nature that was on display in ancient times—the part that senses whether you’re in the same boat as another group of people and, if you are, fosters sympathy for or at least tolerance of them?

It’s in there somewhere, but it’s misfiring. And one big reason is that our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was designed for a hunter-gatherer environment, not for the modern world. That’s why dealing with current events wisely requires strenuous mental effort—effort that ultimately, as it happens, could bring moral progress.