Ever since the Revolutionary War’s successful campaign against monarchy, America has developed itself on a foundation of successful ideological battles. In the Civil War, the Union and its form of racially egalitarian industrialism trumped the feudalist Confederacy. The Allied victory in World War II tore down fascism, and the Soviet Union’s collapse at the end of the Cold War asserted capitalism’s dominance over communism as the world’s guiding economic theory.
So why is it, then, that the War on Terror has failed to stop violent fundamentalism?
Part of it has to do with the ideology’s nebulosity. Even while Osama bin Laden was still alive, Islamist extremism had no public face of Hitler’s or Lenin’s stature; no characteristic as defining as slavery. Unlike previous American adversaries, terrorists don’t need a massive infrastructure or powerful state to project their power. All it takes to send the West into chaos is one fanatic with bomb supplies and an Internet connection.
But in even graver problem is that two of the most influential camps in the American foreign policy arena have no idea what kind of threat we’re facing. Even after decades of evidence to the contrary, both hawks and doves in the U.S. remain hypnotized by the idea that America can control how it is perceived in the terrorist hotbeds of the world.
On the political right, neoconservatives believe that by spreading capitalism and democracy, the U.S. can demonstrate the superiority of its value system. This approach might have worked against the Nazis, but it hasn’t had much effect in the War on Terror. Not surprisingly, people in the developing world don’t enjoy a military superpower dictating how they should live their lives, and many of them rebel against what they perceive as unfair American involvement in their national affairs. To make matters worse, attempts to topple dictators can lead to chaotic and violent power vacuums, like the one that emerged after the death of Saddam Hussein and enabled the rise of ISIS.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, many leftists claim that anti-Americanism in the developing world is nothing more than a consequence of Western imperialism that will dissipate if the U.S. becomes more isolationist. But that philosophy is equally absurd. Islamist opposition to the U.S. dates back to at least the 1940s, when Egyptian religious scholar Sayyid Qutb first called for a jihad, or armed struggle, against American institutions ranging from capitalism to mixed-gender schools to jazz music. To this day, strict adherents of this ideology resent Americans not because of what we’ve done, but because of who we are. Any foreign policy that denies this reality would open the door for increasingly brazen acts of terrorism in the West and empower insurgent groups the world over.
But these challenges don’t make the War on Terror hopeless. Even if it’s impossible to destroy, extremism is only as powerful as its number of adherents, and there are ways for the U.S. to lessen the appeal of terror groups. One easy step would be to stop using drones to assassinate midlevel terrorist leaders. In the decentralized world of jihadists, very few figures carry the influence of bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS, and misfired drone missiles that kill civilians just inspire more homespun terrorists. Another wise move would be to pressure the governments of American allies like Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority to take steps towards democratization. A lot of civilians turn to terror against the West as a response to repression and disenfranchisement in their home countries, so promoting the development of free and fair civil societies couldn’t hurt. And by maintaining a strong emphasis on domestic security, the U.S. can keep its citizens safe and hold would-be terrorists at bay.
A strategy based on defense and development might not be as glamorous as Sherman’s March or D-Day, but in a conflict as asymmetric as the War on Terror, it’s the only approach that can work.
Shenhar is a Plan II, government, and economics major from Westport, Connecticut.