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September 1, 2005

Winning the War of Ideas

One of the major problems facing U.S. foreign policy and the “War on Terror” is what songwriter Paul Simon called our “short little span of attention,” the propensity of the American public to lose focus when a task takes too long to resolve. If the global fight against radical Islam were not already complex enough, it is now butting up against our five-minute culture —the sense that tasks that can’t be completed in five minutes are not worth the investment required to achieve them.

The polls show a precipitous decline in popular support for the war in Iraq. As I write this, U.S. military fatalities in that war are approaching 1,900. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died since we invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. The ongoing insurgency there, fueled in part by non-Iraqi fighters with a jihadist fervor, shows no sign of abating. Despite months of haggling, the three major factions, the Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Arabs, have been unable to agree on what form Iraq’s government should take.

Meanwhile, the finest Army that this country, or any nation, has ever assembled, one that many of us spent decades rebuilding and professionalizing, is wearing out. Enlistments will not reach goals this year, and may be even weaker in 2006. We are neither paying these men and women adequate wages nor inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

I believe that we are at a historic turning point, similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, similar to the immediate post-World War II period before that. To continue to confront radical Islam and prevail—and make no mistake, we must prevail—we must, as a nation, focus not only on the daily diet of sound bites and media-pitched woe. We also must think strategically and recognize that because this is a turning point, we are setting the policy that will determine geopolitical relations for decades to come.

A world realignment is under way. China and India are rapidly rising, with consequences for the global economy and for every family here at home. The defeat of the proposed European constitution in France and the Netherlands raises very real questions about the future of the European Union. For the United States in 2005, the Middle East is key, and at the center of that question is how to defeat radical Islamic terrorism.

No matter what your opinion of how we became involved in Iraq, it is clear that the struggle there is largely one of competing ideas and ideologies. There are signs of hope. The Bush administration has pointed, justifiably, to the Palestinian election, Egyptian constitutional reform, the ouster of Syria from Lebanon, and elections in Afghanistan and Iraq as proof that, when given a choice, people will always prefer liberty over tyranny, freedom over repression. This is not an “Arab spring,” as some have suggested, but may be the end of the long “Arab winter.” Democracy has been seeded, but it is too soon to say that it has taken root.

In a war of ideas, we in the West can’t be defined by those who hate us. The United States has to be engaged in every possible way. We need, for instance, a sophisticated public diplomacy campaign that underscores the respect we have for the values espoused by mainstream Islam. There are several examples of modern states with large Islamic populations built around democratic ideals—Indonesia, India and Turkey, to name a few. These secular governments coexist beneficially with enlightened Islam.

Following the London bombings, we saw the first fatwas, or religious proclamations, issued by clerics who condemned the violence there and earlier in Spain. We must foster and encourage that kind of moderation as an alternative to the extremism that’s proffered by Osama bin Laden and other disciples of Wahhabism, the puritanical Islamic movement founded in the 18th century, that fosters suicide bombings, the subjugation of women and the indiscriminate murder of noncombatants.

This brings me back to the question of time and our national attention span. In 2003, we achieved a remarkable political consensus in favor of the Iraq invasion. All of us understood at the time that it would take five to seven years to reconstruct Iraqi society. Here we are, some two years later, and the media continues to focus on trivialities, and our national debate is not about pathways to success, but neuralgia that this struggle is too difficult, too complex and too costly.

In a recent article, Dr. James J. Schneider, professor of military theory at the School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Command and General Staff College, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, reviews the theory of insurgency formulated by T.E. Lawrence, the British Army officer made famous as Lawrence of Arabia. Updating those theories to today’s reality, Schneider writes, “First, for the insurgent, warfare is always offensive, never defensive; always protracted, never swift. Second, the news media, especially the electronic mode, is a weapon of the insurgent; it is his to manipulate, and if he manipulates it, he owns it…”

In these historic times, we must find the resolve to become what we often are not: patient, educated and aware of our adversary, and immune to the sensational when it threatens to crowd out the rational.

Lt. General (Ret.) Daniel W. Christman retired from the Army in 2001 after a distinguished career that included five years as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a member of NATO’s Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.