Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Who's the Enemy in the War on Terror?

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Who's the Enemy in the War on Terror?
The U.S. is at war with violent Islamist extremism, and the Obama administration does moderate Muslims no favor by refusing to recognize this.


In the new National Security Strategy released by the White House last month, the Obama administration rightly reaffirms that America remains a nation at war. Unfortunately, it refuses to identify our enemy in this war as what it is: violent Islamist extremism.

This is more than semantics. As military strategists since Sun Tzu have appreciated, the first rule in war is to know your enemy so you can defeat it. The 2006 National Security Strategy did this: It correctly identified our enemy as "the transnational terrorists [who] exploit the proud religion of Islam to serve a violent political vision." The Obama administration removed those accurate and important words.

One argument administration officials use to defend their avoidance of terms like "violent Islamist extremism" is that they are imprecise and lump together a diverse set of organizations with different goals, motivations, and capabilities. Yet the administration's preferred alternative term—"violent extremism"—is much more vulnerable to such criticism.

To state the obvious, there are many forms of "violent extremism" with which America is not "at war." The strategies and capabilities needed to counter the specific threat of violent Islamist extremism are very different from those needed to deal with white supremacist extremists in the U.S. or genocidal militias in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet at no point does the 2010 National Security Strategy explain or defend its repeated use of the nebulous euphemism "violent extremism," which also has appeared in other strategy documents over the last year.

The administration has also stated at times—including in its new National Security Strategy— that our enemy in this war can be identified as "al Qaeda," "al Qaeda and its affiliates," or as "al Qaeda-inspired terrorists." While that's a better characterization, it still suffers from a number of serious shortcomings.

First, it is not fully accurate. Defining the enemy by reference to al Qaeda implies that this war is primarily about destroying an organization, rather than defeating a broader political ideology. This war will not end when al Qaeda has been vanquished—though that, of course, is a critical goal—but only when the ideology of violent Islamist extremism that inspires and predates it is decisively rejected. That ideology motivates many other groups and individuals.

For example, the ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, recently warned about the growing danger to the U.S. posed by the Pakistan-based Islamist extremist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the devastating 2008 attack in Mumbai, India. As Amb. Benjamin put it, "Al Qaeda is not the only group with global ambitions that we have to worry about."

Finally, characterizing this war as being against a specific organization risks distracting our government from important policy questions about how to combat the ideological dimensions of the war that is taking place within Islam. It also may send a message to moderate Muslims that they can and should remain on the sidelines of this fight, while governments use conventional means to defeat al Qaeda.

Some in the Obama administration have suggested that—even if all of these objections were true—calling our enemy "violent Islamist extremists" is not wise because doing so bolsters our enemy's propaganda claim that the West is at war with Islam. The logic of this argument is completely unsound. Muslims in fact understand better than anyone else the enormous difference between their faith and the terrorist political ideology that has exploited it.

There is no question that violent Islamist extremists seek to provoke a "clash of civilizations," and that we must discredit this hateful lie. We must encourage and empower the non-violent Muslim majority to raise their voices to condemn the Islamist extremist ideology as a desecration of Islam, responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of innocent Muslims and people of other faiths. How can we expect those Muslims to have the courage to stand and do that if we are unwilling to define and describe the enemy as dramatically different from them?

We must recognize the nature of the fight we are in, not paper it over. The United States is definitely not at war with Islam. But a group of self-identified, extremist Muslims has definitely declared war on us, a war which they explicitly justify by reference to their religion. Muslims across the world see the ideological nature of this struggle. I believe it is disrespectful to suggest they cannot understand these distinctions and act on them.

As a former Democratic secretary of state, Dean Acheson, warned a half-century ago: "No people in history have ever survived who thought they could protect their freedom by making themselves inoffensive to their enemies." This remains the case today.

Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut.

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