Fighting Radical Islam: ISIS, Iran, and Attacks on the Homeland
Remarks by Christian Whiton
Louisville Committee on Foreign Relations
September 14, 2015
Thank you for that introduction Brayton Bowen, and thanks also to Chuck Ziegler and the Louisville Committee on Foreign Relations for inviting me to speak about fighting radical Islam. This hostile ideology is behind so many of the problems we face, but few of our leaders and political candidates seem willing or able to discuss the matter.
The Late Unpleasantness
We gather at the unofficial end of summer—and it’s been another lousy one for our national security. Of course you’ll recall that during the previous summer ISIS expanded rapidly into Iraq. It remains there today, having made additional gains. Claims of progress by U.S. and Iraqi officials have been misleading. Retired general John Allen, now serving as the administration’s anti-ISIS envoy, said yesterday on ABC’s This Week that, “We’ve seen remarkable progress in many respects.”
No one believes this.
While ISIS reached a temporary point of natural exhaustion when it conquered much of Sunni Iraq, it has not yet been dealt any serious setbacks (except in one or two instances at the hands of Kurdish forces).
We are not winning.
Over summer, the implications of this failure have become clearer. Refugees are now flooding Europe. Germany alone expects one million, and Europe as a whole will take much more. This event is already changing the nature of the European Union and influencing the British debate over whether to remain a member.
The United States will also start by accepting 10,000 of these refugees (we took about 70,000 refugees from all sources last year). The State Department says that it can adequately screen applicants for security risks. Having worked on refugee issues at State, let me just say that I doubt this claim. How can we screen out Islamists if our government officials can’t even utter the words, “radical Islam?”
The death toll in Syria and Iraq has continued to mount and may have reached 300,000 or more. Even the Russians are now taking advantage of the situation and building a military base in Latakia, Syria—potentially giving them significant influence in the region (including the Mediterranean) for the first time since the Cold War.
Iran is also on the march—and its government is a key part of radical Islam writ large. The nuclear deal that Iran secured is controversial. We could spend our entire hour on that; I’ll just note briefly that the public has passed judgment and does not like what it sees. A CNN/ORC poll last month found that 56% of Americans oppose the deal; only 41% are supportive. Every Republican in Congress and the top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are opposed.
Meanwhile, Iran’s government is busy on the non-nuclear front. It is fighting directly or through proxies in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. It has two proxy armies, Hamas and Hezbollah, facing Israel. And Tehran has seen itself as being in a state of low-intensity war with the Untied States since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979.
That year, Iran sanctioned the taking of American diplomats hostage. In 1983, agents of Iran bombed the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. Later that decade, it took Americans hostage in Lebanon, killing some. In 1996, Iran was almost certainly behind the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks for U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia (and the head of Hezbollah’s Saudi branch, thought to be the plan’s kingpin, was just arrested in Lebanon and deported to Saudi Arabia).
In the last decade, Iran was responsible for a large portion of U.S. casualties in Iraq. Tehran supplied advanced munitions and know-how to insurgents, and also had its own operatives on the ground. This decade, in 2011, Iranian agents were caught planning a political assassination in Washington, D.C., which theoretically would have involved scores of collateral casualties.
This pattern ought to be a reminder that even if we decide to see an adversarial government in a different way, it does not necessarily make it so in reality. That other government gets a vote in whether to un-declare war, and there’s no sign that Tehran has made that decision.
Furthermore, radical Islam involves much more than just ISIS and the Iranian regime.
Over the past year, those motivated by radical Islam have staged attacks in Paris: first against the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, and then against a kosher deli. They have struck in Copenhagen, Sydney, Ottawa, London, and the train from Amsterdam to Paris.
They have also attacked us in the United States, including at Fort Hood, Boston, and Chattanooga. You heard the warnings about possible Islamist attacks over the Fourth of July holiday. Thankfully none succeeded, but the director of the FBI revealed that several plots were foiled. Another official said these attacks would have occurred “coast to coast.”
We’ve heard new descriptions bandied about like: “home-grown terrorists,” “crowdsourcing terrorism,” “self-radicalization,” and “lone wolves.” Unfortunately, like so many of our descriptions of this conflict, these labels miss the point. They obscure the motivating force—the ideology—of those who seek our destruction or enslavement. More on that topic later.
To round out my list of recent trouble, let me note that the Muslim Brotherhood may be down, but it’s not out. While the Brotherhood—the foremost political purveyor of radical Islam—was ousted from power in Egypt, it remains in the shadows. Unfortunately, Egypt’s government isn’t just suppressing the Islamists, but secular reformers as well. The young, modern, secular reformers we saw in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the Arab Spring (when the Muslim Brotherhood stayed away) have again been deprived of their voice—and Egypt’s long-term prospects have declined as a result.
Libya too remains a mess. Neither political party in the United States seems inclined seriously to support secularist forces led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar in their struggle with the Islamists, including Ansar al Sharia, the group that killed our ambassador. Democrats want to forget about Libya because of the Benghazi scandal. Republicans believe Libya is a case study in the shortcomings of humanitarian intervention. Politically this is understandable. But if North Africa comes to resemble Syria and Iraq, we and our allies will lament not influencing events when the cost of doing so was relatively low. America is not the world’s policeman, but we can no longer afford to do nothing when we see radical Islam on the march. Simply offering moral and political support would be a good start.
Six Steps to Fight Radical Islam
Clearly the situation is deteriorating. How can we reverse this trend? I believe the solution is using the full spectrum of our statecraft against radical Islam. Not against “terror,” “terrorism,” “violent extremism,” “radical Islamic terrorism,” or “overseas contingencies”—or any of the other creative terms we have for avoiding the totality of the threat. Against radical Islam itself.
I suggest six steps:
1) First, we should tell the truth. We’ve got to be honest about the force that animates Islamists before we can expect to make lasting progress.
We just marked the fourteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Since then we have had two presidential administrations that have failed to identify our enemy clearly.
President George W. Bush said that “Islam is peace,” and that the “Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion.” Regardless of whether these statements are true, they fundamentally missed the point. The point was that the latest form of tyranny to target American freedom and Western Civilization had wrapped itself in Islam. Effectively ignoring this link actually made separating the ideology from the religion more difficult.
Similarly, the term “War on Terror” that Bush coined was understandable but inapt. “Terror” after all is a means or a tool. It is not a root cause. It would be like renaming World War II a war on blitzkrieg, u-boats, or kamikazes.
President Obama has made matters worse. He has intentionally downplayed the role of radical Islam in the threats we face.
When an Islamist went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood in Texas, killing 13 people while yelling “Allahu Akbar,” the Obama administration classified it as “workplace violence.” It took five years and congressional pressure even to get Purple Hearts for those who were wounded.
When an Islamist terrorist targeted Jews at a kosher deli in Paris, also yelling “Allahu Akbar” during the attack, President Obama called it “random.”
When President Obama held a summit at the White House in February on “countering violent extremism,” he refused even to allude radical Islam, except when he said, “No religion is responsible for terrorism.”
We owe ourselves honesty and have to overcome political correctness in order to describe this threat accurately for a change. In fact, we are not at war with Islam, but with those who want to combine mosque and state, subvert democratically enacted law for religious sharia law, and inflict on everyone a theocratic government run by an anti-modern clerisy. We can call it “radical Islam,” “political Islam,” or “Islamism.” But we cannot just call it “terrorism,” or “terror,” or “violent extremism,” or even “radical Islamic terrorism.” We can’t just focus on the tip of the spear; we need to think about the whole spear.
If we cannot be honest with ourselves—if we can’t even define our opposition—then what chance to do we have of getting allies to help, whether those allies are other governments or individual Muslims who could turn on the Islamists?
2) Second, we should have a clear policy. If this sounds like a no-brainer, it’s because it is a no-brainer. But nearly half a century after modern radical Islam began using violence and subversion in the West to achieve political goals, we have yet to say clearly that we will support those resisting radical Islam.
Presidents from both political parties used to know better. In 1947, Harry Truman, a Democrat, promulgated what would become known as the Truman Doctrine: in effect that the United States would support nations threatened by Soviet communism. This didn’t mean that we’d send our military to solve other people’s problems in every instance, but it did make clear whose side we were on, and that we would respond in a manner of our choosing.
President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, tightened Cold War policy further. He held a series of debates in the White House Solarium early in his administration, and decided to adopt formally the policy of Containment.
We have no equivalent of the Truman Doctrine or Containment for the current conflict. We ought to adopt a policy of resisting radical Islam globally, whether its purveyors operate on the battlefield, through terrorist acts, or within the realm of politics or culture. This would make it clear to friend and foe alike that we are fighting an ideology. It would also clarify the matter for agencies of the U.S. government, many of which are lost at sea in this fight.
If we had an anti-Islamist policy, there would have been less guessing and room for error when political turmoil swept Iran in 2009 and the rest of the Middle East in 2010. We certainly wouldn’t have ignored anti-regime protesters in Iran, as the Obama administration did; or nod at the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as the administration also did.
To the extent that an anti-Islamist policy puts us on the same side as authoritarian governments, we should recall that the same issue arose during the Cold War. But while we supported then-authoritarian governments like those of South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, and the Philippines, we pressed them for reform. And they did reform.
A policy of opposing radical Islam globally also would work better than a garden-variety “freedom agenda” of promoting democracy, which was theoretically the policy of George W. Bush. Such a policy had noble intentions, but it proved difficult, was divisive among allies, and ignored the reality that better-organized Islamists are good at using democracy to kill democracy, especially in situations where the presence of elections is mistaken for democracy. On paper, the United States has many government-funded organizations capable of spreading democracy. In practice, it has none. More on that later.
3) Third, the free world must defeat ISIS and end the Caliphate. Most of my suggestions for defeating radical Islam prioritize the part of the statecraft spectrum between diplomacy and war. But there is still a crucial role for the military. ISIS today is the focus of evil in the world and its success generates new warriors and fellow travelers for radical Islam. It needs to lose and be seen losing. Furthermore, its defeat could create a large body of Arabs who can vouch for the horrors of living under Islamist tyranny.
The parts of a movement to defeat ISIS exist. There is a strong desire among many Sunni Arab states to destroy ISIS. The coalition is engaged in combat and shows that regional governments don’t expect America and the West to do everything for them. With stronger leadership from the United States, we can turn the tide.
The debate over having “boots on the ground” or not is misleading. We already have a new ground presence in Iraq. This is essential if we expect Iraqis and Syrians to rise up against ISIS in conjunction with our own military operations. We’ll also need the help of Sunni tribes that enabled the defeat of the insurgency in Iraq during the previous decade. Realistically, they will need to be fighting for their own new nation or confederation—whether de facto or de jure—and not for what we previously knew as Iraq or Syria. Those lines on a map dating from the end of World War I have less meaning each day.
Furthermore, if the free world defeats ISIS, we need to be prepared to answer the question, “what comes next?” The answer is probably Sunni tribes that don’t live to export Islamism, and which have an incentive to cooperate with the United States and our allies--especially if we develop military, political, and economic ties that cannot be severed by Baghdad.
4) Fourth, we should wage political warfare on radical Islam. This is known otherwise as ideological warfare. My definition: if espionage is the “pull” of information that our enemies don’t want us to have, then political warfare is the “push” of ideas, information, people, and events with which our enemies would rather not contend. The free world used it to great effect during World War II and the Cold War.
Part of successful political warfare involves being honest and saying that we oppose Islamists globally, whether they are the tip of the spear (e.g., ISIS, al Qaeda) or the rest of the spear (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood, campus Islamists, CAIR, NIAC).
Let’s also dispense tacitly with the 35-year failed policy known as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or two-state solution. The idea that solving this dispute makes other problems in the Middle East go away is a truism that isn’t true. In fact, other bad actors like the Iranian regime need to be disrupted before any durable solution is conceivable. If both parties want us to mediate negotiations, then so be it, but if there was a magical combination of words and inducements that could solve this dispute, they would have been found. Broader geopolitical factors must change for real progress to occur.
Dispensing with the myth that solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is feasible and necessary is a key early step to successful political warfare. Another fundamental part is putting the Iranian regime on the defensive—ideally through non-violent means. We should resurrect Cold War-style support for political dissidents in Iran. This support should include covert aid and political training; not just words. This could be similar to Cold War support for Polish Solidarity and other dissident groups behind the Iron Curtain.
We should also oppose Iranian influence everywhere by supporting Tehran’s opponents, whether this means aiding Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon or those resisting the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, for example. (Of course, the Gulf Arab states are already doing this and fighting along side those opposed to Iran’s proxies.)
Operationally, we must reform government to get political warfare against radical Islam right. The State Department excels at its original mission of talking to other governments. It does a lousy job of talking persuasively to people, and it hates supporting real dissident groups. The CIA used to conduct political warfare, including supporting foreign political groups resisting communism, but it got out of that business, and seems more interested today in being a second air force with its drones. The fact that it was caught off guard by the Arab Spring shows it lacks knowledge of political developments in the Middle East.
The National Endowment for Democracy was created in part to pick up the mantle of supporting democracy politically from the CIA. But it lacks a capability to operate covertly and the world’s bad guys carefully thwart its overt activities. Furthermore, those activities seldom include support for real dissidents and effective political actors. Instead, they focus on support for abstract “civil society,” which has proven ineffective. Conferences on civil society held in Washington or Brussels don’t scare our opponents or make life harder for them.
Better leadership and a clear mission to disrupt radical Islam can lead to better performance from these organizations. But we need an agency whose primary mission is political warfare. During the Cold War, this was largely the purview of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). Congress terminated the USIA in the late 1990s, at a time when some thought we had reached the end of history and that democracy had won. We ought to bring the USIA back; it can be much leaner than its last incarnation, perhaps even just a small grant-making agency with the legal authority to act covertly.
Finally, good political warfare also requires smarter, more honest diplomacy. We should make life harder for Islamists and their fellow travelers. This ought to include less tolerance for governments like those in Turkey and Qatar, which are playing with Islamist fire. We ought to move our Centcom Forward base out of Qatar to another Gulf state, and ask NATO to suspend Turkey until it has a government that is on our side and worth defending.
5) Fifth, let’s wage cultural warfare on radical Islam. This is a close relative of political warfare and could also be managed by a restored USIA. We complain about radical Islamic schools, sympathy for suicide bombers, Saudi support for Wahhabi charities, etc., but what have we done to counter this?
We should look to Cold War efforts like the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The Truman administration approved the Congress, which was supported overtly by the State Department and covertly by the CIA. It resulted from a realization that undermining an ideology took allies who had a voice in the debate. In fighting Soviet communism in Europe, that meant enlisting social democrats, socialists, and other on the Left who were willing to stand up to communists. That approach was far more effective than sending U.S. diplomats and market enthusiasts to preach the virtues of capitalism.
We should give Harry Truman some credit. At a time when he was being accused of losing China to the communists and having a government penetrated by communist agents, he was still willing to fund what was basically a gabfest for left-leaning intellectuals in Europe. It was effective and helped thwart Soviet cultural and intellectual appeal over the years. It worked with other U.S. information operations like the establishment of Radio Free Europe. Most of those who were in effect doing our bidding against the communists didn’t know they were dining out on the CIA’s dime—and didn’t need to know.
We should support Muslims who resist radical Islam at home and abroad—and we don’t necessarily need to set up a Dick Cheney School for Moderate Islamic Thought to do so. We can be subtle. More of the West’s foreign aid can be redirected to schools that put boys and girls on the same footing and support classical education and liberal arts. We can fund more American Universities abroad like the ones in Beirut and Kabul. Or we can covertly support indigenous institutions that meet our criteria.
The free world could learn some lessons from Singapore about monitoring students who go abroad to Islamic schools. Universities attended by Muslims are shaping up increasingly to be a more consequential ideological battleground than mosques. But when mosques are under the sway of clerics who preach Islamism, we should support foreign governmental efforts to reform those mosques and return them to a focus on spiritual issues, not political ones. Much of this would be more effective if it were done covertly—and we need to lower the legal threshold for covert action.
6) Sixth and finally, we should step up internal security measures. From Ft. Hood to London to Boston to Paris to Sydney to Copenhagen, it should be clear that the threat from radical Islam now exists within the West—and within the United States. It’s never pleasant to discuss surveillance and curbs on some of our fellow citizens, but the threat is no longer exclusively foreign. (At least we are lucky that radical Islam does not have the intellectual appeal that the communist ideology had to certain groups of intellectuals and workers here in the 1930s.)
To defend our society, we can learn from countries like the United Kingdom, which has defunded Islamist political groups masquerading as charities. Australia is poised to strip citizenship from dual citizens who become jihadists, allowing their deportation. While a leadership change in Australia has delayed the law, it may eventually pass with both center-right and center-left support. We should take similar steps, and screen visitors, refugees, and other immigrants for sympathy to radical Islam.
Islamist groups like the Council for American Islamic Relations and the National Iranian American Council should be exposed and have their non-profit tax benefits revoked. They’re hardly acting for the public good. We should also examine Cold War laws like the McCarran Internal Security Act and update the sections that survived judicial scrutiny for the current conflict.
These steps to fight radical Islam would use the full spectrum of our national power to defend freedom from the latest totalitarian ideology to threaten the free world. The military would play a crucial role in our defense—but it would not be expected to play the only role.
During the Cold War, we did not just concern ourselves with the tip of the communist spear: the Red Army or the KGB. We undertook efforts in cultural, political, legal, economic, diplomatic, espionage-related, military, religious, and financial spheres to undermine an ideology and win a conflict without resorting to general war. We can do so again and prevail in the struggle against radical Islam.
I look forward to your questions.
Views expressed are those of the speaker. A special thanks to Chuck Ziegler and his colleagues at the Louisville Committee on Foreign Relations. Thanks also to Charlie Ponticelli and her colleagues at the American Committees on Foreign Relations. Mr. Whiton delivered this speech from an outline; the text above is edited and differs from his remarks as delivered.