Using Smart Power Against the Caliphate

Remarks by Christian Whiton, President of the Hamilton Foundation

Albuquerque Committee on Foreign Relations

August 19, 2014

August is often a surprisingly busy time for national security, and we meet today near the anniversary of some notable events in the history of statecraft. We’ll set aside the two world wars whose European chapters began around this time. Three lesser events help illustrate the concept I wish to discuss today: smart power, which means using the full spectrum of statecraft to advance our national security, including the many tools and practices that fall between the extremes of routine diplomacy and general war. The historical events are:

  1. The anniversary today of Operation Ajax, which was the CIA political action that deposed a communist-trending government in Iran (1953, 61 years ago);

  2. The anniversary tomorrow of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that ended the Prague Spring, (1968, 46 years ago); and

  3. Delving farther back in the 20th century, the anniversary of the arrival of the first foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War (1936, 78 years ago).

Ajax is often taught as an irredeemably bad episode in statecraft, where the evil, oil-hungry Americans deposed a peaceful, democratic government in Iran. I take a different view of that episode of nonviolent political warfare, and will compare it to another episode in our history when we got smart power just right. As for Prague and Spain, both are illustrative for different reasons. Prague was a predictable event that we failed to predict, and during which we also failed to act. It unfortunately foretells some of our more recent statecraft, especially during the Arab Spring. Like Prague, Spain also holds lessons for today, especially amid a lingering Syrian Civil War, which seems increasingly to have been a turning point in today’s Middle East—and not the good kind. More on these later.

The Late Unpleasantness

What calls for smart power in today’s world? No one in America wants to police the world, but the mushrooming number of threats calls for the wise use of power and careful prioritization. And in crises, the eyes of the world are inevitably upon us. The United States and its allies face many growing risks, including from major powers like the governments of China and Russia. But today I will focus on challenges posed to the West by various Middle Eastern crises:

  • The Syrian Civil War, lurching toward its 4th year, with 190,000 dead and possibly the worst possible political outcome;

  • The conflict between Israel and the Iranian proxy armies on its borders, including the war between Israel and Hamas;

  • Iran and its nuclear weapons aspirations; and

  • The collapse of Iraq and establishment of an Islamic State or Caliphate.

Let’s start with the Caliphate and its implications. The Islamic State—the political entity that rapidly has come to dominate Sunni Iraq—is not the first Islamist government, nor it is even the first Sunni Islamist state. Iran’s current theocratic regime marked the advent of modern Islamism taking over a major nation state when it rose to power in 1979. Sunni Islamist states have existed in parts of Somalia and Sudan, for example, and of course in Taliban-run Afghanistan. But the Caliphate is in many ways seminal—something very different and very profound compared to what has come before. Its political significance partially resembles the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1917. The USSR was not actually the first Bolshevik state; others came and went in the closing chapters of World War I. But it was profound in its inception in that a radical ideology with which the world would have to contend found a long-term, durable host within a nation state integrated into the European system—and a base from which to export a tyrannical ideology.

The Islamic State holds the same promise for those who oppose a civilized order in the world. There are three reasons the IS is very different:

First, the Islamic State is much more interested in exporting Islamism than the Taliban ever was. It should be noted that Western nations—whether under center-right or center-left governments—reached consensus that radical Islamist terrorist-supporters could not be allowed to control Afghanistan, despite that state’s isolation and historical backwardness. But what we in the West rightly refused to tolerate in interior Central Asia we have now tacitly accepted in the middle of Mesopotamia: a exporter of jihad with access to vast oil and water resources, cash and materiel, and possessing much easier access to the rest of the world than Afghanistan-based terrorists.

Second, the Islamic State is a magnet. While we may smirk at IS’s grandiose declaration of a new Caliphate, this has already proven to be a draw for jihadists elsewhere. There are rumors that a terrorist conclave of sorts took place in Libya in which participants discussed whether to switch their affiliations and aspirations from al Qaeda to the IS. There are also reports of Islamists seeking to liaise with or join IS from as far away as Indonesia. Furthermore the IS has drawn more citizens of Western nations than any other jihadist group.

Third, the Islamic State unfortunately appears to have a smart, credible, measured leader in the form of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Despite some de rigueur boasting of flying the flag of Islamist tyranny over the White House, the Caliphate is careful about its military operations, strategic communications, manpower, internal security, and other facets one would look for in a successful proto-state—even an evil one. Al-Baghdadi has ample suicide bombers at his disposal, but he seems determined to conserve them. He has opportunistically moved his army to the most fertile ground for occupation in Syria and Iraq, bringing to mind Willie Keeler’s strategy in baseball—also adopted by some in the U.S. military—known as “Hit ‘em were they ain’t.” He seems loath to appear in public for speeches; a pose rather unlike bin Laden, for example. And while al Qaeda focused mostly on spectacular attacks, al-Baghdadi seems to have successfully created a violent jihadist homeland with the resources of a crude, nascent nation state, including oil, water, and taxation resources.

Madrid to Damascus

How did we come to this point? Stepping beyond the politically charged issue of whether Bush or Obama administration policies are to blame for the 2014 collapse of Iraq, let’s look at bigger shortcomings that led to the broad crisis in today’s Middle East. Specifically, I’d like to offer a perspective on the Arab Spring and the related Syrian Civil War that may shed light on what has happened.

To do this, let me tie it to one of the other anniversaries I mentioned today—during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

When civil war erupted in Spain, the West faced some of same dilemmas we faced in Syria and other parts of the Arab Spring that began in late 2010. There was little public appetite for foreign intervention among Western publics in the 1930s. There was also considerable distaste for all sides of the conflict in Spain. Those who would call themselves the nationalists were corrupt and regressive, often described as fascist, and on friendly terms with the Third Reich in Germany. But the so-called republicans who controlled the capital also committed atrocities. Among them were some liberals, but also anarchists and communists. Some were motivated and drawn to the war by honorable principles (e.g., George Orwell, whose disillusionment began there). But their side was compromised by the NKVD—predecessor of the Soviet KGB—and other ruthless instrumentalities of Bolshevism. As time went by, it became clear that a republican victory would make Spain a Soviet client state under Joseph Stalin’s control.

Given these lamentable choices, the West stayed out, refusing to get involved directly in the war. (The exception were foreign nationals who volunteered and began arriving 78 years ago this month.) Events ran their course and produced a state run by Francisco Franco, a repressive autocrat. While Hitler was disappointed that Spain didn’t enter World War II as a combatant on his side, he nonetheless took solace that he did not have to worry about Franco’s Spain, which also helped him spy on the Mediterranean. Only after World War II, when Spain was enveloped by the democracies of NATO—ultimately joining NATO itself—did the country slowly transition to democracy.

Unfortunately, this eventually serendipitous outcome is impossible in the case today of the Syrian Civil War, where it is unlikely Syria’s rough neighborhood will serve as a reformatory. But the other similarities to Spain are there: a collection of unsavory choices for friends and foes at the beginning of the war, and a similar decision by the West to stay out.

But as the old song by Rush goes, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Inaction by Washington and London in Spain meant the country was on good terms with our enemy, Nazi Germany, during World War II. Today in Syria, the consequences are far worse. Amid much bellyaching in Washington that we had imperfect knowledge of those opposing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad when protests began in 2011, the worst of the worst have metastasized. The early non-violent protesters seeking classical liberal reforms are gone. The more secular defectors from Assad’s army—the West’s most likely effective allies—are also gone for the most part. What’s left is Assad, now regaining most of the populated parts of Syria, and the radical jihadist group that until recently was known as ISIS or ISIL—before it recast itself as the Islamic State. Indeed, ISIS at times was more focused on attacking other, more moderate rebel groups, than on striking Assad.

In both wars, the passage of time created space for the worst of the worst to emerge. Western aloofness hurt clearly definable Western national security interests. We’ll never know if moderates, given proper support, would have swayed the course of history. In Syria, they’re probably dead and certainly defeated. The lesson should be that less-than-perfect choices for allies should not be an excuse for inaction when our national security interests are on the line. And saying that “we do not know who these people are” at the outset of a conflict that affects us is not a real policy, nor was it probably true in Syria or other conflict areas of the Arab Spring. If it was, we need radical reform of our $80-billion-per-year intelligence bureaucracy. “Knowing” is why our taxpayers pick up that hefty tab each year.

Smart Power Step 1: Define the Enemy

As any corporal or second lieutenant knows, one of the first steps of command is to define foe and friend for those whom he is commanding. For most of our troops, the first part of a standard five-paragraph field order deals with describing accurately the situation faced, specifically the opposing force and any allied forces. Today, our civilian and military leaders have failed at this fundamental and basic task. It’s one factor of today’s Washington that is completely bipartisan in nature.

I was proud to serve in an administration that confronted our foreign opponents as part of a War on Terror. But that description, while understandable in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, lacked precision. After all, World War II was not a war on buzz bombs, kamikazes, u-boats, or blitzkrieg. Those were tools and tactics. Similarly, terror is just a tactic, not a clear description of our enemies, much less a strategy to defeat them.

The current administration has done no better, backing away even from general language about a war on terror and seeming for much of its tenure to focus on what it calls “core al Qaeda.” (That would be like fighting World War II targeting only the specific fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor.)

If you look at Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and any number of other problem geographies, there is a common thread to those who oppose a civilized order in the world: Islamism. This is the political ideology that seeks to unify mosque and state, replace democratically enacted law with religious sharia law, and subject all under its control to a theocratic tyranny. In other words, it is the latest utopian, dictatorial ideology to challenge the free world. Islamism is our enemy.

Smart Power Step 2: Have a Strategy

There’s a great line from the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, where an exasperated Steve Martin turns to John Candy and says, “…when you're telling these little stories, here’s a good idea: have a point. It makes it makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”

All too often the West’s intervention against Middle Eastern opponents in recent decades has lacked a clearly defined point. Tactics, posturing, and pell-mell reaction to crises have been the norm instead of clear strategy.

It’s important to understand what is not a strategy. A no-fly zone is not a strategy. A standoff cruise missile attack is not a strategy. A humanitarian bombing is not a strategy. A high-minded refusal to send arms to a war zone is not a strategy. And complaining that “we don’t know who these people are” when an unexpected crisis emerges is not a strategy. These are tactics or gestures or excuses. They may comprise part of the execution of strategy, but they are not a substitute.

Having defined our enemy as the Islamists, we should have a clear policy of confronting and undermining Islamism globally. We should target not only Islamism’s terrorist vanguard, whether the IS or al Qaeda or Iran’s warriors, but also develop a strategy to confront political actors like the Muslim Brotherhood. Our allies in this quest are not only fellow democracies, but potentially all who support a civilized order in the world. (It’s more inclusive, concise, and effective to be anti-Islamist than pro-democratic.) And while Western militaries have a crucial role to play in defending us from Islamism, we should prioritize smart power—using the full spectrum of our collective national power.

A policy of making life hard for Islamists would clarify much. When Iranians took to the streets in 2009 to protest their unelected, theocratic tyranny, it would have been obvious that we should have supported the protesting Iranians rather than sit on our hands. When it became clear that Mubarak was done in Egypt, it would have been obvious to support secular liberals first, or barring them, the secular Egyptian military—not the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Syria descended into war, if we had our minds focused on undermining Islamists, we would have funded, armed, and cultivated secular opponents of both Assad and the foreign jihadists who began pouring in over time.

Smart Power Step 3: Application

To understand how to use smart power against the new Caliphate—and the other Islamist forces threatening our way of life—we should look to examples when the West used smart power effectively in the past.


I mentioned that today is the anniversary of Operation Ajax, in which the CIA helped organize the overthrow of an increasingly erratic Iranian prime minister, who was making common cause with the communists. Critics—and there are many—regard this move as unfair, imperialistic, and anti-democratic. Because it restored a monarch who later became increasingly brutal, corrupt, and incompetent, critics also draw a direct line from this 1953 operation to that monarch’s removal and replacement by an Islamist government in 1979—somewhat of a stretch given the twenty-six-year interim.

I disagree that Ajax was unequivocally bad. When the Eisenhower administration undertook Ajax, the question wasn’t if there would be a World War III with the Soviets, but when. We had just wound down an atrocious war in Korea. Stalin had died earlier in the year and the implications of a leadership change in Russia were unclear but foreboding. Moscow had just violently extinguished an uprising in East Germany, and West Berlin looked ever the trigger for general war. Memories were still fresh of the free world losing mainland China to the communists in 1949. Amid all of this, it was simply unacceptable to stand by idly while an opportunist in Tehran was poised to take Iran and all of its resources behind the Iron Curtain—potentially making the Persian Gulf a Soviet lake. Furthermore, Ajax involved limited casualties and did not require the overt use of U.S. military force.


While Ajax is controversial, another example of smart power is not, although it is less-well known. It is the story of 1948. In particular that year, it became clear that elections in Italy—that nation’s first elections with universal suffrage after the war—were in effect Italy making a choice between the West and the Soviet Bloc. A win for the Christian Democrats would mean continued integration with the West and what would become NATO. A communist victory would align the nation with Moscow.

Despite Italy having been on the opposite side of World War II, and despite that some of the non-communists there were not exactly Boy Scouts, the United States did not sit on the sidelines lamenting that “we don’t know who these people are.” Especially when it became clear that the Soviet Union was covertly supporting the Italian communists, the Truman administration decided to act. The year-old CIA undertook its first political operation, funneling support to those who would keep Italy free. It worked: Italian voters rejected the communists.

However, if all the West had done in 1948 was throw some money at anti-communists in Italy, it would have been insufficient to defend Europe. After all, Western Europe was still in terrible economic and physical shape. Communism still held great intellectual appeal, and Soviet agents had penetrated some of the most sensitive parts of the U.S. and U.K. governments. The Red Army still loomed over Europe from just behind the Iron Curtain.

But the West did much more, using a whole-of-government approach to national power, including:

  • Commencing talks to establish NATO, which later would be described as “keeping the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” This wasn’t only important because of the military capabilities it created, but because it signaled the United States was not returning to its historical insularity;

  • Organizing “stay behind” missions in Western European nations. These cadres and weapons caches were intended to be the seeds of a resistance if a country was overrun by Soviet invasion or subversion. These missions demonstrated political will, framed people’s minds toward the danger, and leveraged valuable networks left over from the war;

  • Appointing Curtis LeMay to the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which coordinated America’s nuclear deterrence. While SAC was already a few years old, appointing the ruthlessly efficient LeMay signaled to our own military, among others, that the United States would be ready for global war at a moment’s notice;

  • Increasing defense spending, which reversed the post-World War II rapid drawdown of the military;

  • Announcing the Marshall Plan, which helped restore faith in market economies in Europe. By offering Marshall aid to Eastern Europe as well (which Moscow rejected), Washington cast Moscow in a bad light;

  • Setting plans for Radio Free Europe, which Washington would launch the following year with covert CIA funding. The United States already operated Radio in the American Sector, which reached East Berlin as well, undercutting pervasive communist censorship and propaganda; and

  • Implementing the National Security Act, which passed Congress with bipartisan support the previous year. The Act created the Air Force, unified the Armed Services in what would soon become the Department of Defense, and established the CIA—importantly giving it the ability to conduct covert political actions in addition to collecting and collating intelligence. The Act also created the National Security Council at the White House, recognizing that managing foreign affairs would now be a continuous part of a president’s job.

Thus, in 1948, the United States was challenging communism with overt and covert communications and political influence, by rebuilding its military and creating alliances, by getting its own house in order and preparing for war if necessary, and by leveraging its economic and political might in unison with its historical military prowess. That was smart power.


Unfortunately Washington’s grasp of smart power ebbed over time. When another event occurred whose anniversary I mentioned—tomorrow’s marking of 46 years since the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and crushing of the Prague Spring—Washington was asleep at the wheel.

The move toward liberalization in Czechoslovakia did not occur overnight, nor was it an attempt to fully cashier communism and realign the country with the West. Instead, there was a prolonged contest within the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia between an incumbent hardliner, Antonín Novotný, and the liberalizer whose reforms would touch off Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček.

At one point, this contest required the presence of Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev in Prague—a movement that should have been detected by Western intelligence and seen as important. But then, as now, our intelligence was wanting. In Washington, the Johnson administration said and did little as the Czechoslovakian reforms unfolded, and also when Soviet forces crushed the Prague Spring. Throughout the events, Johnson was distracted by the Vietnam War and enthralled by the idea of a major arms control treaty he was seeking from the Soviet Union (e.g., the unfortunate A.B.M. Treaty). (This foreshadowed the Obama administration’s failure to back Iranian dissidents in 2009 amid an effort to romance the Tehran regime and talk it out of its nuclear weapons ambitions.)

Would Prague Spring and the fate of the Eastern Bloc have turned out differently if the United States had reacted in 1968 with smart power of the kind used in 1948? We will never know. Certainly direct, overt support would have been difficult. But strong verbal support from an American president historically makes a difference to dissent movements—as almost any former dissident will tell you. Overt NATO intervention in Czechoslovakia could have led to war, but covert support and political operations could have been helpful to reformers. Washington could have also made trouble for the Soviets elsewhere in the world, perhaps distracting them, or at least raising the risks and costs of their crackdown in Prague.

In any event, Washington understood and did little. Czechoslovakia and the rest of Central Europe faced another 21 years of Soviet tyranny—while the world faced the specter of nuclear war.

Smart Power against the Caliphate

With these lessons of smart power used well and used poorly, how then should the West pursue a smart power strategy against the Islamic State and other sources of extreme risk in the Middle East?

The first step should be clarity and honesty: There is no force in the world willing to put the old Iraq back together. Iraq as a unitary state is gone. While officials in Washington and other capitals may talk of decisive action against the IS, no country or current coalition with the military means to recreate Iraq has the political will to do so.

With that assumption, we should realize and acknowledge that we are dealing with three Iraqs, or rather three proto-states in what used to be Iraq. They are Sunni Iraq, Kurdistan, and Shiite Iraq. Our objectives should be as follows:

  1. Deviating Sunni Iraq away from the IS in favor of more secular Sunnis;

  2. Helping Kurdistan become a prosperous, independent, oil-exporting nation and homeland for Kurds and other beleaguered minorities, including Christians; and

  3. Limiting Iran’s influence over Shiite Iraq.

The United States has begun a highly limited bombing campaign against the IS in Iraq (but not Syria). On the ground, the IS is meeting resistance from the Kurdish Peshmerga and, to a lesser extent, the forces of Shiite Iraq. However, while this resistance may deal some setbacks to the IS and may soon cause it to change some of its tactics, it will not defeat the IS.

The only reasonable option available to remove the IS from power on the ground—and this is far from a sure thing—is to back Sunni insurgents who are not Islamists. Such people exist, and in fact played a major role in the successful 2007 surge of forces and new counterterrorism strategy in Iraq. During the surge, the Sons of Iraq and other secular Sunni Iraqis rose against the jihadists who comprised al Qaeda in Iraq. They were an invaluable network and we should have kept them on our payroll even after the 2010 withdrawal. At the very least, we should have insisted on their incorporation into the Iraqi armed forces, probably as distinct units. Instead, their fate was handed to the Shiite government in Baghdad and they were betrayed.

Whether they can be reconstituted as a viable political-military force is unclear. Hopefully this is something that Sunni regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia and our other Gulf allies are undertaking on their own. Ultimately you need an army to fight an army, and secular Sunnis are the only group that might be able to dislodge the IS.

As for Kurdistan, the authorities there have put the country on a path toward independence; a dream of Kurds since the First World War. In recent years, changes for the better in Kurdistan and for the worse in the broader region have led Turkey to curb its traditional opposition to a Kurdish state. When the time comes, the United States should recognize an independent Kurdistan enthusiastically. In the mean time, we should stop urging countries against buying Kurdish oil based on the fantasy that Iraq may again be a unitary state controlled by Baghdad. Our interest is in the strongest possible Kurdistan to act as a buffer against the Caliphate. We also need a base for allied operations against the IS, whether overt or covert, violent or nonviolent.

As for Shiite Iraq, with its dysfunctional army and an economy based largely on potentially vulnerable oil production, the future is once again dim. The former Maliki government in Baghdad snuggled closely with Tehran—somewhat understandable given U.S. withdrawal—and Shiite Iraq will depend more and more on Iran to stay alive. We can offset this somewhat with continued aid and arms handouts to Baghdad for use against the IS, as well as facilitating cooperation with regional structures like the Gulf Cooperation Council. Going farther, we could also covertly support strategic communications that encourage a Shiite Iraqi or Arab nationalism and identity that stands apart from Iran with its Persian majority. This would also cause welcome trouble for Iran within its own borders—especially if directed also at minority Iranian Arabs, Azeris, Balochs, Bahá’ís, etc. But these smart power steps are unlikely from today’s Washington. Nonetheless, a broad smart power strategy used against the IS and other Islamists like the Iranian regime would lead to far greater long-term security in the Middle East, while limiting the role for military force.

America the Exceptional

When faced with a challenge abroad, many on both sides of America’s political divide say that we are too broke to help others and that we need to focus on matters here at home. No one doubts that the economic malaise that has afflicted America these past seven years has taken a toll, and many Americans are surely wary of war. Some politicians have cleverly rebranded isolationism as soothing “non-interventionism.”

But Americans are always generally opposed to foreign intervention right up to the point they’re not. Not only do Americans turn inward after unsuccessful wars like Vietnam and indecisive ones like Korea, but we also become insular even after successes like World War I and the Gulf War. But this always passes once we have a leader who explains clearly the threats we face and his strategy for success.

The United States still has a $17 trillion economy with vast capital and unparalleled capacity for innovation and hard work. (By comparison, China’s GDP is about $5 trillion in real terms.) While our problems are real, effectively we are one budget deal away from returning to a trajectory that trumps all competing economic and political systems.

Ultimately, the West can and will meet the challenge posed by the Caliphate and its Islamist brethren. The main question is how long we wait—and waiting is not cost free. Furthermore, we should decide whether we conduct this struggle on the Islamists’ terms or ours, and whether we employ the trademark smart power we used so successfully in the past.


Views expressed are those of the speaker and not necessarily the host committee. A special thanks to Bob McGuire and his colleagues at the Albuquerque 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 and the text above differs slightly from his remarks.

Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation and a former State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration. His is the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War,” published by Potomac Books in 2013.