A US strategy to win the war against radical Islamism: Like playing chess in 5 dimensions

What should the next American national security team discuss in their first meeting in January 2017?

January 7, 2015 21:36
ISIS militant

ISIS militant. (photo credit: REUTERS)

We can attack Daesh [Islamic State]... we can constrain it financially… but as long as the idea of Daesh remains intact, they have yet to be defeated...

We’re not just fighting a force... we’re fighting an idea” – Retired US General John Allen, leader of the global campaign against Islamic State “The Muslims explicitly say that they did not come to Europe in order to become European, but to Islamize Europe... Anyone who wants to listen can listen. Anyone who doesn’t, they can wait for the next catastrophe.”
– Professor Raphael Israel, Hebrew University

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In my previous column, I identified the challenges that America, Israel and the West face to defeat the ascendancy of radical Islamism.

What should the next American national security team discuss in their first meeting in January 2017 to begin in earnest the long march against radical Islamism? Will they develop creative solutions for conflict management? Here is a proposed agenda of that meeting:

1. You cannot wait for the next terrorist mega-attack on America or the West before acting

It is a matter of time before radical jihadists attempt a large-scale attack intended to fundamentally shake the American national psyche. It is possible that the next generation of Islamist terrorists will change their strategy to small-scale attacks on soft targets.

Regardless of the method, Americans should learn from the Israelis about how to survive and remain a vibrant liberal democracy in an age of asymmetric recurrent terrorism.

2. Differentiating friend from foe in the war against Islamism The new age of radical Islamism makes it hard to identify and differentiate one’s friends from foes. In reality, we will need to work with many uncomfortable bedfellows.

Managing these relationships will take constant re-evaluation and sophisticated conflict management, a skill set lacking in the naïve “Kerryian” approach.

Turkey is a good example. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey has transformed into an Islamist state that has become a danger to NATO. Turkey directly and indirectly supports Islamic State, Iran, and undermines American interests in the region by weakening our NATO coalition. Unfortunately, NATO prefers to ignore facts. Future American presidents will not have that luxury.

There are two possible approaches to make Erdogan less confrontational.

Turkey has felt betrayed by the US over the crisis in Syria, with the American abandonment of its promise to help overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. Erdogan has a point. An answer for rapprochement is through coordination with Turkey against Assad.

It is in American interests to create a no-fly zone in northern Syria. This could be the price for Turkish participation against Islamic State. Removing Assad serves American interests by weakening our major Islamist threat in the region, Iran. A regime change in Syria may not be possible at this time, but America should not work or support the butcher of Damascus. Our goal is his ouster.

Another avenue for cooperation with Turkey is through shared economic energy interests in the Mediterranean.

Turkey wants to be a gateway for Israeli natural gas production en route to Europe, and America could facilitate this deal between two vital allies (who also are bitter rivals).

3. Don’t interfere in Islam

According to retired US General John Allen, leader of the global campaign against Islamic State, the goal of the current campaign against it is the “rescue of Islam.” He speaks about the “threat that Daesh is to [the Muslim] faith.” He is correct that Islam must be rescued from radical Islamism. But, with due respect, this is a prescription for failure if America, the demonized infidel, leads the rescue effort. Islamic nation-states and visionary Muslim leaders must lead the rescue of Islam.

4. Democracy is not an election

Repeating a failed strategy is bad foreign policy, and the definition of insanity. The West must acknowledge that it was a mistake to base a Middle East strategy on the belief that a Western perspective of rule of law, justice, tolerance, homosexual and women’s rights, and freedom of speech and press, could be imposed on a region not ready to accept it.

Tunisia aside, almost all of the liberalism of the Arab Spring was crushed by Islamists, who usurped the liberal minority. The one place our Western democratic ideals could have taken root was during the 2009 Iranian Green Revolution, but President Barack Obama abandoned the Iranian people. This cannot happen again.

The State Department needs a new playbook. They must understand that tribe and clan in the Middle East are more important than nation-state identification and that placating enemies in that region is interpreted as weakness. Just look at President Obama’s well-intentioned (but ultimately failed) outreach to the Muslim world and Iran, which has caused more harm than good.

Going forward, our primary objective is to find allies in the Muslim world intent on fighting radical Islamism.

We need to be pragmatic and only incrementally look for small opportunities to increase democracy in the region. Again the State Department must be reminded that an election is not democracy.

5. Educating the American people

The next administration must educate the American people about the dangers radical Islamism can pose to our homeland. This will require leadership and honesty in managing expectations, and explaining what will be needed to prevail in this long-term conflict.

6. The rules of international law in the age of Islamism

According to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, “Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not constitute a war crime... A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).”

However, as Françoise Hampton of the University of Essex points out, “The greater the military advantage anticipated, the larger the amount of collateral damage – often civilian casualties – which will be ‘justified’ and ‘necessary.’” We must develop new rules for asymmetric warfare against an enemy that uses civilians as human shields and children as suicide bombers. The administration must explain to its citizens what “proportionate” and “disproportionate” use of force mean in this context. When diplomacy fails and military operations are chosen, a legal justification for use of force must be made. We will lose a war of proportional responses to a terrorist enemy who has no rules and is fighting for regional and worldwide hegemony.

A healthy debate among the American people must take place to ensure that all points of view are heard, and that we continually self-examine our actions and strategy, while not nitpicking every failed mission. This debate should take place before a military operation kills scores of innocent civilians who were purposely embedded in terrorist bases. We Americans adhere to international law, just not the politicized version of that law that is advocated by the UN and far-left progressive apologists and anarchists.

This will serve the next administration well. Otherwise, the inevitable parade of dead babies intended for propaganda points will stop the war on radical Islamism in its tracks.

7. The clock is ticking

With every year that passes, radical Islamists, whether in Iraq, Syria, Iran or Nigeria, incite and indoctrinate tens of millions of children.

Today’s Pakistani radical Islamists who support the Taliban were children indoctrinated in the Wahhabi madrassas in the 1980s. Likewise, the Afghani children of the 1980s were brainwashed by the Mujahedeen, the forerunner of the Afghani Taliban.

There is no time to wait to begin the war against radical Islamism.

8. Cooperation with the Chinese

The next president needs to develop a strategy of shared interests to get the Chinese on board against the common enemy of radical Islamism.

China fears the rise of radical jihadists in its outlying provinces, and is troubled by terrorist incidents and threats in its major inner cities. One of the tools to bring China on board is their Achilles heel of dependence on fossil fuels, and America’s future glut of oil and natural gas. Despite today’s short-term drop in oil and natural gas prices, fossil fuels will remain a key to China’s economic prosperity in the 21st century.

9. Energy as a tool in the war against radical Islamism

Natural gas and oil are key geopolitical leverage chits in the war against radical Islamism.

Israel’s Mediterranean natural gas potential may allow it to develop relationships in the Middle East and Europe that are now severely strained. If handled with the proper American diplomatic cover, it can be a potent weapon in the war against radical Islamism, building new alliances of convenience.

10. Can Russia be brought on board?

Russia is an even more difficult problem, as Russian President Vladimir Putin seems more likely to confront and challenge America despite his nation’s economic fragility. Is it possible that there is a window of opportunity to engage Russia because 50 percent of its income is from fossil fuels sales, and the steep drop in oil prices is creating havoc with the ruble and unnerving the Russian people? The Russians fear unrest in their southern Muslim provinces and neighbors. Increasing American fossil fuel production is the most tangible way to keep pressure on Russia and other anti-American despots such as Iran and Venezuela.

11. Iran is the most dangerous player in the Islamist world

President Obama last year said that Iran is a “force for stability” in the Middle East. If a bad deal is signed with Iran, the war against radical Islamism will be infinitely more difficult to win. It may be too late for the next administration, but if Iran is found to have returned to its clandestine nuclear work, a return to punishing sanctions (coupled with revenue loss from the fall in oil prices) will be our best leverage against this anti-American Islamist theocracy.

Regime change really is the only answer to dealing with Iran in the 21st century. The current Iranian leadership is absolutely untrustworthy and cannot be expected to keep its commitment to any signed document.

That does not mean we get involved directly or through military action, but it does mean that if the Iranian people rise up again against the authoritarian “mullahcracy” we should be there for them – unlike our abandonment of them in 2009.

12. Nuclear proliferation in the war against Islamism

Nuclear proliferation with the potential for nuclear material getting into the hands of non-state Islamist terrorist actors will be dramatically increased if any deal is signed with Iran. None of the Sunni nation-states trust Iran to remain true to its word and, one way or another, will acquire nuclear reactors and material to enrich uranium or plutonium.

Many of these Sunni states have ties to terrorist organizations, or could become unstable. Populist Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood are waiting for the opportunity to overtake any Muslim nation. Egyptian Islamist Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi of Egypt may have been a harbinger of this coming danger.

13. Pakistan cannot move to the dark side

Pakistan is the most vivid example of the dangers of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Sunni Islamist terrorists. We must support the current Pakistani government to fight the Pakistani Taliban. The problem is that the Pakistani government supports the Afghani Taliban, and sometimes works with the Pakistani Taliban (when it is not trying to kill them). We have no choice but to do what we can to manage and support the Pakistani government, no matter how untrustworthy it is, because we cannot let their vast nuclear arsenal fall into the hands of a Pakistani-Taliban government.

14. Iraq at the crossroads of radical Islamism

Iraq is at the crossroads of the Sunni- Shi’ite divide that animates much of the complexity and rivalry in the Middle East.

America has allowed Iraq to become a puppet satellite state of Iran. If America cannot revive its influence in Iraq and distance the Arab Shi’ite Iraqi leadership from the Persian Shi’ite Iranian influence, the options will be limited.

America must find a way to get the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider Abadi, to distance himself from Iran and commit to working with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish population to fight Islamic State. If this is not possible, America eventually may need to reconsider the option of a divided Iraq, with a northern Kurdish state, a Shi’ite state in the south, and a moderate Sunni center state.

Again, it will be incumbent on American leaders to explain to the people of the world that Iraq, like most nation-states in the Middle East, is an artificial construct, and does not date back from time immemorial.

America does not have the power to make these grand changes happen by itself, and certainly not in the short term. But since this conflict will span decades, these options should not be dismissed just because they currently may be impractical.

15. Arab states must build a sustainable coalition

The building of a coalition of Sunni states to fight Islamic State and its offshoots is imperative. These states want to fight the populist Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, but they will need American leadership and support. American leverage and trust with Sunni states will evaporate if America follows its current course to partner with Iran.

16. America should foster a rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf States

The seedlings of the current covert alignment between Sunni States and Israel must be nurtured, as their cooperation will be an important aid to coordinate intelligence in the fight against radical Islamism.

17. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will distract from the war against radical Islamism

If only the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could be resolved, the relationship between Israel and the Sunni states might be more likely. So the thinking goes, which is why the US wants to pressure Israel to capitulate to the Palestinians. Hopefully, the next administration will realize that true progress in managing this conflict is up to the Palestinians – not the Israelis – to compromise on Jerusalem, demilitarization, right of return and the Jordan River Valley.

Can any clear-thinking person actually believe that with Islamic State so close to the Jordan River Valley, Israel could contemplate giving it over to Palestinians who could in short order be controlled by Hamas? Finally, in the war against radical Islamism there can be no daylight between the US and Israel.

Eric Edelman, Dennis Ross and Ray Takeyh, writing in The Washington Post opined: “The core of the US alliance system in the Middle East remains our close partnership with Israel. The value of US deterrence is not enhanced by perceptions of discord in that essential relationship.”

This new regional strategy can form a basis for a new and nimble American foreign policy that finally recognizes the primary enemy of America and the West is in the 21st century.

The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders.

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