Monday, January 15, 2007

Containing terrorism: hard and soft power

Setting aside the fact that he’s still technically running the country – and I think it’s getting to the point where we pretty much can – Tony Blair is becoming quite an interesting politics lecturer.

His latest speech, on military policy in the 21st century, is worth a read. Of course it’s disingenuous and self-serving in some respects, but if you can resist the temptation to vent whatever Blairophobic fury you might have (as the Independent so tediously fails to do), then you’ll find a decent serving of food for thought. At the very least, it’s a good jumping-off point for discussion.

Blair draws on Joseph Nye’s distinction between ‘hard power’ (coercing others, economically or militarily, to do what you want) and ‘soft power’ (inspiring, attracting and persuading others to want what you want). He says, uncontroversially, that any state aspiring to relevance on the world stage must be wiling and able to use both when appropriate.

“There is a case for Britain… to slip quietly, even graciously into a different role. We become leaders in the fight against climate change, against global poverty, for peace and reconciliation; and leave the demonstration of ‘hard’ power to others.

“The reason I am against this case, is that for me ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power are driven by the same principles. The world is interdependent. That means… problems interconnect. Poverty in Africa can't be solved simply by the presence of aid. It needs the absence of conflict. Failed states threaten us as well as their own people. Terrorism destroys progress. Terrorism can't be defeated by military means alone. But it can't be defeated without it.

“So, for me, the setting aside of ‘hard’ power leads inexorably to the weakening of ‘soft’ power. This is especially so given the very purpose of the threat against which today, force is exercised. This terrorism is an attack on our values. … When the Taleban murder a teacher in front of his class… for daring to teach girls; that is an act not just of cruelty but of ideology. Using force against them to prevent such an act is not ‘defence’ in the traditional territorial sense of that word, but ‘security’ in the broadest sense, an assertion of our values against theirs.”

Blair is right: not only do many policy aims require the use of hard and soft power together, but also the use of one affects how well one can use the other. Well-chosen (and well-explained) exercise of military force can destroy enemies and create new friends.

The flipside of this, which he skates over, is that when hard power is wielded clumsily, it can seriously damage one’s soft power.

During the Cold War, which in many parts of the developing world was very hot and bloody indeed, the superpowers manoeuvred to attract other countries into their respective spheres of influence. As they were primarily looking to appeal to governments rather than populations, realpolitik was the order of the day. An impressive display of force may well be resented by individuals, but governments are more readily drawn to brute strength. Soft power was less of a concern in this respect (although in other ways it was important in weakening the Soviet bloc internally).

Today, the idiotically named ‘war on terror’ is very different. No country’s government subscribes to the al-Qaeda ideology, and none will adopt this as a way of strengthening its position internationally. The problem arises at the level of local and transnational non-state groups. The threat posed by these groups is a factor of how well they can organise and how many radical young Muslims they can recruit to their cause.

Yes, military action can damage terrorist groups and make it harder for them to operate. It can also provoke such anger that recruitment becomes easier. Whether this happens depends on how the use of force is perceived – something that the US, UK or whoever will have limited control over. The bin Laden and al-Zawahiri videos have low production values but can be more cost-effective where it counts than speeches and press releases from the White House or Downing Street.

As Nye puts it [free registration required]:

“The current struggle against extremist jihadist violence is not a clash of civilizations, but a civil war within Islam. We cannot win unless the Muslim moderates win. While we need hard power to battle the extremists, we need the soft power of attraction to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Muslims. Polls throughout the Muslim world show that we are not winning this battle”

Given this trade-off, the knee-jerk not-in-my-namers instinctively jump to the conclusion that the popular alienation cannot possibly be worth the tactical gain, and that the utmost priority should be to avoid making anybody angry. But of course the trade-off has to be judged for each instance. The exact opposite mistake seems to come to the surface in Blair’s speech:

“In the months after 7/7, we had a debate in Britain as to whether foreign policy in Iraq or Afghanistan had ‘caused’ the terrorism by inflaming Muslim opinion. The notion that removing two appalling dictatorships and replacing them with a UN backed process to democracy, with massive investment in reconstruction available if only the terrorism stopped, could in any justifiable sense ‘inflame’ Muslim opinion when it was perfectly obvious that the Muslims in both countries wanted rid of both regimes and stand to gain enormously, if only they were allowed to, from their removal, is ludicrous. Yet a large part, even of non-Muslim opinion, essentially buys into that view.”

This is so close to getting it right that it hurts. In fact, it is right. But it misses the point.

The key word is “justifiable”. Of course UK foreign policy is not a ‘war on Islam’ and does not justify the sort of anger that motivates terrorism. But reactions don’t have to be justified to be real: unarguably, the wars in Iraq and (less so) Afghanistan have in fact inflamed Muslim opinion. This is a consequence of his policies and, while unfairly so, it has to be recognised, minimised where feasible, and weighed when making future decisions.

It’s a curiosity – perhaps a tragedy – of Blair’s image-conscious premiership that in this area, where the perception of policy is so vital to its success, he uncompromisingly insists on his own rightness and that ‘unjustified’ opposition be dismissed.

I mentioned earlier the predominant state focus of the Cold War, in which the US policy of containment aimed to prevent Soviet influence from capturing governments. Evidently, while we want today to prevent the spread of the al-Qaeda ideology, the nature of the beast requires a quite different approach. Even so, some people (often US hawks) remain prone to drawing an al-Qaeda/USSR analogy. Blair improves on this somewhat:

“What we face is not a criminal conspiracy or even a fanatical but fringe terrorist organisation. We face something more akin to revolutionary Communism in its early and most militant phase. It is global. It has a narrative about the world and Islam's place within it that has a reach into most Muslim societies and countries.”

While Soviet communism and contemporary fundamentalist jihadism have/had similarly global ambitions, there is a vast difference in the scope and nature of their political influence.

Containing (or for that matter, rolling back) an ideological movement that exploits grievances to motivate terrorism is not like containing a hostile state that uses its international clout to win over new allies. While military and economic pressure will have important uses, containing the al-Qaeda tendency is going to be largely psychological. Producing a detailed strategy for this predicament is beyond my abilities, and this post is on the long side already. But I’ll finish up by quoting a couple of thoughtful discussions of these issues from inside the US establishment.

Robert L Hutchings, of the National Intelligence Council:

“It is worth recalling that [George] Kennan made a sharp distinction between the Soviet leaders and the Russian people. His strategy of containment was aimed at the regime, whose aggressive impulses needed to be countered. But he also argued for a strategy of engagement with the Russian people, whom he refused to see as our permanent enemies. Hard as it may be to get beyond the anti-American sentiment so prevalent in the Muslim world today, it is important for us to undertake a similar strategy of engagement – and to do so with reasonable hopes of finding a meeting place.

“[Despite] sharply rising anti-Americanism… people in Muslim countries place a high value on such democratic values as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, multiparty political systems, and equal treatment under the law. Large majorities in almost every Muslim country favor free market economic systems and believe that Western-style democracy can work in their own country.”

And an academic paper by Lt Col. Cheryl L Smart, of the US Army War College:

“Traditional U.S. instruments of counterterrorist policy have not been successful in breaking down the terrorist organizations into more traditional national groups. Instead, they seem to have facilitated its development towards ever more dispersed, non-hierarchical network organizations.

“Our [counterterrorism] strategy really seems to be an updated version of the Containment and Rollback strategy of the 1980s. Containment may have worked well against the Soviet Union, but there is no evidence that was ever successful against terrorists.

“We define the global terrorist jihadists as a fundamentally different enemy. They combine corrupted ancient beliefs with modern technology. They are organized in an information age network structure and are configured to conduct a new type of warfare termed Netwar. Yet we assume that, if we pressure this enemy in multiple regions around the world, they will return to more traditional modes of operation on smaller scales, confined to ever smaller areas, eventually nations, where they can be completely eradicated. This is fundamentally unchanged from our notions of how to combat state sponsored terrorism. The evidence of the last few years indicates that the enemy will not ‘de-globalize’, but will evolve into something else, continuing to operate globally.”

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