West’s Choice of Strategy: Defending Itself From Terror Attacks or Combating A Radical Strategic Threat?

By Barry Rubin*

There are two basic strategies being put forth in the West and particularly the United States today in regard to the challenge from radical and Islamist forces. The narrower, terror-only strategy is a far more tempting one to follow. It is less expensive, less risky, and makes it far easier to claim success. That’s why it has such enormous appeal and is generally the one being adopted.

The Terror-Only Strategy

In this approach, the problem is defined as direct terror attacks on Western territory and facilities elsewhere like embassies. The enemy is those groups which directly target the West, meaning al-Qaida and its allies plus various independent local self-made terrorists (who are influenced, of course, by Jihadist propaganda).

Since these groups have no major state sponsor, this is a narrow counterterrorism strategy which does not require confrontation or conflict with any other country. It can be handled largely as a police and criminal matter. Success is measured by an ability to keep such attacks to an absolute minimum.

Moreover, it permits the luxury of ignoring attacks on or in other countries—including Israel especially—as not being a matter of much concern. [Even the United States has increasingly taken this stance. After the massive terror attack on Mumbai, India, Pakistan’s policy of sponsoring anti-Indian terrorism has been for all practical purposes ignored. U.S. aid to Pakistan climbs steeply with no conditionality about stopping attacks despite the fact that Pakistan has done nothing to punish the terrorists involved, much less the Pakistani intelligence officers who direct them. The Administration has conducted engagement of Syria with no serious reference to Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism against Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Israel. When Iraq protested Syrian involvement in a bloody recent attack the U.S. government declared its neutrality.

Thus, a whole category of terrorist revolutionary groups and their state sponsors can be ignored. If you don’t bother them, it is hoped, they won’t bother you. (This is not without exception, though, as Western states have been willing to put sanctions on Hamas, though these are under some challenge.)

This strategy also has an internal aspect. Since only those small groups which want to attack on their territory are the problem, it can be argued that the best defense is to work with Islamist groups which, no matter how extreme their ideology and their support for terrorism abroad, don’t engage in violence on your own territory.

While there is a sharp debate over the domestic aspect of the strategy–some countries like Britain and France are ready to work with “moderate” Islamists, others aren’t—it has clearly won out on the international front and has been adopted by the Obama Administration.

–The Anti-Islamist Strategy

This seems closer to the Bush Administration’s view and is thus considered discredited in most Western policymaking circles. The concept here is that radical Islamist forces threaten Western strategic interests and pose the principal threat of this era.

The other side here consists, of several different forces: an Iran-led alliance (Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, Iraqi insurgents); Jihadist terrorist groups (al-Qaida and its various affiliates and the Taliban); the Muslim Brotherhoods; and some countries with radical regimes (Sudan, Libya). The key problem is not whether these forces are engaged in direct violence against Western targets, they are at war with Western interests which they seek to destroy.

In this context, they may well engage in anti-Western violence in future. But more important, they are capable of seizing control of countries or regions thus wielding enormous assets. If they succeed—or are perceived by millions of Muslims as succeeding—the entire strategic balance in the Middle East would shift. Western interests would suffer a huge setback and the imbalance could escalate over time.

Obviously, this latter strategy is far less attractive to policymakers. Why get into a possible confrontation with powerful forces and large countries if that can be avoided? Why set the standard of success so high that you probably cannot reach it?

Of course, the problem is that the larger threat is by far the more serious threat. A shift in the balance of forces in such a strategic region, leading inevitably to the encouragement of subversive and violent forces in one’s own countries, is a far more dangerous situation than the occasional bombing or shooting.

But if you believe that it is adequate to deal only with direct violence against you, it can be argued that the best solution is to engage the radical forces at home and abroad, appease them, and avoid trouble. As President Barack Obama put it, he doesn’t seek victory over Iran but a solution to the problem, which is defined as Iran developing nuclear weapons without some agreement or at all.

Iranian involvement in subverting Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and other countries, or fighting Israel, for example, becomes part of the background which you take for granted. But then so is Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorism against U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, too.

At home, the problem is three-fold. First, if you strengthen Islamist forces, since their goal is to transform the state and society there is a likelihood that they will be a far bigger problem in future, including involvement in violence.

Second, there are always violent spin-offs from these groups, based on the people they indoctrinate even if the main group refrains from violence. Where do Jihadi terrorists come from except through the ranks of such organizations?

Third, by empowering an Islamist leadership, such individuals and groups are more likely to emerge at the head of all, or most, of the Muslim community. This will defeat assimilationist and moderate tendencies and thus greatly magnify the power of the Islamists. In effect, the government tells Muslims: these groups are your leaders so follow them and their ideology. By doing this, massive damage is being inflicted on the host society.

Terrorism is not a movement or a doctrine or a goal but only a tactic used by revolutionary groups. Their ultimate goal is to seize state power and terrorism is merely one way of trying to do so. The question, then, is whether the problem is the use of a tactic or the goal of destroying existing governments and societies to replace them with a totalitarian regime.

Understandably, this limited terrorism-only strategy is tempting as a policy since it is so hard to do anything to solve the bigger Islamist threat. But doesn’t this choice also put the West in great long-term jeopardy, discourage more moderate Third World clients, and guarantee a far higher level of anti-Western violence in future?

That’s something most Western policymakers prefer not to think about, far less do anything about.

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