Not a War on Terror, a War on an Ideology
" 'War on terror' was always a misnomer. Terror is not our enemy; it’s a tactic. Unfortunately, by framing our actions in a linguistically sloppy way, we’ve hurt our narrative with several important groups," writes Jane Harman.
“War on terror” was always a misnomer. Terror is not our enemy; it’s a tactic. Unfortunately, by framing our actions in a linguistically sloppy way, we’ve hurt our narrative with several important groups. First, Muslims who think that we’re at war with them. Second, many around the globe who think—rightly—that playing whack-a-mole will never persuade the kid in the boonies of Yemen not to strap on a suicide vest.
So how to unpack the problem?
Let’s separate named groups (our “war with al Qaeda”) from ideologies. Degrading organizations is the relatively easy part, something the United States has been doing with substantial success throughout the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In this regard, it isn’t surprising that the campaign the president wants to pursue against ISIL looks like the campaigns underway against al-Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
What’s much more challenging is to confront—and defuse—the ideologies that underpin these groups. The jargon for this is “countering violent extremism” (CVE), a crucial part of the strategy that’s underfunded and hard as all get-out to accomplish. If we lump both al Qaeda and ISIL into one bucket labeled “terror,” we’ll never pull it off.
An example: The State Department recently put out an exceptionally violent video that used some of ISIL’s own promotional materials. The point was to highlight that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s thugs kill Muslims—which is an important point to make. Osama Bin Laden cautioned ISIL’s ancestor, al Qaeda in Iraq, that its slaughter of fellow Muslims made for bad optics. But what might have worked against al Qaeda won’t necessarily work against this new enemy. ISIL glamourizes violence, the notion that its caliphate is worth dying and killing for. The group celebrates death. We need to undermine that pitch with a positive narrative, not amplify its negatives.
The moniker “war on terror” needs to be retired, and replaced by a nuanced strategy aimed at that kid in Yemen I mentioned above. ISIL’s Baghdadi has found a message with staying power. Let’s develop a counter-narrative with even greater force.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
Jane Harman was featured in a Politico roundup of experts analyzing whether the U.S. is “at war” with ISIL. Harman's full contribution is posted above. The complete roundup on Politico’s website is here.
About the Author
Jane Harman, the Director, President, and CEO of the Wilson Center, is an internationally recognized authority on U.S. and global security issues, foreign relations and lawmaking. A native of Los Angeles and a public-school graduate, she went on to become a nine-term member of Congress, serving decades on the major security committees in the House of Representatives. Drawing upon a career that has included service as President Carter’s Secretary of the Cabinet and hundreds of diplomatic missions to foreign countries, Harman holds posts on nearly a dozen governmental and non-governmental advisory boards and commissions.Read More