What, exactly, does the United States stand for in the Middle East? More important, what would the average Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian or Yemeni say that it stands for? The suggestion that the United States is retrenching might seem absurd, given that Yemenis can hear the buzz of drones overhead. The notion that the United States is in the business of supporting democratic pluralism might clash with their reading of our Egypt strategy or our will-they-or-won’t-they waffling over whether to actively support Syrian opposition fighters. Day by day, with chaos blossoming, it becomes clearer that if we do have a strategic narrative for the Middle East, we certainly have not articulated it effectively. In marketing terms, we are not making the sale.
Other nations could be forgiven for failing to grasp our priorities and values. “Don’t do stupid [stuff] ” may make sense to the American public, but it means little to the rest of the world, and it means nothing to those vulnerable to the evangelism of groups such as the Islamic State, now choosing between the difficult work of politics and the terrible promise of jihad. What role will U.S. foreign policy play in their choice? Have they come to see U.S. power as a threat? Or have they seen firsthand the capacity of U.S. aid workers, nongovernmental organizations and men and women in uniform to serve as partners in their aspirations for a better life? If we don’t think seriously about the way our strategy plays out in the eyes and lives of such people — if we don’t think about the narrative — we will lose them for a generation.
This cuts to the core of the policy challenges we face in Iraq and Syria. Many wonder, with good reason, how we can reliably identify moderates to arm and aid, questioning whether today’s moderates will turn out to be tomorrow’s extremists. We know with certainty, though, that the Islamic State and militant groups like it will fill their ranks with those who have been given no reason to trust in politics, let alone nonviolence. Preventing radicalization is difficult; de-radicalizing hard-line believers is nearly impossible. So it is smart for nations such as the United States, Turkey and Jordan to build relationships with resistance leaders and invest in them as a tool to preempt extremism.
The United States, acting in coalition with regional partners, should offer a better choice. Our commitment to this narrative must be active, visible and credible, keeping in mind that the prison at Guantanamo Bay hobbles our pitch, as torture did, and as the drone campaign threatens to do if it is not better justified. It’s not enough for U.S. policymakers to come down from the mountain with stone tablets bearing the words “pluralism,” “rule of law” and “human rights.”
While Adm. Mike Mullen was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he assigned two staff members the task of drafting a new U.S. strategy. The result was “A National Strategic Narrative,” released publicly by the Wilson Center in 2011. We protected the identities of its authors under the pseudonym Mr. Y, a nod to George Kennan’s outline for containment in his iconic “X-article.” That narrative seems prescient now for its description of the new strategic environment — first and foremost, because it emphasized the need to work with other nations to design a common approach in an open world. The narrative rightly declared an end to an order in which the United States could seek control and the beginning of a system in which we would need to compete for influence. We need a foreign policy that reflects the bold clarity of these findings.
The goal is a strategy shaped together with the Middle Eastern world: leaders and peoples alike, borrowing the best impulses of the bottom-up Arab Spring and the traditionally top-down U.S. approach to engagement. Our promise to the Middle East must be one in which collaboration helps the people of the region achieve shared values by a route of their own choice. Make no mistake: We risk losing the argument. The Islamic State is mastering information warfare; it has a savvy Twitter presence and a glossy newsletter that highlights battlefield successes alongside — of all things — the work of its consumer protection authority. It has declared a hasty, heady victory in pursuit of its ultimate goal: the 7th-century caliphate restored. Its message has gained a frighteningly broad following.
What to do? Many perceive drones plus “don’t do stupid [stuff]” is our foreign policy, and it certainly isn’t an adequate narrative. For every jihadist our airstrikes might kill, left behind are scores of Iraqis and Syrians whose only contact with the United States came by way of a Hellfire missile. Instead, we need a “track two” surge, a dynamic partnership with Middle Eastern citizens seeking stability, economic growth and freedom from corruption. Such a surge would be international, drawing on the interests of neighboring states in preventing the spread of extremism. It would also be a whole-government initiative, drawing on considerable U.S. resources in the field of peace-building.
The United States must put itself forward as the partner of choice, offering a narrative of forward movement and a genuine lifeline to those slipping into the grasp of jihad.