In his invaluable new book, Winning the Long War, Ilan Berman — a vice-president at the American Foreign Policy Council and editor of the Journal of International Security Affairs (and frequent contributor to this site)– argues the War on Terror has veered far astray since 2001, failing to “keep pace with al-Qaeda’s metamorphosis from a terrorist group into a global ideological movement, or to take advantage of its latent operational, economic, and political vulnerabilities.” Yet the tome is hardly a paean to pessimism or defeatism. Equal parts historical primer, cogent analysis, and canny, outside-the-box rumination, Winning the Long War elucidates the past while offering a gaggle of shrewd policy suggestions for the future leaving in its wake a nuanced, smart call-to-arms for the post-post-9/11 era. “My hope,” Berman tells TAS, “is that, in some small way, this book helps readers to get the ‘big picture’ of the War on Terror, and what we have to do in order to win it.”
TAS: What has been the biggest misconception/misstep in the War on Terror?
Ilan Berman: The single biggest flaw so far, in my opinion, is that we have been waging what is essentially a derivative conflict. We were attacked by al Qaeda, so we automatically assume that it is the only group we are fighting. In fact, the list of adversaries now arrayed against the United States is much broader: a transnational network of Sunni jihadists, an Iranian-sponsored terrorist conglomerate, and, above all, a mass of “undecided” Muslim voters whom we need to convince to sit out this fight. Our track record so far is not all negative, certainly. The United States is far better prepared on the home front today than on September 10, 2001. It is a testament to the investments in homeland security made by the Bush administration that we have not had another September 11 or worse on American soil. By itself, however, homeland defense is a very poor substitute for accurately understanding and engaging our adversaries on the fields of battle in what is a very complex conflict.
TAS: You contrast the United States’ commitment to a “worldwide ideological and political struggle to contain the Soviet Union and Communist ideology” — via Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the United States Information Agency, for example — with our efforts to similarly engage in a battle of ideas with radical Islam, and find the latter lacking.
Berman: We Americans are experts at winning the war but losing the peace. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the conviction that we were at the “end of history” led the United States to systematically dismantle the tools by which we had projected strategic influence abroad for much of the preceding half-century. It took the events of 9/11 for us to realize that we are once again engaged in a pivotal ideological contest. Now that we have, though, there’s a tendency to see everything through a Cold War prism, and to overly simplify the problem. Take President Obama’s speech in Cairo. That presentation may have been wildly applauded here at home, but it is likely to make the struggle against radical Islam that much more difficult, since its core message — that the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are essentially all the same — is the antithesis of the “divide and conquer” strategy that can help turn the tide of public opinion against al Qaeda and other jihadists.
TAS: The global financial crisis, you write, gives the United States an opportunity to “take the economic offensive in its struggle against the forces of radical Islam.” How so?
Berman: We tend to forget that the global economic downturn is just that — global. In comparative terms, the U.S. economy is far stronger than those of our adversaries, each of whom is also weathering the same financial turbulence and fiscal uncertainty that we are. And because they are, we have the opportunity to leverage our comparative advantage in order to wage economic warfare against Iran, or to implement policies that make it harder for Islamic radicals to access international markets. What has been missing so far has been the political will to do so.
TAS: What are the pitfalls of seeing the War on Terror from a military-only perspective?
Berman: In many ways, the U.S. military is a victim of its own success. Our armed forces are so good at what they do that there is a temptation to ask them to do everything. But the American military is not a Swiss Army knife, and should not be treated as such. A great many battlefields in the War on Terror are not “kinetic” at all; they are economic, ideological and informational. They require non-military strategies that are as smart and as agile as those that are being employed by our adversaries. That in turn means that the entire U.S. government — and not just the Pentagon — has to be involved in prosecuting this war.
TAS: Although your book obviously went to production before the current crisis, you nevertheless prophesy in Winning the Long War that the “key to diluting Iran’s ideological power lies within the Islamic Republic itself, along the fault line between the ruling regime and its captive population” — i.e. between “aging and infirm” Islamic revolutionaries and a overwhelmingly young citizenry more than half of whom have “little or no memory of the Islamic Revolution itself.” Are we seeing the beginning stages of that schism and dilution now?
Berman: Perhaps. There is no doubt that Iran is in the throes of a monumental transformation. What started as a mass protest over a fraudulent election metamorphosed into something much more. But whether this is really the death knell for the Islamic Republic will depend on a number of things, including whether the Iranian opposition can transform itself into organized movement with a coherent vision, and if the cracks that are now visible within Iran’s clerical class continue to widen. The most important variable, though, is the stance the United States and other nations take. So far, the laissez-faire approach taken by the Obama administration has left a great deal to be desired. For both moral and strategic reasons, America has every interest in supporting the changes now underway in Iran, and in making the transformation of the regime that will come about as a result as deep and enduring as possible.
TAS: The conventional wisdom that the United States and its allies “possess little leverage” against the Iranian regime, you write, is dead wrong.
Berman: In one of my favorite movies, The Usual Suspects, the character played by Kevin Spacey observed, “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” So it is with Iran. In recent years, Iran has succeeded in projecting the image of an inexorably rising power, a country destined to become a regional hegemon — or more. But this does not necessarily have to be the case. Iran is an economic house of cards, plagued by a variety of ills — from dependence on foreign gasoline to unhealthy social subsidies — that can be exploited rapidly as part of a coherent economic warfare strategy. Ideologically as well, the Islamic Republic’s aspirations to religious supremacy can and should be challenged by senior Shi’a religious leaders, like the Ayatollah Montazeri in Iran and the Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, who don’t share the Iranian regime’s vision of irreconcilable conflict between Islam and the West.
TAS: Has partisan bickering and perpetual political campaigning played a role hampering a consistent, intelligent response to the challenges we face?
Berman: Without a doubt. In the immediate days after September 11, there was a remarkable unity of purpose across the political spectrum regarding the need to confront and defeat al Qaeda and other terrorist actors. Today that type of unity is nowhere to be found. It has been replaced by partisan bickering over both the scope of the current struggle and what methods America can use in it. This is unfortunate, because a great deal of potential common ground exists. After all, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are — at their core — not partisan pursuits at all. They need sustained attention from both sides of the political aisle.
TAS: You describe the government’s failure to “engage the American public” as “fateful.” What do you believe should have been done differently?
Berman: Battlefields are not the only places where wars are won and lost. What happens at home matters a great deal, in terms of galvanizing popular support for the war effort, as in World War II, or, conversely, deflating and discrediting the government’s approach, i.e., Vietnam. President Bush had an opportunity in the days after 9/11 to reach out to the American people, demystify the ideology of our adversaries, and secure the political and economic support necessary for the government to prosecute the war effort properly. Sadly, he did not do so in a serious or sustained way. The rest, as they say, is history.
TAS: When Americans see the mess the world is in — a burgeoning deficit that reaches newer and more frightening heights almost daily, and the never-ending blame and demonization of the United States even by governments that are purportedly our allies and receive huge sums of aid from the U.S. Treasury — why should they not embrace a form of isolationism?
Berman: The temptation is there, of course. But counterterrorism should be like medicine — preventive. No doctor worth his salt would tell you to simply disregard warning signs that something is terribly wrong with your health. Neither should the U.S. government, the overriding obligation of which is to provide for the safety and security of its citizens. In today’s age of instantaneous media, rapid transportation, and weapons of almost unimaginable power, assuming that simply disengaging from the world would immunize us from harm is not only foolish, it is downright dangerous. The best defense is and always will be a good offense.