"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." So said Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III. He was complaining about the impossibility of leaving the mafia behind, but the quote undoubtedly expresses the feelings of President Barack Obama as he contemplates the difficulty of extricating the United States from the Middle East. He is eager to pivot to Asia and sees bringing soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan as one of his most important legacies. Like the mafia, however, the Middle East has a way of pulling the United States back in. First in Afghanistan, then in Libya, and now in Syria, events on the ground and pressure from allies convinced a reluctant president to make new military commitments.
But if the United States wants to exert influence over events in this turbulent region, it will have to do more than provide military assistance. Even if the arms the United States will supply to the Syrian rebels were to topple President Bashar al-Assad -- which at the moment seems an unlikely outcome, barring the employment of American air power -- the bloodletting will almost certainly continue. Rival factions will compete for power, and American-backed forces under Gen. Salim Idriss and allied figures could easily lose out to the al-Nusrah Front and other Islamist extremists. Look at what's happened in Libya, where in the aftermath of Qaddafi's ouster, militias and militants exercise more authority than the central government. Or consider Egypt, where the downfall of a dictator has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist organization hostile to the United States and Israel, to consolidate authority in an increasingly authoritarian manner.
Clearly, the president needs options between military intervention and complete nonintervention -- ways to influence developments in the Middle East without deploying Reaper drones or sending U.S. ground forces. To give Obama the tools he needs, the U.S. government should reinvigorate its capacity to wage "political warfare," defined in 1948 by George Kennan, then the State Department's director of policy planning, as "the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives." Such measures, Kennan noted, were "both overt and covert" and ranged from "political alliances, economic measures (as ERP -- the Marshall Plan), and 'white' propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of 'friendly' foreign elements, 'black' psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states."
During the Cold War, the United States waged political warfare through a variety of mechanisms. It covertly funded noncommunist political parties in Europe and Japan; backed intellectual magazines like Encounter, an Anglo-American journal of opinion that flourished in the 1950s, as well as groups such as the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which organized artists and intellectuals against communism; and provided financial and logistical support to anti-Soviet dissidents like Lech Walesa and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. At their worst, such policies propped up strongmen with scant legitimacy -- think Cuban president Fulgencio Batista and the shah of Iran -- and invited anti-American "blowback." But at their best, they enabled the United States to aid freedom fighters behind the Iron Curtain and beyond. They were policies that helped to outflank communism in Europe and Asia, where free societies stood up to help the United States win the Cold War.
What distinguished political warfare from the amorphous and open-ended development and assistance programs that the United States currently runs was its emphasis on winning a global competition against the Soviet Union. In the era of the Marshall plan, for example, the United States did not simply develop, in a general sense, the economy of Europe. It did so with an eye to strengthening specific groups that were dedicated to weakening the enemy of the United States. More often than not, political warfare involves the application of "soft power." But it requires organizing ourselves so as to apply it against specific targets in order to achieve clearly defined goals. Influencing the flow of information was, therefore, a key component of Cold War political warfare.
Thus, during the 1980s, the U.S. government did not limit its involvement in Afghanistan to having the CIA arm the mujahideen. The now-defunct U.S. Information Agency also spread news globally about Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan (most notoriously, the rumored use of exploding toys to maim children). Tales of human-rights violations did much to undermine the Soviet Union's legitimacy and helped speed its collapse. Today, the president has very few tools at his disposal, other than statements from the podium, that allow him to direct the flow of information in a competitive manner. Consider, for example, the intervention by Hezbollah in Syria today. The number of fighters lost in that conflict, the brutality of their activities, and the cost to the treasury of Iran are all pieces of information -- if delivered to the right audiences in the Middle East -- which could help the United States to undermine the morale of rivals. But whose job is it in the United States government to collect such information and place it on a defined target?