With the end of the Cold War, America's tradition of political warfare all but died. Covert action was revived after the 9/11 attacks, but it has been primarily kinetic -- consisting of drone strikes, renditions, and commando raids. In fact, the lack of a complementary political strategy makes it impossible to undermine persistent foes, and forces us to rely more than we should on direct military action, which often does not achieve any lasting effect. A more indirect, politically focused approach is needed to exert American influence in countries like Egypt, where we have no intention of sending Reaper drones to kill Muslim Brotherhood leaders, but nevertheless need to counter the organization's hardline policies.
Reinvigorating America's capability to wage political warfare will not cost much -- and can be paid for by redirecting parts of the foreign aid, public diplomacy, and military budgets -- but it will require mobilizing autonomous bureaucracies to act in concert. The normal Balkanization of government will have to be replaced by a cooperative system in which operatives are encouraged to develop crosscutting skill sets; no longer will al Qaeda specialists be able to focus only on al Qaeda, or Iran specialists only on Iran.
Fortunately, a model already exists for this kind of organizational innovation. The counterterrorism apparatus created in the wake of 9/11 provides a good example of what must be built -- or, rather, expanded. This involved creating the National Counterterrorism Center, an intelligence community organization which brings together experts from the military, the CIA, NSA, FBI, and other agencies, and which works closely with other agencies such as the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security under the general supervision of a coordinator of homeland security and counterterrorism on the White House staff. As a first step, Obama should appoint a highly respected coordinator for political warfare to the National Security Staff, where most foreign policy decisions are made. Without the personal support of the president, this initiative will fail.
Second, the president should create a strategic operational hub -- an interagency coordinating body like the National Counterterrorism Center that pulls all of the government's efforts together -- housed within the State Department. Under an executive order signed by Obama in 2011, the State Department has already created a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications that is designed to "coordinate, orient, and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism." This is a step in the right direction, but it does not go nearly far enough.
The effort should aim, in the first instance, to counter not only terrorist groups like al Qaeda, but also malevolent organizations such as Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, even in their nonviolent manifestations. Tactically, this should involve much more than simple overt messaging directly from the U.S. government. It should comprise efforts to build up rival groups in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere and to destroying the reputation of those organizations by using the profound information-gathering capabilities of the United States in ways that have become unfamiliar to today's generation of intelligence professionals and diplomats. Consider, for example, the effect on Hezbollah, an organization that thrives on secrecy, if the United States were to collect the names, photos, and home addresses of its unit commanders in Syria and to publish them in Lebanon, along with detailed descriptions of their activities on the battlefield. The goal should be to blend various forms of American power -- some of them clandestine, some of them not -- to shape the Middle East so as to make it less permissive to the rivals of the United States.
Third, the president should direct top-level government officials -- especially the secretary of state, secretary of defense, CIA director, and administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development to create political warfare career tracks, which would result in the training and promotion of specialists in this area. Without separate career tracks, the bureaucracies will stigmatize and ostracize individuals who find political warfare rewarding and attractive.
Political warfare is an alien -- even sinister-sounding -- concept in 2013. But the United States will never be able to extricate itself from the Middle East until a more stable order arises -- and the current pendulum swing between military involvement and military withdrawal is unlikely to prove sustainable. In places like Libya and Syria, we must build up, through steady, painstaking engagement, political forces that share the strategic interests of the United States. There is admittedly a danger of American machinations blowing up in our faces, but current trends, if left unchanged, carry even greater dangers. If we do nothing and cede the Middle East to malign actors such as Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, groups which have no qualms about doing whatever it takes to seize power, we risk creating a situation that will require, at some point in the future another massive military intervention by the United States.