"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?
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.