The Global War on Thinking Bad Thoughts

Can America really win the battle against Islamic extremism?

In the speech he gave last May announcing a re-formulation of the war on terror, President Barack Obama acknowledged that "we cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root"; the only alternative to "perpetual war" is a sustained effort to reduce "the wellsprings of extremism." The president should hardly have needed to make this obvious point; he had, after all, used almost identical language from his earliest days as a candidate. But after five years of responding to terrorism with many of the same lethal tactics George W. Bush had used, Obama needed to remind his listeners, and perhaps himself, that Islamic extremism can be blunted, but not defeated, by force.

It's not at all clear, five months later, how Obama plans to dry up those wellsprings. But the administration made a modest start in that direction with the announcement in September that the United States and other nations would establish a $200 million, ten-year effort to counter violent extremism. For reasons of marketing, the new entity is blandly called the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience and has been scrubbed clean of any explicit reference to Islam. But the goal is clearly to fund local programs designed to counter Islamist extremism. The initial programs will be based in six Muslim-majority countries and, in a show of nonpartisanship, Colombia.

The White House, which understands very well that any such effort will be doomed from the start if it carries a U.S. stamp, has spent several years trying to find an appropriate platform for the anti-extremism campaign. The sponsoring body is something called the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a harmless and high-minded body of which the United States and Turkey are co-chairs. The fund is structured as a partnership -- like, say, the Global Fund for AIDS -- which will receive funding from private sources as well as states. Republicans who consider foreign aid a waste of money should be mollified by the fact that the U.S. plans to spend all of $2 or $3 million on the effort this coming year. Nor has anyone else rushed to fill the coffers: Qatar, with its bottomless resources, has pledged just $5 million. Indeed, the whole thing will probably collapse unless Secretary of State John Kerry becomes the fund's cheerleader and fundraiser-in-chief.

What will the fund fund? According to a U.S. official involved with its development, the "low-hanging fruit" could include funding local organizations that can produce and distribute textbooks that promote tolerance, things like providing job-training for youth at risk of radicalization -- programs which could, if not designed properly, all too easily blend into the vast pool of existing development projects. "The ultimate target," he says, "has to be those individuals that are on the cusp of being radicalized and being able to bring them back from the brink" -- for example, by bringing moderate imams into Pakistani prisons in order to counter radical versions of Islam, or supplying public defenders so that petty criminals don't linger for years in prisons where they're likely to become radicalized. "The challenge," he says, "is to find those local organizations that have credibility with access to those individuals. There are not enough of these right now."

But there are some. One is Khudi, an organization in Pakistan which holds workshops for young people offering a non-Islamist take on Islam and holds televised debates to dramatize the issue. Khudi held one such debate soon after Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for defending girls' right to go to school. The debate was held in Mingora, Malala's home town. The Libyan government has recently asked Khudi to start similar programs there.

Khudi is the local-action arm of Quilliam, a British counter-extremism think tank founded by Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain, British Pakistanis who were both former Islamists. Nawaz has been in the United States promoting his new book, Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, and trying to drum up funding for the two organizations. Nawaz was a kind of boy-genius recruiter for Hizb al-Tahrir (HT), a deeply politicized if officially non-violent Islamist group, and he has the intellectual confidence, the charisma, and the gift for self-dramatization which makes for a very effective public figure. When we met earlier this week, he told me, with a mixture of trepidation and pride, that he just heard that al-Shabab in Somalia had included him on a list of British Muslims to be killed -- a tribute to his high-profile role as Islamist de-programmer.

The story Nawaz tells in Radical is of an angry and restless teenager looking for a sense of identity and self-respect, which he ultimately found in HT's vision of a restored Caliphate. With no intellectual foundation of his own, he was a perfect target for Islamists who offered a narrative of world history based on implacable Western hostility to Muslims, with citations selectively culled from the Quran as it suited their purpose. He only began to re-think his principles during a four-year stint in Egyptian prison -- the same prison, ironically, where Sayyid Qutb formulated Signposts, his proto-al Qaeda tract, but also where Hasan Hudaybi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, wrote a counter-polemic renouncing violence.

The lesson Nawaz took from his own agonizing trajectory was that a very powerful and self-reinforcing Islamist narrative can only be countered by an equally powerful non-Islamist one. Nawaz dreams of countering the "Islamist intimidation" which keeps politicians in Pakistan and elsewhere from challenging extremists with a "democratic intimidation" which would make them fear the political consequences of defying moderates. He imagines an organization which, like the Muslim Brotherhood, would win converts with a combination of social services and intellectual vision.

To call this quixotic is possibly a disservice to Don Quixote. Today's Pakistan is a place where a provincial governor, Salman Taseer, can be gunned down in broad daylight for criticizing an apostasy law -- and then lawyers jostle for the right to defend the murderer. It's a place where Malala's bravery has won her far more critics than defenders. That is the magnitude of the challenge which Khudi, and the Global Fund have taken on. It's hardly a good sign that the initiative to challenge the extremist narrative has come, not from inside Pakistan, a country of 180 million people and a large urban middle class, but from outsiders. The extremist narrative, after all, can only be countered by people who are prepared to fight and die for a peaceful alternative.

Nawaz argues that the United States under Obama has shifted, barely, from a neoconservative vision of democracy-promotion-by-force to a "neocon-lite" project of decapitating al Qaeda leaders through drone strikes and lightning raids. "We've turned it into a battle against a Mafia-like organization," he says, rather than a war of ideas. That may be a slight caricature, but Obama has paid far more attention to trying to improve America's image in the Arab world through fine proclamations of "mutual respect" than he has to actually draining the wellsprings of extremism. Obama's success in decimating al Qaeda core has been offset by the rise of its affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa, while his personal diplomacy has done very little to improve America's standing in the Middle East. In any case, it's irrelevant to the problem of extremism. If the alternative to Islamist extremism is American liberal democracy, Islamism will win.

Of course, a president uses the tools he has. Obama is very good at "public diplomacy," so at least in his first few years in office he devoted a great deal of attention to it. He can influence the war of ideas inside Islam only from a great distance, and with great delicacy. And the tectonic plates of intellectual formulation grind at a generational pace. A president cannot claim victory in the war of ideas, as he can for killing bad guys. Nevertheless, U.S. leaders spent generations fighting Communism as an idea and not just as a military threat. Communism eventually sank under the weight of its accumulated failures. Islamic extremism, always oppositional, may be even harder to dislodge. Still, the only way to beat an idea is with another idea.


Terms of Engagement

Imperial Understretch and the Fall of Great Powers

The sad, dangerous lessons of America's budget standoff.

I've been thinking in recent days about doctrines of national decline. The fact that at the eleventh hour the U.S. Senate managed to paddle the canoe of state away from the thunderous cataract of default is hardly a sign that the United States has preserved its global standing. For one thing, Americans will find themselves witnessing the same melodrama in three months unless Congress agrees on a long-term fiscal plan, which seems, to put it gently, damn unlikely. For another, Americans have been stumbling in a fog of their own devising for the last generation or so. The end is not nigh; but the decline is.

The United States is exhibiting extremely idiosyncratic symptoms of great-power decline. Take the classic account of the subject, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Kennedy describes a syndrome, which afflicted the Roman Empire, imperial Spain, and Victorian England, among others, in which regional or global aspirations outstrip national capacities. Writing in 1987, Kennedy projected the United States as the latest victim of "imperial overstretch," because "the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them simultaneously."

That feels like the wrong diagnosis. First of all, unrestrained defense spending in the aftermath of 9/11 has not come close to bankrupting the United States, though it has certainly squandered precious resources. Second, Americans have contracted a severe case of indigestion from President George W. Bush's vain attempt to swallow significant portions of the Middle East; they are now spitting out the remnants. Empire is an unnatural condition for the United States, and withdrawal to its continental fortress is an almost inevitable response to fears of overstretch. If anything, it is the new national suspicion of engagement, the mood of sullen disenchantment, that marks the country's decline. Americans don't want to shoulder the burdens of global leadership; they want the world, along with its demands, to go away.

We need a word more like "understretch" to describe the national condition. The problem does not lie with too-muchness abroad but with too-littleness at home. And the source of the problem is not an overambitious state but an implacable hostility to the operations of the state. Kennedy also writes that while America's laissez-faire culture and economy make it better able to adjust to rapid change than are more dirigiste societies, doing so "depends upon the existence of a national leadership which can understand the larger processes at work in the world today." The deliberations of Congress -- not just in recent days but in recent years -- vividly show the danger of wrongheaded leadership.

The near default, the shutdown of the government, the sequestration of budget funds -- these are just the latest symptoms of a political, but also psychological, disease. The leadership of the Republican Party -- and not just the Tea Party faction -- believes that the federal government is bad. It has believed that at least since Newt Gingrich overthrew the party's moderate leadership in 1994. In 2012, Mitt Romney, a Republican centrist, ran for president on a platform that would have reduced federal spending to 20 percent of GDP, 2 percentage points lower than it was during the time of small-government apostle Ronald Reagan -- even though Medicare costs were a small fraction then of what they are today. (Matt Miller of the Washington Post has long been an eloquent voice on this madness, as for example here.) To accommodate deep tax cuts, Romney would have eliminated much of the federal government beyond the Pentagon. That is now the orthodoxy of one of America's two political parties.

Meanwhile, the United States is falling behind in crucial areas where it led not long ago. The national store of human capital is diminishing as average rates of literacy and numerical understanding plummet in comparison with rates in other countries, as a recent OECD report demonstrated. A smaller percentage of Americans now both attend and graduate from college than in many Western countries. Crumbling infrastructure increases transaction costs; just compare the trip to JFK airport to the commute to almost any other global airport. The United States still leads the world in spending on research and development, but China has closed much of a formerly immense gap, and many countries now spend more as a percentage of GDP.

The United States is losing its position of global leadership because it is refusing to make investments that its competitors are making. In this regard, congressional Republicans may have lost the battle, but they've won the war. President Barack Obama agreed to accept the massive tax cuts his predecessor instituted in order to conclude a budget deal in 2011; since then, he has played on the Republican side of the field. Obama has never found, and perhaps will never find, the language needed to convince Americans that they cannot offer decent prospects to their children without a drastic change in priorities.

The best nibble at the edges, while the worst play with fire. In This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart catalog more than 70 cases of default on domestic debt over the last two centuries. On average, they note, in the year of default, inflation runs at 170 percent and the economy shrinks by 4 percent. In other words, default is so appalling a prospect that countries do it only when the economy is near collapse. And many of those countries, the authors note, are kleptocracies. The United States, by contrast, has a growing economy and no shortage of fiscal resources. No democratically unaccountable class was forcing the action. Washington came within a whisper of default on a whim: Political figures who do not believe in the government were delighted to throw a spanner in the works. Maybe they just wanted to see what would happen.

Great powers of the past have fallen behind when they failed to keep up with technological progress, as happened to 15th-century China; others have succumbed to invasion or disease. America faces none of these problems. The United States is a dynamic country that continues to attract immigrants and thus to grow and renew itself. It offers a unique scope to individual achievement. These great strengths certainly place a floor on any possible decline; perhaps they even argue that the United States can survive self-inflicted wounds that would doom a lesser nation. But another way of putting it is that America is posing a very dire test of its own powers of resilience.

If it's not disease or invasion, then, what is it? Historian Edward Gibbon argued that Rome ultimately fell for moral reasons -- because an ethos of patriotism and civic virtue gave way to selfishness and apathy (and lost out to the otherworldly focus of Christianity). Americans from the time of George Washington have worried that citizens would sink into a Roman torpor. That hasn't quite happened either; Americans remain wedded to their republican virtues. Yet they don't believe in the United States as an ongoing national project as they once did. Perhaps extreme inequality has loosened the strong stays of shared purpose so that we are predisposed to believe that virtue resides only in the individual, not in the community or collective. Thus, we redistribute resources to the individual, which of course only reinforces inequality. We respond to leaders who address us as separate, indissoluble atoms. Gibbon, who distrusted democracy, would probably say that Americans have become too individualistic.

I would say, instead, that there is a fine balance between the profound laissez-faire impulse that has made American the home of political and economic freedom, and the sense of shared citizenship that has fostered great collective efforts in the past -- and that the country seems to have lost that balance. I would like to think that this latest brush with disaster will help right that balance -- but I don't believe it. Things will have to get worse before they get better.

Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images