In 1993, R. James Woolsey, about to become President Bill Clinton’s first director of Central Intelligence, remarked to a Senate committee on the defeat of international communism: "We have slain a large dragon" He then added: "But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of."
Years later, we still seem bewildered. America’s military has demonstrated astonishing ingenuity and adaptability. But have other instruments of government power risen to the challenges posed by international jihadism?
In his new book, "Winning the Long War," Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, makes a persuasive case that they have not, that the United States instead has lost "the initiative on the dominant battlefields of today’s conflict: ideology, strategic communications, economics, law and development." Regaining the initiative, he urges, should be among the highest priorities of the new administration.
A large part of the problem may stem from a failure of imagination as Woolsey also has suggested. Hezbollah uses a truck bomb to attack the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 but no American official imagines — or takes serious steps to prevent — terrorists from using passenger planes to inflict damage on a grander scale.
Another example: In 1979, Iran’s revolutionary rulers promised "Death to America." Nevertheless, throughout the 1980s, Iranian students were welcomed to American universities where they were taught the skills necessary to build nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Technolytics Institute, a U.S.-based think tank specializing in cyber security, ranks Iran as one of the top five cyber-threats in the world. In many instances, these experts, too, were trained in the United States.
One former American official told me: "I’d guess that about a third of all the Iranians I gave visas to in the ’80s were destined for a career in computer sciences. Add in those doing physics, math, chemistry, and other hard sciences, you had another third. And many of these folks were going to really good universities."
Nor have American policymakers fought well on the battlefield of ideas. Berman observes that since the end of the Cold War, U.S. strategic communications has "suffered death by a thousand cuts," and that the current system is plagued by "systemic dysfunctions."
One example: American broadcasting abroad is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, part-time volunteers, mainly prominent businessmen and media figures. Berman quotes one board member, in 2002, saying: "We’ve got to think of ourselves as separate from public diplomacy."
Why would an entity set up for the purpose of public diplomacy want to distance itself from that mission? What mission would it undertake instead? Why has this contradiction not been addressed by either the Bush or Obama administrations?
Berman gives higher marks to the U.S. Treasury Department, which has waged economic warfare by seizing or freezing hundred of millions of dollars that otherwise would have gone to al-Qaeda and similar organizations.
But there has been no serious effort to "make the international economy as a whole inhospitable to exploitation by terrorist groups and radical regimes," to prevent multinational companies from carrying out "business as usual with terror-sponsoring regimes," or even to stop American taxpayer dollars from ending up assisting regimes such as that in Iran. The Bush administration never aimed at Iran’s Achilles’ heel: its dependence on foreign supplies of gasoline. Congress and the Obama administration are now, finally and rather hesitantly, considering this last, best option to peacefully pressure Iran’s rulers.
"If we are to stem the tide of Islamic radicalism, then we must do more than simply continue down the path we are currently on," notes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the foreword to Berman’s book. First and foremost, winning the long war will require re-thinking the conflict being waged against the West, and learning how to utilize non-military instruments of national power much more effectively than we have done to date.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)