In 1993, R. James Woolsey, about to become President 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, as I have argued here. But have other instruments of national 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 U.S. 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 promise “Death to America,” and — as Berman points out — adopt a constitution that tasks Iran’s clerical army, the Pasdaran, with “fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.”
Nevertheless, throughout the 1980s, Iranian students were welcomed to American and European universities, where they were taught the skills they are now using to build nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Technolytics Institute, a U.S.-based think tank specializing in cybersecurity, ranks Iran as one of the top five cyber-threats in the world. In many instances, these experts, too, were trained in the U.S. and Europe.
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, who are part-time volunteers, mostly 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 taxpayer-funded mission would it undertake instead? Why has this contradiction not been addressed by either the Bush or the Obama administrations? The answer may go beyond a failure of imagination to a lack of strategic vision — and competence.
When it comes to legal issues, Berman finds, we’ve done no better. The Bush administration “launched a far-reaching effort to refashion what some have called the ‘law of September 10’ to better confront the contemporary threat posed by al-Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. But the way it went about doing so engendered no small measure of controversy, both at home and abroad.”
The Obama administration, by contrast, “has been defined in large measure by what it will not do in the course of prosecuting the current conflict. At least so far, it has failed to articulate a positive agenda for shaping the international legal system in a way that facilitates our fight.”