The events of 9/11 shattered the illusion that liberal democracy no longer had ideological enemies, a new report suggests. But the U.S. government is not structured to create and implement an effective plan for countering hostile ideologies, according to Douglas Feith, William A. Galston and Abram Shulsky. If it is to counter the hostile ideology of radical Islamism, the United States needs to be able to wage a strategic ideas campaign via a presidential-level Counter Terrorist Ideology Committee and a grass roots-oriented autonomous non-governmental organization modeled on the National Endowment for Democracy.
Recent political upheavals in the Arab world have widened concerns about Islamist extremism. The elections in Egypt and Tunisia tell much the same story: while the United States might wish to do business exclusively with the secular or liberal forces within these societies, their popular support and “street cred” are limited.
For the next few years, at least, these countries’ Islamist majorities will determine both the fate of their democracy and the extent to which their policies oppose American principles and interests. The United States has no choice but to encourage the kind of intra-Islamist discussion that might sharpen the divisions between uncompromising hard-liners and forces willing to make their peace with democracy and pluralism. In Egypt, there are some signs that the Brotherhood may be more comfortable forging a governing alliance with the liberal parties than with the Salafists, whose strong electoral showing surprised even seasoned observers of the Egyptian scene.
The rather amazing fact is that no one in the U.S. government has the responsibility to prosecute the ideological element of the campaign against Islamist extremism. At present, the U.S. government is not organized properly for this task. No official or agency has the responsibility for directing and conducting a strategic effort to counter Islamist extremism and for devising ways to encourage and influence the activities of private organizations; and there is no common understanding of what such an effort should comprise.
The essential issue for U.S. officials is not what messages they should be transmitting into the Muslim world; rather, it is how they can stimulate and shape a debate among Muslims about the extremist ideologies promoted by al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations. Bringing about this debate is an operational challenge for U.S. officials, and not simply a matter of messaging or public diplomacy or strategic communications.
Some officials have argued that a “battle of ideas” to counter the ideology motivating America’s radical Islamist enemies is not simply important, but essential. Yet no such serious effort was made by either the Bush administration or the Obama administration. Commentators across the political spectrum have noted that the U.S. government has done poorly over the last decade in its efforts to counter hostile ideologies. This has been the conclusion of studies done inside and outside the government.
A U.S. government capability to counter hostile ideology through a “strategic ideas” campaign would pay dividends across the board in the national security field. Weakening radical Islamism and influencing Islamist organizations to reject radicalism would strengthen the U.S position in the Arab world and improve chances for achieving key foreign policy goals there. As Islamist organizations gain power, they will have a rendezvous with reality, in which they become responsible for governing and responding to popular economic, social, and political demands under challenging circumstances. This is likely to be a time of intellectual and political turmoil for them, and the ability to influence them away from radical Islamism would be a great asset for U.S. foreign policy.
Islamism, also referred to as political Islam, is a political ideology which, while appealing to Muslim identity and sensibility, emphasizes less the spiritual aspects of Islam than its potential to solve political, social, and economic problems. In its radical or extremist versions, it preaches that the West is inevitably hostile to Islam and must be fought, including by means of terrorism. Recent political upheavals in the Arab world (referred to collectively as the “Arab Spring”) give the U.S. an increased stake in how Islamist organizations such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood evolve.
It is the ideology that attracts recruits and material support to the radical Islamist cause and induces individuals in the movement to act, even without clear “command and control” ties to a movement leader. That is why we can say that Islamist extremist ideology is the center of gravity of the transnational movement that constitutes our terrorist enemy. The vigorous ideological debates among Islamist extremists demonstrate the importance they attach to ideology.
Given the importance of ideology to the terrorist threat, the United States should be to wage an “ideas campaign” with the ultimate objective of delegitimating radical Islamist ideology, as the totalitarian ideologies of fascism and communism have been widely delegitimated.
The link between this policy of promoting democracy and our counterterrorism goals was spelled out in the National Strategy for Counterterrorism:
Promoting representative, responsive government is a core tenet of U.S. foreign policy and directly contributes to our CT [counterterrorism] goals. Governments that place the will of their people first and encourage peaceful change directly contradict the al-Qa’ida ideology. Governments that are responsive to the needs of their citizens diminish the discontent of their people and the associated drivers and grievances that al-Qa’ida actively attempts to exploit. Effective governance reduces the traction and space for al-Qa’ida, reducing its resonance and contributing to what it fears most— irrelevance.
New personnel, offices, and bureaucratic arrangements are necessary to allow the U.S. government to develop and implement strategies for countering Islamist extremism and other hostile ideologies. Unless responsibility for the development and implementation of such strategies explicitly rests with an individual or group, the requisite dynamism and sustained attention will not be forthcoming.
The best approach, we believe, would be to create a new entity in the Executive Office of the President focused on countering hostile ideologies. Although it is a close call, we recommend placing the new entity—the Counter Terrorist Ideology Committee—within the National Security Council staff apparatus, and having it headed by a deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs (DAPNSA).
The proposed structure would give the executive branch capacities it now lacks to plan and implement a coordinated, whole-of-government campaign to counter hostile ideologies. But there are two problems that the CTIC could not solve on its own. First, the government has a hard time doing the kind of long-range planning a campaign of ideas requires; that is true whether the government is doing the planning internally or is mobilizing nongovernmental intellectual resources on its behalf. Second, the relationships with foreign nationals that a campaign of ideas requires may prove impossible for State, Defense, and the intelligence agencies to create or manage.
To address these problems, a number of studies have recommended the creation of a new nongovernmental organization, which we will call the Center for Counterterrorism Research (CCR). The center would have a range of functions, including conducting research (in part through in-house assets but principally through contracts), engaging the private sector, forging connections with related nongovernmental organizations at home and abroad, mobilizing and convening networks of experts, establishing high-quality flagship publications, and making grants to foreign nationals and organizations. Upon request, the center would provide advice to the U.S. government. Over time, the CCR could even help train a cadre of professionals, knowledgeable about the theory, research, and operations of ideas campaigns, on which departments and agencies could draw.
Such an organization would be better postured than the U.S. government to support Muslim groups and individuals who, in the name of Islam, oppose extremist Islamism. As we discuss in the accompanying doctrine paper, such support could include fellowships for scholarship and writing, sponsorship of conferences and other venues for networking, and establishment and financial support for platforms (publications, broadcasting, etc.) for voicing moderate views and other means for carrying on the debate.
A private organization could provide this support without making recipients into direct U.S. government beneficiaries. It could also help mobilize the efforts of private groups and individuals across the U.S. and in other countries. The most important progress in this type of campaign will come from bold and creative individual religious thinkers and groups—and these are more likely to be recognized and supported by private organizations than by a government agency. In addition, such an organization would support the building up of expertise and provide continuity across administrations.
We incline toward the model of a congressionally funded, but private, nonprofit organization, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for several reasons.
First, the NED receives public funding principally through a line-item appropriation, which it then disburses in accordance with internally developed priorities. This is gives it greater autonomy and greater capacity for long-range thinking, which are characteristics important for the CCR.
Second, while the NED does have a small headquarters staff, the bulk of its work is conducted through grants to individuals and organizations, including its four major affiliates (controlled respectively by the Democratic and Republic parties, the AFL-CIO, and the Chamber of Commerce). This is how the CCR should operate as well.
Third, the NED’s emphasis, supported by the bulk of its grant making, is operational. (Although the CCR would have a large research component, its research efforts would support its own operations as well as those of the U.S. government.)
Finally, NED’s structure provides real and visible independence from the U.S. government. This is vital: many of its grantees would not or could not accept money directly from a U.S. government department or agency. The NED model is again appropriate for the CCR, as some degree of independence would be required for the research it funded (especially if done by foreign nationals) and an even greater degree for overseas grants for operational purposes.
The NED itself has been remarkably successful in involving nongovernmental organizations in an effort of major strategic significance for the United States. Still, there are some difficulties that would have to be overcome if the NED model is to serve as the template for a new Center for Counterterrorism Research.
First of all, there would be considerable overlap between the activities of the NED and of the new organization. The NED’s current activities promote the ideas on which democracy rests and aim to strengthen the institutions that make democracy possible…… The CCR’s founding charter would have to distinguish clearly between its scope and mission and that of the NED.
Second, and more significantly, the NED does most of its work through four affiliated institutions, representing the two major political parties, the AFL-CIO, and major business organizations. These four affiliates have their own status as private organizations that are major elements of U.S. civil society. The NED can therefore persuasively claim that it represents and acts of behalf of the United States as a society, rather than the U.S. government. This structural feature helps the NED present its activities as promoting U.S. principles and ideals rather than promoting the U.S. government’s foreign policy interests.
For the CCR, however, there would be no such already-existing private organizations that could serve as “affiliates.” From the outset, the new organization would have to engage a wide range of civil society groups—representing the private sector, religion, and academia, among other sectors—and do so in a manner that preserved both the reality and appearance of their independence from government control.
Assuming that these difficulties could be surmounted, creating a CCR along these lines would offer a number of advantages. Among them: the ability to mobilize private sector resources, to some extent material or in-kind but especially intellectual; the capacity to conduct in-depth research and to maintain continuity of focus rather than responding to daily events and in-basket crises; with that, the opportunity to build long-term intellectual capital for countering hostile ideologies; the capacity to form international networks, as the NED has done with democracy-promotion leaders and organizations around the world; and finally, the luxury of functioning in a relatively nonbureaucratic framework, in which there is more operational flexibility than the government typically achieves.
The relationship between the CCR and the CTIC poses a challenge. Bluntly put, the more independent the former is designed to be, the less accountable it will be to the government, which is intended to be the major consumer of its research and beneficiary of its operational activities. The issue is more than hypothetical.
Although the NED sees itself as promoting the long-term interests of the United States, its operational activities sometimes cause heartburn in Foggy Bottom. And because its research is not done on a contract basis, it generates intellectual capital for democracy promotion rather than responding to the specific research needs of departments and agencies.
Countering extremist Islamism is more than a matter of public diplomacy or strategic communications, activities that primarily involve U.S. officials transmitting messages to foreign audiences. The key is to stimulate and influence debate among Muslims in a way that promotes interpretations of Islam that do not assert or imply the legitimacy of terrorism. In other words, the heart of the matter is not what U.S. officials say to Muslims, it is what Muslims say among themselves. The challenge for U.S. officials is not to formulate messages; it is to devise ways to bring about and help shape a debate within Muslim communities that will diminish the influence of the Islamist extremists.
The above posting is a slightly edited extract from Organizing for a Strategic Ideas Campaign to Counter Ideological Challenges to U.S. National Security, a Hudson Institute report written by Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2001 to 2005, and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute; William A. Galston, Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, at the Brookings Institution, and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy; and Abram Shulsky, a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.