washingtonpost.com
Let's Beat the Extremists Like We Beat the Soviets

By Andrew J. Bacevich
Sunday, September 27, 2009

America's long war, which began on Oct. 7, 2001, when U.S. bombs and missiles started falling on Afghanistan, has become the longest in this country's history. The eighth anniversary of the conflict beckons, with no end in sight.

The counterinsurgency campaign proposed in Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's strategic assessment will prolong the war for an additional five or 10 years. The war's most ardent proponents insist that President Obama has no choice: It's either fight on or invite another 9/11.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to a global counterinsurgency campaign. Instead of fighting an endless hot war in a vain effort to eliminate the jihadist threat, the United States should wage a cold war to keep the threat at bay. Such a strategy worked before. It can work again.

At the dawn of what the Bush administration came to call the Long War, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. military personnel: "We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter." In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the work of changing the way they live has turned out to be difficult, costly and problematic. After years of exertions, $1 trillion expended and more than 5,000 American troops lost, U.S. forces have yet to win a decisive victory. The high-tech American way of war developed during the 1990s (once celebrated in phrases such as "shock and awe" and "speed kills") stands thoroughly discredited.

Changing the way they live -- where "they" are the people of the Islamic world -- qualifies as mission impossible. The Long War is a losing proposition; it will break the bank and break the force.

Devising a new course requires accurately identifying the problem, which is not "terrorism" and, despite Washington's current obsession with the place, is certainly not Afghanistan. The essential problem is a dispute about God's relationship to politics. The proposition that the two occupy separate spheres finds particular favor among the democracies of the liberal, developed West. The proposition that God permeates politics finds particular favor in the Islamic world.

This conviction, which is almost entirely ignored in McChrystal's report, defines the essence of the way they live in Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other countries throughout the Middle East.

At its root, this is an argument about what it means to be modern. Power, no matter how imaginatively or ruthlessly wielded, cannot provide a solution. The opposing positions are irreconcilable.

In confronting this conflict, the goal of U.S. national security strategy ought to be limited but specific: to insulate Americans from the fallout. Rather than setting out to clear, hold and build thousands of tiny, primitive villages scattered across the Afghan countryside, such a strategy should emphasize three principles: decapitate, contain and compete. An approach based on these principles cannot guarantee perpetual peace. But it is likely to be more effective, affordable and sustainable than a strategy based on open-ended war.

Decapitation -- targeting leaders for elimination -- provides the means to suppress immediate threats to our safety. The violent jihadists who pose those threats are vicious but relatively few in number. They possess limited capabilities. Their aspirations of uniting the world's Muslims into a new caliphate are akin to Sarah Palin's or Dennis Kucinich's presidential ambitions -- unworthy of serious attention. They are rank fantasies.

Without effective leadership, the jihadists are nothing. The aim of decapitation is twofold. At a minimum it will oblige jihadist chieftains to devote enormous attention to ensuring their own survival, giving them less time to plot against the West. Optimally, it will confront jihadist networks with never-ending succession crises, consuming organizational energies that might otherwise find external expression. Decapitation won't eliminate the threat -- Hamas and Hezbollah have survived the Israeli government's targeted assassination campaign -- but it can reduce it to manageable levels.

A crucial caveat is that assassinations must be precise and accurate. The incidental killing of noncombatants is immoral as well as politically counterproductive. The missiles launched from U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan have repeatedly demonstrated the wrong approach. The recent elimination of Saleh Ali Nabhan in Somalia -- in a helicopter-borne raid by special operations forces -- models the correct one.

Containment implies turning to the old Cold War playbook. When confronting the Soviet threat, the United States and its allies erected robust defenses, such as NATO, and cooperated in denying the communist bloc anything that could make Soviet computers faster, Soviet submarines quieter or Soviet missiles more accurate.

Containing the threat posed by jihad should follow a similar strategy. Robust defenses are key -- not mechanized units patrolling the Iron Curtain, but well-funded government agencies securing borders, controlling access to airports and seaports, and ensuring the integrity of electronic networks that have become essential to our way of life.

As during the Cold War, a strategy of containment should include comprehensive export controls and the monitoring of international financial transactions. Without money and access to weapons, the jihadist threat shrinks to insignificance: All that remains is hatred. Ideally, this approach should include strenuous efforts to reduce the West's dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which serves to funnel many billions of dollars into the hands of people who may not wish us well.

During the Cold War, containment did not preclude engagement, and it shouldn't today. To the extent that the United States can encourage liberalizing tendencies in the Islamic world, it should do so -- albeit with modest expectations. Sending jazz musicians deep into the Eastern Bloc in the old days was commendable, but Louis Armstrong's trumpet didn't topple the Soviet empire.

Finally, there is the matter of competition. Again, the Cold War offers an instructive analogy. During the long twilight struggle with the Soviets, competition centered on demonstrating scientific superiority (putting a man on the moon) and material superiority (providing cars, refrigerators and TVs for the masses). The West won.

Competition today still includes a material element. Yet a conflict rooted in a dispute over God's place in human history necessarily extends beyond the material realm. Radical Islamists assert that all humanity must submit to their retrograde version of Islam. Western political leaders declare with equal insistence that all must live in freedom, that term imbued with specific Western connotations.

The competitive challenge facing the West is not to prove that Islamic fundamentalism won't satisfy the aspirations of humanity, but to demonstrate that democratic capitalism can, even for committed believers. In short, the key to winning the current competition is to live up to the ideals that we profess rather than compromising them in the name of national security.

The upshot is that by modifying the way we live -- attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis -- we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live. Here lies the best chance of easing the differences that divide us.

The war we're fighting can become plausible, sustainable and even morally defensible.

It just has to go from hot to cold.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company