Branding Terrorism for What It Really Is

Al Qaeda might have been "decimated" yet our fear of terrorism remains a specter that haunts our way of life, hindering our Constitution and foreign policy. We still allow easy cliches, propaganda and generalizations to decide our actions and obscure a way forward.
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Part 1 - The Dead War on Terror

In his West Point speech the other week President Obama reminded the American people that terrorism is the "the most direct threat to America at home and abroad," and will be for the "foreseeable future."

Thirteen years after 9/11 and as the American people and military recover from two enormously destructive wars analysis has hardly progressed beyond saying that violence is the problem, and never-ending war is the answer. This series of blogs will examine whether this latest pronouncement of the war on terror will serve U.S. national security interests.

There has been considerable success in defending the homeland but it looks like we are losing the global struggle against political violence, according to the State Department's analysis. While our rhetoric has evolved a little over the past decade fundamentally our approach remains unchanged. If the terrorists' goal is to spread their version of political dissidence, sow division and spread fear it looks like they are winning.

As Iraq drowns, Pakistan dissolves and Afghanistan descends -- places where the war on terrorism has been hottest and costs to America highest -- we cannot wait to review our methods and means. To adapt we need to appreciate and unravel the scale of the mistakes made in Afghanistan and Iraq. These were missions built on ideology, aspiration and good intention, which disastrously confused nation building and counter-insurgency with counter-terrorism.

Going forward, the president said fighting will be outsourced to a broad range of global partners. This is good for the families of those in uniform and the nation's budget but it remains unclear how the governments of Nigeria, Mali, Kenya, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and others are really going to fair on our behalf.

There is still too much about our approach that simply plays to the home crowd; "you're either with us or against us". It is the terrorists, not us, who want to see people divided by global "front lines" and never ending war. Clarity of purpose becomes difficult if the conflict is locally driven especially as we associate our enemy -- what the president calls the "affiliates" and "extremists" -- to a global movement that experts say became irrelevant some time ago.

Al Qaeda might have been "decimated" yet our fear of terrorism remains a specter that haunts our way of life, hindering our Constitution and foreign policy. We still allow easy cliches, propaganda and generalizations to decide our actions and obscure a way forward. As the fight goes local, heavy-handed measures based on politics of identity among the many to fight the few who become radicalized - a process now understood by the US government in technical, largely non-political terms - will only heighten emotions and wind-up the tempo of violence.

What do we mean when we castigate an "Islamist" in the context of the future shape of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or for the majority of Libyans who want to see Islam as a fundamental part of their politics or the internationally-backed provisional constitution of Somalia which guarantees compliance with Shari'ah?

Whether there are American boots on the ground or not, our approach is creating a tide of discontent that, sooner or later, will turn against us and is generating instability. My experiences from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, Kenya, Washington, D.C. and London, from working in government and for international organizations, alongside governments, Generals and Ambassadors, tells me that we continue to miss something.

It is disturbing to see how far the divisive language of the war on terrorism has been exported globally enabling conflict and reinforcing difference. Language really matters. There are no military "front lines" or legal "franchises" because there is no army or global corporation. We need to break down the brand strength of "terrorism" that they exploit and we consume through the media, stop using language that enhances their strength and plays into their hands, and expose them for what they really are.

As well as enabling shared knowledge and ideas, today's globalization brings us and our differences closer together. The potential for conflict is heightened when the internet exposes inconsistencies and brings the long tail of radical and violent ideas to a growing online market of disgruntled youth. We need to redouble our efforts to listen to and communicate with other cultures.

We should recognize how the western ideas of democracy and freedom, mostly unchanged leftovers from the Cold War, often backfire and fail to resonate in today's multi-polar world, especially in the minds of alienated youth. The challenge is for us to re-position the values we are fighting for and reinvigorate the politics of US foreign policy.

Historically, we have taken pride in knowing that ideas cannot be defeated through war. This is not about backing down where we can make a difference. But if our approach to terrorism has been flawed where we have tried hardest and even where proxy armies have been mobilized to fight our cause we must reconsider the overall agenda.

And, if freedom and democracy are becoming unattractive dead terms in U.S. foreign policy, especially where our leadership matters most, we need to re-brand U.S. foreign policy. Many counter-terrorism measures have been successful -- albeit immensely costly -- in defending our homeland but to lead globally we need to use the politics of peace rather than the language of war.

In this series of blogs I will look at these ideas in more detail and suggest what a different approach, together with a resurgent political and public diplomatic effort ,can do to advance US national security going forward.

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