The terrible attacks in Paris on November 13 should serve as a clarifying moment for the Obama Administration. This year, the administration initiated a flurry of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) conferences, starting with the two-day White House Summit in February and followed by meetings in several different countries. Most recently, there was the Leaders' Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism at the U.N. General Assembly.
Despite all this activity, the CVE initiative may turn out to be considerably less than the sum of its parts, which include the efforts of more than 100 governments and many NGOs and multilateral institutions. The Leaders' Summit in New York did little to dispel these doubts, with U.S officials and a succession of world leaders appearing to go through the motions, while often managing to flatly contradict each other.
And yet the basis of the CVE initiative is a four-part strategy, set out by President Obama in his remarks in February, which contains the essential elements of a new, potentially more effective, approach to countering the threat of violent extremism, placing the emphasis on prevention and explicitly noting that denial of human rights fuels the grievances that violent extremists exploit.
Meanwhile ISIL has demonstrated its growing global reach: the bombing of a pro-Kurdish rally in Ankara, Turkey on October 10, its apparent downing of a Russian civilian plane over the Sinai desert on October 31, the suicide bombings of a crowded market in a pro-Hezbollah neighborhood in southern Beirut on November 12, and the Paris attacks the following day. These attacks all targeted countries and groups engaged in military activities in Syria.
These targeted attacks point to the shared interest of otherwise antagonistic elements of the international community in defeating ISIL and removing it from its stronghold, and ending the conflict in Syria. The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) -- the United States, Russia and China and the key regional and European states -- met in Vienna on November 14 and pledged to support a Syrian-led transition process that aims, within a target of six months, to establish credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance. The group also pledged to defeat ISIL.
It will require an enormous diplomatic effort backed by all of the capabilities of the U.S. government to make progress in ending the devastating conflict in Syria, but it must now be a U.S priority.
Renewed efforts to end the conflict in Syria and to remove ISIL from its power base, while an essential and neglected element of CVE strategy, will not alone lessen the threat of violent Islamist extremism.
If the next decade of combating violent extremism is going to be more successful than the previous, we must develop and sustain the preventive aspects of the CVE strategy. This includes addressing factors such as political and economic grievances and the attraction of extremist ideologies for disaffected people, especially youth. Recent years show that a narrow, security-centric approach to violent extremism will not succeed, and can easily become counterproductive, with heavy-handed security measures fueling the grievances on which terrorist extremists thrive.
One reason that ISIL and similar extremist groups have been able to recruit supporters and generate sympathy is that they offer an alternative, however perverse, both to policies and regimes that have produced a calamitous collapse of state structures and public order in many parts of the Middle East and to the marginalization of disaffected youth from minority communities in many western societies.
If it is to succeed, CVE policy cannot simply offer a counter-narrative to the misguided violent extremist worldview. Realities on the ground must be transformed. Instead of being reactive, with an emphasis on "countering" threats, policies should focus on constructing positive alternatives.
The millions of young people fleeing their countries in the Middle East and Africa must be convinced that they can have a better life in their own countries. The only way to convince them is to make it so -- to build functioning examples where the international community has been able to cooperate effectively to build post-authoritarian and post-conflict societies that enable people to live with dignity and security. In this regard, it was encouraging that on his way to Vienna Secretary Kerry stopped in Tunisia and pledged additional U.S. support to the Tunisian economy as the country continues to advance its fragile transition.
U.S. leaders and their allies should set out a compelling vision for a better future for the people of the Middle East and other parts of the world plagued by violent extremism, and back it up with credible, properly resourced, plans for making that vision a reality. That would be a real and welcome departure from the failed policies of the past.