Can the “war on terror” be won? That’s the crux of the entire national security debate today. Terrorism is a vague tactic, and declaring war on it is as akin to the colonists declaring war on bows and arrows when they fought Native American tribes.
The mantra that this is a “war without end” drives the debate over whether the U.S. should devote so many resources to extinguishing terrorism, or whether we should, as Fareed Zakaria has said, “learn to live with radical Islam.” If it’s a never-ending conflict, then temporary powers given to the executive branch and national security apparatus are now permanent. If this war cannot be won, then a law enforcement approach is more suitable.
I chose to tackle this debate because it dominates every call-in radio show and every lecture I give. The most heated arguments, such as over the war in Iraq or over imprisoning suspected terrorists indefinitely, are subsets of this overarching question.
Unfortunately, the term “war on terror” gives the impression that terrorists are an inevitable fraction of a large population — no different than the nutcases that exist in any large setting. The term “homegrown terrorism” further indicates that this phenomenon can be combated, but not stopped. In reality, homegrown jihad is an outgrowth of a foreign ideology that survives because of state support. If state sponsors of this political-religious ideology are removed, it cannot flourish and will whither away.
The debate about prosecuting the war must focus on ideology, not tactics, because ideology can be defeated.
There will always be anti-democratic fanatics, but that doesn’t mean an ideology cannot be discredited. If someone calls World War Two the “war against Nazism,” no one doubts that victory has been achieved — even though neo-Nazi gangs still remain. It is with this goal in mind that the war can indeed be won.
The ideology must be discredited and its lifelines abolished. Luckily, radical Islamists are helping take care of the former — al-Qaeda kills eight times as many Muslims as non-Muslims. As we’ve seen in Iran, to know theocratic governance is to hate theocratic governance and to embrace its democratic alternative. Through their brutality and failures, a movement against radical Islam and in favor of more secularism is spreading in the Islamic world.
This can be seen most recently in Iraq, with the election success of the cross-sectarian party led by former Prime Minister Allawi, a secular Shiite. The pro-Iran religious bloc is getting thrashed politically.
Battlefield victories are vital to the ideology’s survival. When the extremists claim they are acting in accordance with Allah’s will, victory is their vindication. It is for this reason that they cannot be allowed to win on any battlefield. When they lose, what does that say about whose side Allah is on?