Diplomacy in the Age of Terror

Remarks to the Pacific Council on International Policy, The American Academy of Diplomacy

Nine years ago this August, President Clinton declared war on Al Qaeda, a terrorist movement that sees continued American friendship and cooperation with the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims as the principal obstacle to the religious tyranny it hopes to impose on them. Three years later, on September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda cruelly struck our homeland.

The United States is the richest and most powerful nation in history. The terrorists who threaten us are a loose network of crazed fanatics inspired and sometimes directed by unkempt men living in caves in Waziristan. Remarkably, the cavemen think they’re winning. Even more remarkably, they may be right. For the United States and the American people, the world is now an increasingly dangerous place.

A good part of the reason for this is that our enemies have a strategy and we do not. Their objective is to expel us from the Middle East so that they can overthrow Arab regimes they believe depend on us and end what they regard as the corruption of Islam by the ideas of the Western Enlightenment we have traditionally exemplified. Our objective remains unclear. And the means by which we have answered our terrorist foes — with a diplomacy-free foreign policy that relies almost exclusively on military means — is demonstrably not working. Worldwide, the production of anti-American fanatics is up.

Al Qaeda’s leaders understand that this is a war of wits, not brawn. They will not be maneuvered onto a conventional battlefield; they are determined to select the ground on which they engage us. They are fighting for the minds of the Muslim faithful, whose attraction to Western ideas they condemn and wish to suffocate in their reactionary vision. Our armed forces are without question the world’s most competent and lethal. No other military can defeat them. But they are not engaged in battle with another military. In these circumstances, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are not the appropriate instruments of statecraft to lead our response to the mounting threat we face from Arab and other Muslim extremists. Armed forces specialize in killing and capturing the enemy. But killing, incarcerating, or otherwise humiliating Arabs and other Muslims who sympathize with Al Qaeda does not defeat the enemy; it aids him. Every instance of perceived injustice and humiliation creates a dozen new enemies, determined to kill Americans.

When he was asked in Australia a little while ago how we were doing in his administration’s so-called “global war on terrorism,” President Bush reportedly replied, with evident satisfaction, that “we are kicking ass.” But, cathartic as this may be, it is not a strategy. Today, we know a lot about what we are not attempting to achieve in Iraq. Our continuing occupation of the place is not about eliminating weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or installing a secular democracy, or creating a model society to inspire revolutions in conservative Islamic nations hostile to Israel. Judging by results, it is also not about increasing the world’s oil supply and lowering gasoline prices at the pump. But our president and our Congress have yet to discuss — let alone agree on — what our continuing military presence and operations in Iraq are intended to accomplish.

The plan seems to be for the occupation to soldier on until peace spontaneously breaks out among Iraqis. That is not a strategy. Our men and women in uniform and their equipment are being ground up in the strategic ambush of Iraq. No one can explain to us what they are there to do beyond avoiding making a terrible situation even worse and saving our leaders from having to admit they got things badly wrong.

In Afghanistan, we rapidly accomplished our objectives: first, bringing most, though unfortunately not all, of the masterminds of 9/11 to justice by capturing or killing them; and second, punishing those who had given these evil men safe haven so that others who might be tempted to do so in future would be deterred. We did this with a very cleverly conducted, limited intervention that tilted the balance in a civil war among Afghans and allied us with the victorious faction. Then we succumbed to the elation of victory and moved on to Iraq, cutting the resources we devote to Afghanistan while inflating our mission there.

Neither the Taliban nor the conservative Pashtuns from whom it draws its support participated in planning or executing the atrocities of 9/11. Our original objective was to punish them,, not to ban them from a role in Afghan politics. Our subsequent designation and pursuit of the Taliban as our enemy has restored to it the international legitimacy as an Islamic and nationalist resistance movement it had forfeited by its pre-9/11 association with terrorists. Our military intervention, assisted by NATO, has yet to create a state or an effective government for Afghanistan. It has, however, made the country safe for poppy cultivation. Afghanistan is now the ultimate source of 93.5 percent of the world’s heroin. This provides the Taliban (and, presumably, Al Qaeda) with annual revenues greater than the subsidies that underwrote the mujahidin during their long and ultimately successful conflict with the Soviet Union. Surely, this is not what we intended. But no one has yet articulated a clear mission or a feasible end game for our military operations in Afghanistan.

In retrospect, Al Qaeda has played us with the finesse of a matador exhausting a great bull by guiding it into unproductive lunges at the void behind his cape. By invading Iraq, we transformed an intervention in Afghanistan most Muslims had supported into what looks to them like a wider war against Islam. We destroyed the Iraqi state and catalyzed anarchy, sectarian violence, terrorism, and civil war in that country.

Meanwhile, we embraced Israel’s enemies as our own; they responded by equating Americans with Israelis as their enemies. We abandoned the role of Middle East peacemaker to back Israel’s efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoized Arab populations. We wring our hands while sitting on them as the Jewish state continues to seize ever more Arab land for its colonists. This has convinced most Palestinians that Israel cannot be appeased and is persuading increasing numbers of them that a two-state solution is infeasible. It threatens Israelis with an unwelcome choice between a democratic society and a Jewish identity for their state. Now the United States has brought the Palestinian experience — of humiliation, dislocation, and death — to millions more in Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel and the United States each have our reasons for what we are doing, but no amount of public diplomacy can persuade the victims of our policies that their suffering is justified, or spin away their anger, or assuage their desire for reprisal and revenge.

It has generally been thought wise in both politics and foreign affairs to try to divide one’s enemies, not to unite them. But our actions and rhetoric have served to persuade a very large majority of Muslims that we are engaged in a global assault on them and their faith. American relations with the Islamic world, especially the fifth of it that is Arab, have never been as hostile or mutually disrespectful. Our television and radio talk shows, aimed at domestic audiences, are heard abroad. In discussion among ourselves we routinely equate Islam with terrorism. This has made it even harder for Muslim friends of the United States openly to cooperate with us in opposing the extremists who are our common enemies.

As a result, Al Qaeda has largely succeeded in its objective of estranging us from formerly friendly Arab states and their peoples. We have made it easy for violent Takfiri heretics to claim that they are defending Islam and all its adherents against a global “crusade” spearheaded by American troops. Their portrayal of their vicious attacks on American, Australian, and European citizens as justified acts of reprisal against aggression has achieved a disturbing degree of resonance. In the broader realm of Islam, not just in the Arab world, rising percentages see such attacks on us as justified. This greatly increases the risk of terrorist violence against any government or people that dares to be our partner. It makes attacks on Americans and our homeland a matter of certainty rather than speculation.

The purpose of terrorists is to spread fear for political effect. The cavemen in Waziristan have not had to work hard at fear-mongering. Our leaders have done it for them, putting in place the rudiments of a national security-obsessed garrison state. The new order rests on the previously discredited doctrine that extraordinary conditions can create extraordinary constitutional powers for the executive branch. In the name of state security, it overrides more than two centuries of American devotion to the concept of a limited government of laws, not men. In our fear, we are also abandoning the openness that has been central to our economic, scientific, and cultural success. Increasingly, our borders are closed to both people and ideas. In the years of struggle between us, Al Qaeda has not been brought to question its core values or change them. Demonstrably, we have.

There is now a strong American preference for solving problems by militaristic, unilateralist and scofflaw behavior rather than diplomacy, cooperation with other nations, or the promotion of legal norms. We condemn terrorism as criminal but reserve the right to respond to it with actions we ourselves previously considered criminal. This has dismayed our allies and friends in the industrial democracies and divided them from us even as it has greatly reduced the numbers of those in the Muslim world and elsewhere who view us as worthy of emulation. We are increasingly isolated and friendless. The restoration of faith in the United States and our commitment to international law and comity is among the most urgent tasks before us. As it is, when we are next struck (as we surely will be), we must be prepared for the likelihood that, this time, there will be more Schadenfreude overseas than solidarity with our distress.

To regain both spiritual strength and allied support, we must restore our country’s reputation as the speaker for the world’s conscience, not its most powerful abuser. To protect our interests in the widening range of regional contexts in which they are under rising challenge — from the Western Pacific, to Eurasia, to Latin America, Africa, and the broader Middle East, we must regain our ability to lead. And to restore our military capacity to defend our interests beyond Iraq, we must liberate our army and marine corps from occupation duty there and reconstitute them from the wear and tear both have endured. It is by now all too clear that these are tasks that will be left to the next administration. Or maybe, judging by what the current candidates are saying, to its successor.

The most urgent task of all before a successor administration, whatever its political complexion, will be to devise a coherent strategy to deal with the very real dangers posed by terrorists with global reach and their ideological base among the world’s Muslims. The United States needs a strategy that integrates intelligence, diplomacy, economic measures, and information policy with law enforcement and military power. We need a grand strategy that unites us with the enemies of our enemies and regains the collaboration and support of now alienated allies and friends. There is no such strategy at present. Without one, we cannot hope to prevail.

The prerequisites for such a strategy are not hard to describe.

First, we must make a serious effort to understand our enemies rather than simply caricature and malign them. Instead of examining them and their doctrine, we have reasoned from politically convenient analogies with our former foes in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Instead of addressing al Qaeda’s case against our direct and indirect interventions in the Arab and Islamic worlds, we have ascribed to it an ideology that does not exist. “Islamofascism” is a word invented in America, redolent with politically evocative overtones of the European holocaust, and totally disconnected from both Islam and Arab history. Rather than analyzing the aims that al Qaeda and its allies profess — which have to do with freeing the realm of Islam of our presence so that they and other Islamic radicals can direct its course to the future — we ascribe to them an objective of world conquest similar to that of our past Eurasian enemies. Ignorance, confusion, and self–indulgence have led us to impose unfounded stereotypes on Muslims and to mistake Arab friends for Arab enemies — and, no doubt, vice versa.

Second, absent compelling reasons to the contrary, we must alter policies and cease to carry out actions that inadvertently strengthen our enemies by giving them credibility in the wider world of Islam. This will be a politically painful process, requiring us to take an entirely fresh look at many American assumptions and policies with deep political roots and much emotional investment. The obvious need to change our approaches to both Iraq and Afghanistan is a case in point as is our contempt for the constraints of international law. These have become major force multipliers for our extremist enemies and inhibitions on cooperation from allies. They need radical adjustment. We must also subject our reflexive support of Israel’s policies to critical examination. The default on the independent exercise of American judgment on this and other issues has not worked to the advantage of either the United States or Israel. The Holy Land is not advancing toward peace but sinking into an ever more bitter struggle for land and identity. Israel is not more secure or accepted in its region, but less. Options for a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict are narrowing, not widening. Once a menace only to Israel and its immediate Arab neighbors, the blowback from the Arab-Israeli conflict has emerged as a major threat to our security and that of our allies. It is the principal factor radicalizing the Islamic world.

We have much in common with Israel and many human ties to it, but Israel is not an extension of the United States or our values and does not see itself as such. Israel is a foreign country, inhabited by foreigners, with many interests that are foreign to our own. Contemporary Israeli values increasingly diverge both from ours and, in the opinion of many, from the humane ethics of the religion the Jewish state was established to safeguard. In our own interest, as well as in the interest of securing Israel’s long-term existence from the brilliantly short-sighted policies its government sometimes follows, we must recover the ability to exercise our own judgment. We must be able to discuss Israel’s policies and our relationship to them in the robust democratic manner with which these matters are debated in Israel itself. Serious strategic questions that are vigorously disputed among Israelis do not become instances of anti-Semitism when Americans also seek to debate them. It is particularly anomalous that Jewish Americans who feel free to speak out when in Israel are intimidated from doing so in their own country by self-appointed thought-police.

Watchdog politics and media censorship imposed by political action groups through the moral blackmail of promiscuous charges of anti-Semitism or lack of patriotism on the part of those who raise controversial matters for public discussion should have no place in our democracy. Such defamatory agitprop has become a blight on our civil society. Calumny is not an acceptable response to issues that are central to protecting the domestic tranquility, managing the common defense, and securing the general welfare of all Americans. Our inability to carry out an honest and objective discussion of issues of great moment endangers us. We can no longer afford the narrow intolerance of political correctness. The thought control it attempts to impose imperils the very interests it purports to defend.

Al Qaeda draws its strength and its recruits from the grievances of Arabs and other Muslims. Whether or not these grievances are justified, denial will not cure them. It is in our interest both to analyze them and to reduce them to the lowest possible level. This cannot be done without honest examination of how our actions appear to those they affect, unimpeded by prejudice, stereotypes, or the enforcement of political taboos. We need to understand what we are up against as it is, not as it is politically expedient to explain it. Only then can we hope to develop policies that reduce tensions and end the conflicts in the Holy Land, Iraq, and Afghanistan, not aggravate or perpetuate them.

Third, we must stop inadvertently undermining the efforts of mainstream Muslims to oppose our common enemies and to expose these enemies as the deranged and immoral fanatics they are. Our ignorant and blundering equation of terrorism with Islam has overshadowed and impeded their efforts to regain control of their own moral space. To help them do so, we must restore respectful relationships with Muslim scholars and the governments they advise. Only then can we work with them to discredit Al Qaeda’s aberrant doctrines.

In our natural preoccupation with American suffering on 9/11 or on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, we often forget that Al Qaeda’s aim is the overthrow of what it calls “the near enemy” — the Saudi monarchy and the Egyptian government — and that its attacks on us — “the far enemy” — are merely a means to that end. The successful vilification of Saudi Arabia and newly disparaging attitudes toward Egypt as well as the rise of “Islamophobia” in our politics represent major victories for Al Qaeda. They are defeats for our natural allies against the novel and perverted interpretations of Islam that Al Qaeda purveys. They are therefore setbacks for us. We need to rebuild key alliances in the Arab and Muslim worlds that the diplomatic reductionism of “either with us or against us” has destroyed.

Fourth, we need to work with these allies to intercept and rehabilitate those tempted onto the road to terrorism and to help them to return to the straight path of Islam. Saudi Arabia has created a very successful program to do this; it is now helping the United Kingdom apply its program of religious rectification in British prisons. Enabling the misguided to reject the perverted and immoral religious interpretations they have mistakenly accepted is the key to preventing would-be recruits to terrorism from actually engaging in it. Islam is not the problem. In this context, it is the answer.

Finally, we must succeed in hunting down and killing those who have criminally attacked us, whoever and wherever they are. The cavemen in Waziristan must at last be brought to justice, if only as an example to the rest. While this is primarily the task of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies and their foreign counterparts and partners, such civilian agencies will need backing from our armed forces to accomplish this. But, with rare exceptions, the proper role of our military will be to support, not lead the effort.

The tranquility of our homeland and the homelands of the world’s Muslims is now inextricably linked. The task of persuading our allies and friends to join us in a grand strategy aimed at restoring peace and security to both will be a huge challenge to American statecraft that places heavy demands on our diplomacy. For the sake of our posterity and their liberties, we must rise to this challenge. Yet it is nowhere ordained that we will.

Diplomacy is the most difficult of the political arts. It requires empathy, which is especially hard for democracies, given their natural fixation on the views of their own citizen-voters and their concomitant disdain for the views of foreigners, who, after all, can’t and don’t vote. The diplomatic record of American democracy is decidedly mixed. It combined unilateralism with pacifism and sanctimony in a uniquely American brand of fecklessness in the years before World War II, then surprised the world with its creative brilliance after the war. Since winning the Cold War, we have again surprised the world — by reverting to ineffectual unilateralism, this time compounding it with militarism, swagger, self-righteousness, and complacent ignorance.

Many Americans now equate diplomacy with appeasement and insist that we can talk to our enemies only when they come out with their hands up. It’s been a while since we attempted the persuasive arts of diplomacy. We are more than a little out of practice at them. And, frankly, our foreign service, staffed as it is with very intelligent men and women, remains decidedly smug and amateurish in comparison with the self-critical professionalism of our armed forces.

There are many reasons for this, including lack of training, professional standards and mentoring, funding, and esprit as well as dysfunctional policies that have forced our diplomats to cower behind the fortifications of crusader castles like the “green zone.” In part, however, it is because we persist in a spoils system that led the New York Herald Tribune to remark in 1857 that “Diplomacy is the sewer through which flows the scum and refuse of the political puddle. A man not fit to stay at home is just the man to send abroad.” As Abba Eban, one of the great diplomats of the past century, sadly pointed out:

“The word ‘ambassador’ would normally have a professional connotation but for the American tradition of political appointees. The bizarre notion that any citizen, especially if he is rich, is fit for the representation of his country abroad has taken some hard blows through empirical evidence. But it has not been discarded.”

The abandonment in the nineteenth century of the practice of appointing politicians as generals or judges was the key to the emergence of the military and legal professions. As long as its most senior positions are reserved for wealthy dilettantes, our foreign service will not attain the professionalism necessary for it to be able to match and collaborate effectively with our highly professional military. The wide margin of error we traditionally enjoyed in foreign policy has narrowed. We can no longer afford amateurism in diplomacy, appointing our most senior representatives abroad for the good of the party rather than the nation, and leaving them to be educated by events. Skilled work requires skilled workmen. Americans are now without peer in the military arts; to prevail against our current enemies, we must attain equal excellence in diplomacy.


Rediscovering diplomacy, professionalizing it, developing doctrine to coordinate other instruments of statecraft with it, and training to get better at it are essential components of the grand strategy for combating Islamic terrorism that we require. There is no doubt that we can do this. The only question is whether we will.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Los Angeles, California

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