If you cannot name your
enemy, how can you defeat it? Just as a physician must identify a
disease before curing a patient, so a strategist must identify the foe
before winning a war. Yet Westerners have proven reluctant to identify
the opponent in the conflict the U.S. government variously (and
euphemistically) calls the "global war on terror," the "long war," the "global struggle against violent extremism," or even the "global struggle for security and progress."
This timidity translates into an inability to define war goals. Two
high-level U.S. statements from late 2001 typify the vague and
ineffective declarations issued by Western governments. Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld defined victory as establishing "an environment where we can in fact fulfill and live [our] freedoms." In contrast, George W. Bush announced a narrower goal, "the defeat of the global terror network" – whatever that undefined network might be.
"Defeating terrorism" has, indeed, remained the basic war goal. By
implication, terrorists are the enemy and counterterrorism is the main
But observers have increasingly concluded that terrorism is just a tactic, not an enemy. Bush
effectively admitted this much in mid-2004, acknowledging that "We
actually misnamed the war on terror." Instead, he called the war a
"struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free
societies and who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the
conscience of the free world."
A year later, in the aftermath of the 7/7 London transport bombings, British prime minister Tony Blair
advanced the discussion by speaking of the enemy as "a religious
ideology, a strain within the world-wide religion of Islam." Soon
himself used the terms "Islamic radicalism," "militant Jihadism," and
"Islamo-fascism." But these words prompted much criticism and he backtracked.
By mid-2007, Bush had reverted to speaking about "the great struggle
against extremism that is now playing out across the broader Middle
East." That is where things now stand, with U.S. government agencies
being advised to refer to the enemy with such nebulous terms as "death
cult," "cult-like," "sectarian cult," and "violent cultists."
In fact, that enemy has a precise and concise name: Islamism, a
radical utopian version of Islam. Islamists, adherents of this well
funded, widespread, totalitarian ideology, are attempting to create a
global Islamic order that fully applies the Islamic law (Shari‘a).
Thus defined, the needed response becomes clear. It is two-fold:
vanquish Islamism and help Muslims develop an alternative form of
Islam. Not coincidentally, this approach roughly parallels what the
allied powers accomplished vis-à-vis the two prior radical utopian
movements, fascism and communism.
First comes the burden of defeating an ideological enemy. As in 1945
and 1991, the goal must be to marginalize and weaken a coherent and
aggressive ideological movement, so that it no longer attracts
followers nor poses a world-shaking threat. World War II, won through
blood, steel, and atomic bombs, offers one model for victory, the Cold
War, with its deterrence, complexity, and nearly-peaceful collapse,
offers quite another.
Victory against Islamism, presumably, will draw on both these
legacies and mix them into a novel brew of conventional war,
counterterrorism, counterpropaganda, and many other strategies. At one
end, the war effort led to the overthrow of the Taliban government in
Afghanistan; at the other, it requires repelling the lawful Islamists
who work legitimately within the educational, religious, media, legal,
and political arenas.
The second goal involves helping Muslims who oppose Islamist goals
and wish to offer an alternative to Islamism's depravities by
reconciling Islam with the best of modern ways. But such Muslims are
weak, being but fractured individuals who have only just begun the hard
work of researching, communicating, organizing, funding, and mobilizing.
To do all this more quickly and effectively, these moderates need
non-Muslim encouragement and sponsorship. However unimpressive they may
be at present, moderates, with Western support, alone hold the
potential to modernize Islam, and thereby to terminate the threat of
In the final analysis, Islamism presents two main challenges to
Westerners: To speak frankly and to aim for victory. Neither comes
naturally to the modern person, who tends to prefer political
correctness and conflict resolution, or even appeasement.
But once these hurdles are overcome, the Islamist enemy's objective
weakness in terms of arsenal, economy, and resources means it can
readily be defeated.