Losing the War of Ideas: James R. Robbins

There must be a lot of high-fiving and Allahu Akbar-ing going on in Raqqa and Mosul. The Islamic State group, once just a rag-tag group of young men with suicide vests and a dream, was voted the story of the year by the annual Associated Press poll of US. editors and news directors.

This is a big win. Not only did the Islamic State group take the top spot, but four more of the top 10 stories are either directly or indirectly related to it or its activities: the Paris attacks, mass shootings, terrorism worries and Europe’s migrant crisis. You can also throw in climate change, if you are among those dreamy eccentrics who think there is a direct relationship between terrorism and global warming. You know, like the Defense Department.

They have come a long way from what President Barack Obama called the JV team almost two years ago. The Islamic State group is now a major presence on the international stage, commanding territory, attention, and contributing to a refugee crisis that is destabilizing Europe and disrupting American politics.

One reason for its success is that its members take themselves seriously – more so than the U.S. government does, apparently. When they talk about building their caliphate, they mean it. Their state is not recognized by the U.N., but they do not even recognize international law. They make threats, try to carry them out, and sometimes succeed with deadly consequences. They said they would infiltrate Europe among the Syrian refugees and conduct attacks, and they did in Paris. They said they would use their strategic reach and inspirational force to foment domestic attacks in the United States, and they did in San Bernardino.

The public is noticing. In the wake of the San Bernardino attacks, terrorism shot to the top of public concerns in several polls. Obama downplays such concerns because he believes that the Islamic State group does not pose an “existential threat” to the United States. But there are reasonable levels of alarm for rising threats below those that challenge the very existence of the country. And it is also worth noting that if the Islamic State group could threaten American survival, it would.

The significant flaw in U.S. strategy is Obama’s unwillingness to challenge the Islamic State group’s ideology. He would rather treat the problem as primarily a military matter. This was evident when the president said the Islamic State threat was “contained” the morning of the deadly attacks in Paris. Obama’s industrial-age comment about territorial containment showed he is fighting a brick-and-mortar war when what we need is a war of ideas.

The Islamic State group’s center of gravity, its source of power, is its mobilizing ideology based on an extremist vision of Islam. The president says that we can best defeat this by presenting “better ideas.” However, simply saying that our society is better, happier and more prosperous is as obvious as it is ineffective. The Islamic State group does not care. Its movement is a standing refutation of the ideals of western liberalism. They really do hate us for our freedoms.

The primary American approach has been defensive, so as not to offend anyone in the Muslim world. This was true during the George W. Bush administration as well, but has been amplified to an absurd degree in the Obama years. Saying the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, for example, is unrealistic, and untrue. This view saddles the government with a glaringly false premise that makes it impossible to challenge the group on the ideological level.

An important symbol of U.S. failure on the ideological front is Obama’s obdurate determination to close the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay. The administration argues that keeping it open is dysfunctional because it is a symbolic recruiting device for terrorists. However, it was the strident, over the top critics of the facility like Obama who handed the Islamic State group that recruitment tool. And releasing terrorists is a potent boost to terrorist manpower by itself. Dozens of those let go from Guantanamo have returned to terrorism, some of them in leadership positions. Closing the facility altogether, meanwhile, would hand the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations a major victory, reaffirming their narrative of legitimacy and power.

The United States will continue to lose the war of ideas unless it formulates an effective strategy to challenge the Islamic State group’s core ideology on its own terms. Until we do, expect the Islamic State to continue to dominate the headlines, which for terrorists is winning 90 percent of the battle.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of “The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero.”

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