I've been reluctant to jump into conversation about how to address ISIS and terrorism around the world. This weekend, however, I met someone who expressed the feeling that she just wanted to have some ideas about how to think and talk about it. So, in the spirit of creating a new conversation (see my introductory post), I'm going to offer up a new way to talk about this situation.
The world has faced Islamic extremism a number of times throughout the last decades. The U.S. (and others) has regularly led a military response with the intention of using overwhelming firepower and high tech weapons, mixed with ad hoc justice systems to forcefully remove leaders and groups from power. As they claim "mission accomplished," they have also left a trail of destruction and broken families in their wake. This creates the conditions for extremists to easily recruit the afflicted people around them to bring the fight back to the west and locally and to avenge the deaths from before. As these retaliatory movements gain steam the U.S. rallies the war machine again, and the cycle continues.
This article by Andrew Bacevich does a good job explaining why the strategy of ongoing war will not work concluding, "For a rich and powerful nation to conclude that it has no choice but to engage in quasi-permanent armed conflict in the far reaches of the planet represents the height of folly." He says that there must be a choice, so what is it?
Here is the new conversation that I propose: If we want to see a different outcome, we need to respond in a new way. This is a generational issue and we need to begin to see it that way. We need to begin to be a healing influence in the world.
Yes, there are often serious immediate problems that need to be addressed. I won't ignore the fact that sometimes a military intervention is necessary to confront and suppress the most aggressive acts of violence, but these military interventions need to be framed in a new context. The use of force needs to be seen only a small step before the real work begins. The real work needs to be long term broad-based support for the rebuilding of the countries that are being destroyed by these wars.
The message needs to be that the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Afghanis, et al. are our friends. Their dreams of peace for their families are the same as ours. The U.S. needs to use its influence to rally the world to support the health, education, and infrastructure in these countries. This support must come from a diverse community, be culturally relevant and respectful, and it must take a long-term perspective, addressing the already existing multi-generational trauma. This will be the hard work for the use, because it will require humility. We will have to face the fact that we don't have all the answers. We absolutely can't install our values, our culture, our political systems, etc. The arc of progress will need to be elicited from the actual communities that have been affected.
In other words, the U.S. needs to stop being the primary recruiting agent for Islamist extremism. We need to figure out how to stop being the enemy that everyone loves to hate, and start leveraging our influence to be an undeniable force for good in the world. When an al Qaeda or ISIS or future terrorist group tries to rally people to join them in a new terrorist attack against the U.S. or elsewhere, the response should be "Wait, but why? Look at all the good they've done for me and my family and my country," not "Of course, all they have brought me is destruction death."
If this feels outlandish, or utopian, remember that we've been in this cycle before. World War I created the conditions for World War II by leaving the Germans disgraced and destroyed. We broke that cycle with the Marshall Plan, where the U.S. took on the costs of supporting the rebuilding of the European countries broken by war. We simply need a new way of responding.