Home The Washington Diplomat November 2007 Brookings Expert Advocates Overhaul Of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy

Brookings Expert Advocates Overhaul Of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy


President Bush is fighting the wrong war—that’s the message from Philip H. Gordon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who says there are compelling alternatives to the president’s strategy against terrorism that are more faithful to America’s historic traditions, are more likely to attract domestic and global support, and are far more likely to succeed.

“Six years after the start of the war on terror, Americans are less safe, our enemies are stronger and more numerous, and the Middle East, the war’s battleground, is dangerously unstable,” said Gordon, who offers his alternative U.S. foreign policy in a new book, “Winning the Right War: The Path to Security for America and the World.”

“The administration is fighting the wrong war,” Gordon told The Washington Diplomat. “It’s fighting against a single enemy, when the enemy is extremely diverse. It’s putting its faith in military power, when ideology, intelligence and diplomacy and homeland security are more important. It’s dividing the American public and alienating the world when national unity and international legitimacy are vital. It’s focusing on a tactic—terrorism—when the real issue is how to address the political, diplomatic, social and economic factors that lead people to become terrorists.”

Gordon, who served as director of European affairs at the National Security Council, is a leading expert on U.S. foreign policy. He has authored or co-authored a number of books on international affairs and U.S. foreign policy, and he has taught at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington as well as at INSEAD in France and Singapore.

Gordon has watched the U.S. political debate with mounting frustration, especially as some insist that Bush’s strategy on terrorism is the only viable approach. He strongly disagrees and feels it is important to present an alternative to the status quo.

As a first step, according to Gordon, it is critical to properly define the enemy and identify the challenges the United States faces. He is sharply critical of Bush for lumping together a host of groups and threats into a single enemy—when, in fact, many of these groups do not cooperate with each other and may even be at war with one another.

Specifically, Gordon blasts the president for conflating the threats posed by the Sunni al Qaeda network, Shiite Arab extremist groups such as Hezbollah, the Shiite Persian state in Iran, secular Sunni autocrats in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Islamist group Hamas, as well as the secular Palestinian group Fatah.

“Terrorism is a threat, but there is not some axis of evil,” Gordon said. “It’s not a unified, monolithic threat. As we eventually learned in the Cold War, if we are smart, we can divide our adversaries and benefit from that.

“Al Qaeda, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah are different threats. We would do ourselves well if we realized these are different groups with different interests rather than are just part of one war. Lumping them together into a single, undifferentiated enemy violates all principles of good strategy.”

Gordon argues that Bush’s strategy has not paid enough attention to the root causes of terrorism, which include social and personal humiliation in the Islamic world, and he denounced the president for continuing to make sweeping—and unproven assertions—that the main motivation of terrorists is opposition to freedom and democracy.

According to Gordon, Americans can find both inspiration and a broad policy prescription by reviewing the U.S.’s Cold War policies. Although those policies were not perfect, for nearly half a century, they gave rise to a country that was patient, worked with allies, preserved its core values, and projected hope and confidence.

The Cold War, Gordon added, provides an instructive metaphor for the current struggle against Islamic-based terrorism. Like the Cold War, the war on terror battles ideology not hostile armies. In addition, the war requires a multifaceted strategy with political, economic and diplomatic dimensions, depends on the cooperation of allies, and will take years, maybe decades, to win.

“Like the Cold War, this battle can be ultimately be won with a long-term strategy of maintaining our strength, containing the threat, choosing our battles carefully, and outlasting the enemy,” Gordon said. He noted that containment during the Cold War was a radical departure for U.S. foreign policy because it was based on the idea that there could be something other than war or peace, victory or defeat. Its central premise was that sometimes it is better to live with risk and attempt to reduce it than to try to eliminate it entirely.

“There is no such thing as 100 percent security, but Americans don’t easily accept vulnerability. For most of our history, we have been strong enough and isolated enough to feel invulnerable,” Gordon said. “We face a very serious threat. Certain measures to deal with it and certain measures to eliminate it would be worse than living with a measure of danger. The al Qaeda threat is serious, but it is not nearly as dangerous as the Soviet threat was.”

As the U.S. government continues to gear up for the war on terror, Gordon outlined several important objectives that the nation should try to accomplish. Crucially, the United States should aim to restore its moral authority with sound policies that reflect its best traditions, including an adherence to international law.

The country also needs to appeal to the hopes and dreams of people around the world. Gordon pointed out that one week of spending on the Iraq war in 2007 now totals more than .5 billion. This money could be used to fund strong public diplomacy efforts, especially in the Middle East, provide thousands of scholarships to American universities, expand the Peace Corps, and project American culture through libraries and centers around the world.

In addition, it’s critical to rethink homeland security, Gordon said, with a tighter focus on protecting nuclear and chemical plants, airports and seaports, and stockpiling antidotes against biological weapons.

The United States should also take bold steps to end its addiction to imported oil, a move that would bolster the nation’s economy and give it far more geopolitical freedom.

And we would be wise to rebuild frayed alliances, treating other nations with respect. “We clearly can’t fight terrorism alone,” Gordon said. “You can do things that other countries don’t agree with if you show them respect and show their positions respect. People aren’t prepared to accept gratuitous disrespect for them or their views.”

On the Middle East, Gordon said the United States should make a major commitment to stabilize the region, which is at the epicenter of the war on terror—and the first thing to do is prepare to end large-scale troop deployments in Iraq.

Next, he argues that the United States should set a clear date that is coordinated with Iraqis for the planned departure of U.S. troops in that country. This would end the debate about long-term U.S. motives in Iraq, send a message to the Shiite-controlled government that the U.S. military won’t fight its battles for them, and allow the United States to deal with a host of other pressing foreign policy challenges that have been neglected over the past five years. Gordon noted that the United States could keep some forces in Kuwait and other Gulf states to deter Iraq’s neighbors from unhelpful behavior in Iraq.

According to Gordon, the United States also needs to make a major push to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, offering a comprehensive plan that includes the following elements:

– create and recognize a Palestinian state based on June 1967 borders, modified by land swaps to allow incorporation of major Israeli settlement blocs into Israel;

– require full Israeli withdrawal of settlements and military forces from the territory of this new Palestinian state;

– secure a deal on Jerusalem that allows Israel to govern Jewish parts of the city and Palestine to govern Arab parts;

– recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state;

– negotiate a security deal that would allow Palestine to have a strong domestic security force, but not an army;

– settle the Palestinian refugee problem in a way that would allow refuges to return to the new Palestinian state but not to Israel, and then create an international compensation fund for loss or damage of property;

– deploy a multinational force to provide security to Israel and Palestine;

– secure an international agreement, codified in a U.N. resolution, that both Israel and Palestine are legitimate states and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over.

On another important front, Gordon said the United States should both contain and engage Iran—combining a renewed determination that Iran must pay a price for actions that place international security at risk along with an equal determination to engage Tehran seriously and hold out hope for future cooperation.

Although the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s nuclear ambitions are all urgent issues, Gordon cautioned that U.S. policies must pay much greater attention to developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey—nations that have been badly neglected by the United States in recent years.

To that end, Gordon said the U.S. government needs to develop a more balanced, multidimensional foreign policy in which counterterrorism is important—but is not the driving paradigm.

Gordon hopes the 2008 presidential campaign will include a vigorous debate on the nation’s foreign policy, and he believes that a new U.S. president can begin to win back the world’s confidence and trust.

“Instead of stoking fear, I’d like to see a president inspire confidence and say that our ideology and system are better. We should be confident that in the battle of ideas, people will not choose to live in a society modeled on life in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century. But rather they would prefer openness, democracy and freedom. We should be calm and confident and strong as we face these challenges.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.