THINKING ABOUT UNFINISHED BUSINESS - TERRORISM & ISLAMISIM:
The War on Terror revolves around two points - Terror as a tool of unconventional and asymmetric warfare
and the specific ideological terrorist threat we face in the form of militant Islamism
.( For a quick primer on terrorist groups go here
Terrorism, as I have suggested on H-Diplo, needs to be relegated to a moral category under international law with genocide, slavery, piracy and ethnic cleansing. Something similar is already in the national security strategy of the Bush administration but little progress has been made. Essentially we have to end the idiotic aphorism of " One-man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter ". Not true - there are differences between legitimate guerrilla movements and terrorists under international law. One attacks legitimate military targets the other civilians to no direct economic or warfighting purpose.
Recommendation: This is relatively easy because most of the actions of terrorists violate the Geneva Convention and most states - even those at odds with US on other issues like Russia, China, India and Iran - suffer to some extent from terrorist outrages from time to time. We can start by swiftly trying captured al Qaida terrorists via military tribunals for violating the Geneva Convention and executing them with the same determination that the British had in stamping out piracy and the slave trade in the 19th century. Secondly, we have to stop " looking the other way " as with the IRA and treat terrorist groups hitting other nations, even unfriendly ones, with a common standard and extradite them when these terrorists fall into our hands. Third, we should deny regimes working through terrorist groups " plausible deniability " - if Hezbollah kills American citizens then Teheran has committed an act of war and must pay a price. This nonsense started with detente where the US politely adhered to the fiction that the Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhoff, Red Army Faction etc were independent of the East bloc regimes that sponsored them and ultimately the KGB. There is no reason to continue denying the reality of state sponsorship especially when our own allies cut deals to let terrorists operate on their soil so long as they hit America elsewhere.
Islamism is an ideological movement and that clearly needs to be understood. Removing running sores like US troops in Saudi Arabia and Israeli settlements in the West Bank will help mute the appeal of the Islamists but it will not reconcile them to the West any more than than the Sudetenland satisfied Hitler's appetite. These people are myth-making totalitarians and their grievances are independent of actual historical ones because they are not seeking to redress but to destroy and rebuild according to their own visionary precepts. In short, Islamism is akin to Leninism and National Socialism in that it is an ideological movement that is really international in character - it has a very powerful memetic appeal that resists a strictly rational analysis.
While the international character of the Communist movement is generally recognized ( except by academics sympathetic to North Vietnam, Cuba and the Sandinistas) we forget how the fascist idea in the thirties infected most of the Eastern European countries, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, the Kuomintang Chinese , the Japanese militarists and the Pan-Arab Baath. Islamism is similar - it is a radical political program growing out of the fundamentalist Safayists that spawned the old Ikhwan. It has broad appeal less to the poor than to sensitive Muslim intellectuals searching for " why " answers and gains adherence by appearing to have historical momentum in addition to moral certainty.
Recommendation: It is not enough to treat Islamism by attacking the terrorist cells of al Qaida or even the assets of the Terror-masters who sponsor them though it certainly helps to have them appear on the defensive, scattered and failing vis-avis the United States. Islamism needs to be ideologically discredited in Muslim eyes the way Nasserism now looks to be a dead-end road which means a battle of ideas needs to be joined in addition to the counterterrorist efforts. Competing value systems - specifically ones completely incompatible with Islamist values - need to be injected into the sterile Arab-Muslim intellectual world in force. Free-market economics, Lockean individualism, democracy, equality of the sexes, freedom of expression, free flow of uncontrolled information - need to be targeted at the youth of the Arab-Muslim world as a memetic alternative to both the one-party state and the Islamist revolutionaries. We do not need unqualified successes and conversion of Arab states to Jeffersonian republics in order to be effective but we do need to counter Islamism with a positive message of reform.