Terrorism

How Trump Could Finally Win the War on Terror

Unlike Bush and Obama, the president-elect can describe the enemies for what they really are.

Telling it like it is.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer

When Donald Trump becomes president next month, he will inherit a long war that risks becoming a permanent one.

George W. Bush began it after 9/11, when he called it the "war on terror." Barack Obama has tried and failed to end it. "Democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war," he warned in his last major national security speech Monday. In this spirit, he laid out a series of principles he believed should guide America's counterterrorism efforts.

For the most part they make good sense. Keep the war lawful. Keep the threat in perspective. Drone strikes are the least worst option for taking terrorists off the battlefield. That kind of thing.  

But when it comes to understanding the aims of the enemy, Obama makes the same mistake as his predecessor. "The whole objective of these terrorists is to scare us into changing the nature of who we are and our democracy," he said this week. This is the president's version of George W. Bush's "they hate us for our freedoms." 

On this point, Trump has an opening. The truth is that the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other jihadists do not hate us just because of our freedom. Their objective is not to provoke an over-reaction where America ceases to be a democracy. It's much more straightforward. These groups want to force the non-Muslim world -- what they call the Dar al-Harb, or the house of war -- to submit to Islamic rule. Jihadists seek conquest.

Trump doesn't know a lot about foreign policy. But he does understand this. Obama and Bush do as well. But they also deliberately tried to define the enemy in the long war as un-Islamic, as murderous charlatans who defame a great religion.

This was a smart strategy. Many Muslims who believe the state should penalize adultery and blasphemy oppose terrorism. Also, states like Saudi Arabia have been important tactical allies against terrorists, particularly in recent years. Yet, ideologically, the Saudis and other Gulf states are still committed to a vision of political Islam for their own societies. An ideological war waged recklessly would alienate them.

At the same time, the impulse to narrow the definition of the enemy has ironically exacerbated the risks of permanent war. Obama should know. He authorized the raid that killed the head of al-Qaeda's snake, Osama bin Laden. After this, he tried to unwind the long war, arguing the threat had receded. And yet he leaves office with U.S. forces fighting al-Qaeda's affiliates, spinoffs and fellow travelers all over the Muslim world.

For a period, Obama's narrow war led to a bizarre phenomenon. When new outfits sprung up in Libya after the fall of its dictator, waving the black flags of jihad and promising to impose strict Islamic law in their areas of control, Obama's White House did nothing. When the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical parties took control of Egypt's government after the country's first real elections, the Obama White House saw an opportunity to advance U.S. interests by working with them.

This miscalculation was an example of what Andrew McCarthy, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the first case against the World Trade Center bombers, calls "willful blindness." By defining the enemy in un-ideological terms, Obama was unprepared to take on groups like Libya's Ansar al-Sharia or the Islamic State before they became powerful enough to seize territory. By trying to end the long war, Obama let threats gather and prolonged it.

There is of course a risk in taking the ideological approach too far. If, say, Trump begins purges of suspected Muslim Brotherhood operatives inside the U.S., he will be trampling on constitutional protections for American citizens. He will also be sowing the seeds of his own political ruin, because this is the kind of thing that will provoke fierce opposition from the courts, press and many in his own party.

If Trump is not careful in how he defines the threat, he risks alienating allies he will need in the fight against the terrorists. Finally, Trump would be making a mistake if he gave leaders like Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a blank check. It's true that Sisi has called for a reformation within Islam, which is much needed. But he has also failed to distinguish between his legitimate political opposition and the radicals that briefly thrived in his country after the revolution. This will not end well for Sisi. As Egypt's history proves, the Muslim Brotherhood thrives as a secret society. Its more radical adherents murdered Anwar Sadat when the group was largely underground.

But Trump nonetheless has an opportunity. He can, for example, make it clear that America will be a safe haven for anyone in the Muslim world facing persecution from radicals, whether they are marked as blasphemers or from minority faiths such as Coptic Christians. Trump can also align more closely with leaders like Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to build a quiet and professional counter-terrorism capability for the region.  

Trump could also use America's influence in Iraq and Afghanistan to encourage secular and reformist politicians, instead of embracing, as both Bush and Obama did, any confessional parties that also gave lip service to opposing terrorism. He could use the bully pulpit to encourage Western civil societies to adopt newspaper editors, lawyers, human rights activists and others under threat from radicals in their own faith. Meanwhile, Trump could wind down what remains of Obama's first term agenda to build bridges to Muslim Brotherhood parties that have shown no real interest, with the exception of Tunisia, of accepting pluralism.     

There are risks in embracing an ideological war against radical Islam, as opposed to a long war against terrorists. But it has the advantage of defining conditions for victory. The long war will end when Islamic fascism is defeated and discredited. What's more, Trump can set America on this path without engaging in the cycle of regime change and nation-building he has explicitly rejected. Not a bad plan for a guy who keeps asking why America doesn't win anymore.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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