Islamic Terrorism and the Power of Ideas
In a concise and clear manner, the former United States president, George W. Bush, said on the 11th of May, 2011, that United States foreign policy should continue to promote the ideas of freedom and democracy as a way to combat global terrorism.
"The long-term solution," Bush said, "is to promote a better ideology, which is freedom. Freedom is universal."
In the light of the current confrontation with the Islamic State terror organization, as well as with Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups, it is pertinent to assess to what extent Bush is right.
In order to defeat a totalitarian ideology, the United States needs to advance an alternative. It must challenge Islamism with a morally superior vision and with a pragmatically more enticing solution.
However, totalitarian ideologies have rarely been defeated solely by the peaceful counter-argument of alternative ideologies.
Napoleon's dictatorial version of the French revolution was finally defeated at the battlefields of Waterloo, following years of warfare and destruction.
Nazism was brought to an end by the Allied armies.
The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was defeated by fellow communists Vietnam.
Even Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was not brought to an end just by posing an alternative ideology, but by a policy of containment, combining a military, political, and economic dimension.
Equally, Islamic terrorism won't be defeated only by the inherently superior ideas of democracy and liberty.
Totalitarian ideologies are usually carried to success by an overwhelming sense of self-righteousness and brute force. Usually, only the counter-positing of an alternative vision and military power is able to challenge it. There can be no illusion about this. It is very difficult to defeat a totalitarian force only by resorting to the power of ideas.
To be sure, military power does not have to be deployed at each juncture in order to advance the cause of freedom and democracy. Nevertheless, it becomes much more difficult to neutralize a totalitarian force only by advancing arguments extolling freedom and democracy.
In this context one should be careful to distinguish between the use and the projection of military power.
The Soviet Union was defeated, among other things, by the projection of military power; Nazism by its actual use.
This is a point worth emphasizing.
A totalitarian force, however brutal, can be directed by rational leaders, such as the leaders of the Soviet Union or by irrational ones as Nazi Germany's. The first are more prone to be dissuaded by the projection of power; the latter, much less so.
Islamic terrorism belongs to the latter rather than the former. Thus, the mere projection of power may not be enough to convince those who lead the Islamic State or Al Qaeda and follow its precepts to desist from carrying out terrorist attacks; it may not be sufficient either with other Islamic groups who employ violence to advance their totalitarian cause.
To be sure, Bush believes that the ideas of freedom and democracy may persuade the possible recruits of Islamic terrorist groups not to engage in suicide attacks by placing a better, more appealing alternative. Further, he contends that "It is only when you do not have hope in a society that you join a suicide bomber team."
Unfortunately, Bush, whose instincts in this matter are right, seems to be a bit overly-optimistic.
Many individuals have joined suicide bomber teams coming from well-to-do family backgrounds and having the prospect of a hopeful future before them, including in the democratic, free world.
Fanatical ideology may not necessarily be the result of what we in the democratic world would consider as a lack of hope.
The virus of ideological fanaticism may spread quite easily among individuals who sincerely believe in its precepts. Belief, however fanatical, does not have to derive from a lack of hope.
The aim of U.S. foreign policy, then, should not be merely to place a better and more appealing alternative to those who lack hope, but rather to argue positively for a sociopolitical culture which is inherently good. Beyond that, only a combination of force, or its projection, alongside diplomatic, economic and legal means can achieve the containment and ultimate defeat of a totalitarian ideology.
It is difficult to fathom the idea that individuals may sincerely embrace a destructive ideology, one that venerates death. Unless we do, the ongoing battle against the totalitarian ideology of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and their likes will take much longer and entail more suffering.