Defeating ISIS softly?

An article argues that part of the way to defeat ISIS is by “soft power”.

The piece opens “As we grapple with the continuing challenges of the Islamic State, it is clear that significant military efforts will be required. There are times when hard power has to be at the center of a campaign, especially against an apocalyptic cult that believes in burning, drowning, and torturing its victims while selling children into sexual slavery, among other horrors. In terms of the military campaign, there are a series of clear steps that we should collectively undertake: building a robust command and control network; increasing intelligence sharing across the coalition; doubling the scope of the bombing campaign; upping the level of cyberattacks; cutting off financing; formalizing a special forces task force; putting in 15,000 troops to train local forces; conducting a multi-axis ground campaign against Mosul with Kurdish Peshmerga from the north and Iraqi security forces from the south; and drawing on the nascent Arab security coalition led by the Saudis to conduct ground operations in Syria”.

He goes on to write “In their seminal 2007 report, Professor Joseph Nye and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage correctly pointed out that to solve the biggest problems we need a mix of hard and soft power — which they termed “smart power.” Of note, that commission included members like former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; Sen. Jack Reed, now the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. Mac Thornberry, now the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; and Marine Gen. Tony Zinni, a former Centcom commander. The most important line in that report is simple: “Soft power is the ability to attract people to our side without coercion.” That is the contest we are currently losing, and bombs and troops can’t comprehensively defeat the Islamic State without it.

He then goes on to see what a smart power operation would look like with the first point accepting the high cost, “at one point during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States was spending close to $1 billion dollars per day. A soft power campaign against the Islamic State will not be as expensive, but it will be costly. Job creation, education, medical diplomacy, and infrastructure redevelopment could run up to $200 billion annually”.

The second point he raises is the need for an international strategy for the region “Under the aegis of a big international organization like the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross, convene the international soft power community. This would include national organizations like USAID, the British Department for International Development, and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency; the largest international humanitarian organizations (Doctors Without Borders, Feed the Children, Red Cross/Red Crescent); and other international nongovernmental entities (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and regional agencies). This should be convened early in 2016 to produce a roadmap, donor pledges, and an accountable steering committee”.

Needless to say this omits the need for, and problems of, getting Iran and Saudi Arabia and a host of other states to agree on anything, which he neatly brushes over. His third point is the need for a counter narrative, “It is not axiomatic or an obvious given that what we believe in (democracy, liberty, freedom of expression, gender and racial equality) will sell best in that marketplace. So we need to show why we believe they are the right ideas, and that will require using better means of delivery (Internet, television, radio, leaflet); being able to respond rapidly to changing events (reshaping messages, highlighting successes on our side and failures on the part of the extremists); and providing more culturally attuned offerings (film, novels, poetry, games). The key to competing in the marketplace of ideas will be showing a vision of life that is positive and fulfilling (and in accordance with mainstream Islam). Not an easy sell, but impossible to achieve if we don’t try”.

This overlooks the vast differences between the Middle East and Western democracies where these ideas have taken centuries to take hold. He seems to think that people are simply unaware of them. This indeed might be true but he does not take into account the power of religion in the region or incorporate this into his plan.

He ends citing the importance of jobs “Not everything will be solved by employment, of course, but as an alternative to active jihad, the chance to build a life — steady employment, a healthy family, a financially viable community-based circle — will help keep some away from the fight. In any given insurgency, about one-third of the participants will be hard-core adherents who will not be won over by alternatives, no matter how cleverly presented or richly resourced; but about one-third are very winnable when presented with an alternative (e.g. a job), and another third will waver but conceivably could be weaned away or prevented from engaging to begin with”.

He ends “All of this will be expensive and hard, but compared to the alternative — simply relying on bombs or guns to defeat the Islamic State — it will be more efficient and effective, especially over the long term. We need hard power now to strike the Islamic State; but over time we need to bring soft power into the mix. And that is the only choice for dealing with the turbulence emanating from the Arab world today”.


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