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The Countering Violent Extremism Conference: Obama Fiddles whilst Rome Burns

Over the last six months, the Obama administration has moved through all the expected stages of a “war on terror”.

Indeed, it is remarkable how similar the evolutionary steps in the administration’s thinking have mirrored those of the George W. Bush administration’s time in office. The first of these steps has been strategic confusion and a crisis in policymaking. This took place in late August 2014, when the President declared publically that the U.S. had neither a strategy for the Middle East and North Africa, or for dealing with the Islamic State. Step two, became evident just three weeks later. In a hastily put together strategy designed to save face, the U.S. proposed an international coalition that will “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This was in effect the outlining of a “counter-terrorism” strategy. It proceeded on the basis that there were a finite number of terrorists that could be targeted through airstrikes, the support of opposition movements inside Syria and Iraq, and the use of broader preventative counter-terrorism instruments.

Step three in the Obama administrations evolutionary thinking has been to recognize the more ideological nature of the threat. This has come to mirror the G.W. Bush administration’s realisation that the simplicity of a “war on terror” was problematic. Indeed, as President Bush himself admitted in August 2004, “We actually misnamed the war on terror. It ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world”. As the threat from IS has expanded in Syria and Iraq, along with new affiliates in Egypt, Libya and beyond it has become abundantly clear that U.S. airstrikes alone will not suffice in what has become a violently perverse game of whack a mole. Within this context, and in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe, the White House’s current Countering Violent Extremism summit is just the latest evolutionary step in the administration’s highly problematic strategic thinking. However, the brute reality is that this summit is largely meaningless, and has really been adopted so the administration can at least be seen to be doing something. This is a doctrine of “strategic patience in action”, which is tantamount to showing how the U.S. is “fiddling whilst Rome burns”.

The notion that the U.S. is not at war with Islam is one that has now been asserted for over fourteen years. As such, President Obama reiterating this point adds nothing to the current debate, other than drawing uncomfortable attention to the so-called “Muslim community” through the prism of terrorism. What the Obama administration’s strategy is failing to recognize on the other hand is its failure to set out a long term and holistic strategy for dealing with the social, economic and political grievances that are fueling alienation, and allowing ISIS to recruit fighters from all over the world. The U.S. is not for example confronting allies in the Gulf who have used a sectarian discourse to strengthen their own domestic positions against protesters, and in their regional cold war with Iran.

The U.S. is not standing up against human rights violations in Egypt and Bahrain where popular protests showed signs that democratic transitions in the region are possible. Diverting attention from these issues is useful, and it also sidetracks questions over the consequences of de-Ba'athification in Iraq in 2003, which has supplied a wealth of expertise and leadership to the Islamic State. In short, the U.S. is once again engaged in an indefinite extension of American led military engagement as a result of a collapsing security architecture that it helped build throughout the twentieth century. As greater level of spiraling violence spread across the region, it would probably be more fruitful to look at the consequences of U.S. action and the ways in which the U.S. can develop a wider regional strategy, and not just an ISIS strategy. The revolutions that swept across the region in 2011 showed us a progressive vision for the future of the Middle East.

Time in Washington would be better spent working on how to direct resources, capabilities and goals in help to realize this positive vision, rather than hastily putting together a poorly organize and superficial conference so the administration can be seen to be doing something. Without substance the conference merely signals just how vapid policy in Washington has become.


Dr Oz Hassan

Department of Politics and International Studies

19 February 2015