One of the most important parts of President Obama's landmark speech on May 23 at the National Defense University is receiving little attention. It is his call for "a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism," his recognition that extremism is fed, in part, by "underlying grievances and conflicts," which need to be accurately understood and addressed as an integral part of U.S. security policy. It is a welcome articulation from a president who deserves credit for beginning to formulate a long-term vision for alleviating terrorist threats.
But this agenda entails clashes with other goals Obama outlined, raising deep contradictions, some featured within the text of the speech itself.
For his new strategy to succeed, the commander in chief must face — and adjudicate — those conflicts. He must demand strategic thinking, which has been missing so far, from his senior civilian leadership, and he must resist the temptation to prioritize the short-term requirements dictated by the use of force.
"For all the focus on the use of force," Obama declared, "force alone cannot make us safe." Yet, almost every major interagency debate on security policy — over the decision to intervene in Libya, for example, or to hit Osama bin Laden's hide-out — has concentrated obsessively and almost exclusively on how many American men and women in uniform would go where and do what, not on the context or consequences.
And every time an imperative related to the use of force, such as U.S. payments to Afghan President Hamid Karzai meant, presumably, to aid the CIA's program of targeted killings, has contended with an imperative related to reducing the wellspring of terrorism — such as countering the corruption driving Afghans into the arms of the Taliban — the force-related imperative has won out.
Obama's speech implies other such conflicts.
Referring to the May 2, 2011, raid that killed Bin Laden, Obama cited damage done to the "important partnership" between the U.S. and Pakistan. He credited "intelligence collected with Saudi Arabia" for helping stop the bombing of a cargo plane over the Atlantic. And he highlighted U.S. military support to Yemeni security forces.
Yet two of those allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, may have done more than any nations on the planet to radicalize Muslims over the last several decades. Official Saudi funds, as well as preachers and financing from semi-official charities, have built and staffed extremist madrasas on the Arabian Peninsula, throughout South Asia and beyond, changing the mentalities of millions. Top Pakistani military officials have long cultivated and manipulated violent extremists as instruments of national policy.
It's time to ask how U.S. alliances with these countries have inadvertently enabled their radicalization campaigns.
Moreover, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and such institutions as the Yemeni security forces are responsible for many of the "underlying grievances" that have prompted some people to channel their outrage and frustration into acts of violent extremism in the region and beyond.
Pakistan, despite the hope generated by its recent elections, has been throughout its history a profoundly undemocratic country, as Saudi Arabia remains today. A tiny clique in both countries has abusively and often illegally extracted their nations' resources for personal gain. Calling such governments our friends and shrinking from conditioning that friendship — the kind of blank check we provided Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak in the past and are providing Bahrain's autocratic ruling family today — can seem appropriate in the short term. After all, we need that Bahraini harbor for our 5th Fleet, don't we? Didn't Mubarak honor Egypt's peace with Israel?
But many such choices later come back to haunt us. The wellsprings of extremism can't all be shrugged off as general economic malaise or high unemployment, as Obama's speech suggested. What has enraged many Muslims about United States policy is their perception — too often accurate — that Washington has empowered and enabled abusive, predatory regimes that have exacerbated such ills. The reasons for doing so have usually been connected to the ongoing or potential use of force.
In his effort to shift these priorities, Obama is right to flag the need for more resources for foreign assistance and diplomacy. But these aren't problems that can be solved just with a bridge or a schoolhouse; more humanitarian aid isn't sufficient. Even more important is the strategic picture. What's been missing are comprehensive options and scenario planning from the national security staff and the State Department, working with other civilian agencies. The president should demand this input.
Obama is also right to remind Americans that our national security requires the dispatch of crack diplomats into hostile environments and to emphasize the need for modesty in crafting a U.S. response to the Arab Spring. But to best counter the roots of extremism over the long run, U.S. policy should support bedrock principles of democracy — institutional checks and balances, nonpartisan administrative bodies and security services, and protection of individual rights — not a party or an individual who happens to have won the latest election.
Designing such policy options and ensuring their implementation in the face of competing priorities and sometimes recalcitrant bureaucrats requires more than talented personnel and additional resources. It requires a special kind of grit.
For too long, programs aimed at alleviating "underlying grievances" have operated on the margins of U.S. security policy, out of offices excluded from key interagency debates. Never, in my experience, have such policy options been called for when they were missing from the conversation. Never have they been the determining factor when hard choices were made. That must change. To implement his new security agenda, Obama, and presidents who come after him, will have to exercise the moral courage to reverse these priorities.