Talking to the Enemy: An Alternative Approach to Ending Intractable Conflicts

AJTalkEng (via Flickr)
A young boy participates in antigovernment protests outside Sana’a University in Yemen in February 2011. The word “irhal,” or “leave” in Arabic, is written on his forehead. The author argues that perhaps the best long term approach to combating violent extremism is to identify shared values with the Arab Spring and use these to build relationships and encourage nonviolence.

In Brief

For much of the last decade, I have done fieldwork with would-be martyrs and holy warriors from the Atlantic shore of Morocco to the remote forests of Indonesia and from Gaza to Kashmir. The accounts of my experiences with aspiring killers for God and martyr wannabes, and the empirical studies that resulted from these encounters, are intended to place violent extremism in a larger evolutionary, historical, and psychological context: to show that terrorists, their actions, and their ways of thinking and socializing are not so unusual in the human saga, not nearly as alien or fearsome as many of our politicians, pundits, and much of the public generally believe or pretend.

Religious devotion and moral outrage alone do not determine who becomes a terrorist (in one Gallup survey, 7 percent of Muslims worldwide—about 100 million people—expressed sympathy with Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks, but only a few thousand have committed to violence). Nor do social networks—though these do play a critical role. The story is, in reality, far more complex: In what follows, I will focus on the moral virtues, or sacred values, that drive seemingly intractable political and cultural conflicts, and how we might leverage such values to reduce violence, bring about reconciliation, and foster revolutionary change toward a more inclusive and less violent world.

Unfortunately, U.S. national security strategy continues to primarily rely on two flawed post–World War II paradigms: a theoretical “rational-actor” model of decision making based on cost-benefit assessments (which are blind to the moral imperatives that sustain conflict and spark revolution) and an applied “foreign-aid” model of government-to-government military and development aid, which tends to support the patronage networks of corroded regimes rather than the aspirations and idealism of youth. These approaches will fail us as we look to respond to the yearnings of the Arab Spring or to resolve today’s most volatile conflicts—such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute or the standoff with Iran over that country’s nuclear program. In a world in which our most dangerous conflicts are driven by what the players believe to be moral imperatives, scientific understanding of how to best deal with the sacred has never been more critical.

Key Concepts

  • Wars, revolution, and terrorism are not the products of “rational” cost-benefit decision making. Rather, the choice to kill or die for an idea or for others is often rooted in sacred values, such as devotion to God or country or dignity and honor.

  • This reality is not reflected in U.S. foreign policy, and our attempts to ignore the sacred in our diplomacy, or to leave it for last, often make matters worse.

  • Instead, it may be possible to make real headway in ending seemingly intractable conflicts by encouraging difficult symbolic gestures, like formal apologies.

  • Meanwhile, as the Arab Spring movement continues, we can seek to encourage some sacred values, such as the belief in nonviolence, over others.

“I and thousands like me have forsaken everything for what we believe.”—Video message from Mohammad Sidique Khan, jihadi perpetrator of the July 7, 2005, London Underground bombing

“One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.”—Twitter message from Ander Behring Breivik, right-wing, anti-Muslim perpetrator of the July 22, 2011, Oslo–Utoya Island massacre

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union shattered the brief illusion of a stable, bipolar world, most of humanity has been engaged in a massive, media-driven political awakening. Many, especially the young, are searching for respect and meaning, and they are forming their identities in global political cultures through peer-to-peer relationships. One such culture—originally centered in the Americas and Europe—is rooted in the concept of human rights. Jihad represents another political culture: thoroughly modern and innovative despite its atavistic roots. Jihad offers the pride of great achievements for the underachieving: a global web of brave new hearts for an outworn world tearing at the seams. Its attraction—to youth, especially—lies in the moral simplicity of its call to passion and action on humanity’s behalf. Anyone is welcome to try his hand at slicing off the head of Goliath with a cardboard cutter.

This kind of group morality does not operate simply from an ideological canon. It is almost always embedded and distributed in social networks of “imagined kin”: Brotherhoods, Motherlands, Fatherlands, Homelands, and the like. The greatest predictors of sustained commitment to sacred causes, including ongoing youth-driven uprisings and terrorist trends across Eurasia and Africa, are not levels of religious or ideological education or mere strength of belief. What seems critical is belonging to action-oriented networks—of families, friends, and fellow travelers—especially when these young people are in transitional stages in finding meaning and a place in life (e.g., immigrants or students in search of friends, mates, jobs).1

Young jihadis are powerfully bound to each other—they are often campmates, school buddies, and soccer pals—who become die-hard bands of brothers united in what they perceive to be a thrilling and heroic cause. In my book Talking to the Enemy,2 I describe how the “jihadi bug” developed in Hamburg among a group of Middle Eastern buddies who became the core of the 9/11 plot; how Al Qaeda’s viral movement spread among self-styled “Afghan Alumni”—Southeast Asian veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War—who bonded through friendship, marriage, and soccer to blow up tourist spots and hotels in Bali and Jakarta; how ten boys from the same “al-Jihad” soccer team came to be Palestinian martyrs, while their parents were unaware of what was going on; and how an Internet tract, “Iraqi Jihad,” culminated in the organized anarchy of the Madrid train bombers, whose core group consisted mostly of petty criminals with no religious education or organized direction, all originating from one small Moroccan neighborhood. (Some commentators cast doubt that the “Iraqi Jihad” text actually influenced the Madrid bombers,3 but there is considerable circumstantial evidence that it did.4,5)

Although understanding social networks is necessary to identifying the paths to and away from violent extremism, studies by my research teams indicate it is not sufficient. It is also essential to understand the moral imperatives that drive people to great exertions toward one political goal or another. Thus, I have argued before national security staff at the White House and elsewhere that it is critical to understand how “sacred values,” such as devotion to God or country or dignity and honor, can motivate “devoted actors” to act irrationally in ways out of proportion to likely prospects of success.6

The Moral Imperative for War and Revolution

Models of rational behavior predict many of society’s patterns in terms of “opportunity costs.” And, to be sure, scholars have even made some progress in predicting war or revolution in terms of expected utility models,7 and they have learned to use institutional, economic, demographic, and other material measures (e.g., regime type and a leader’s years in office, ethnic diversity and minority rule, income level and distribution, infant mortality and youth bulge) to forecast the instability that leads to ethnic wars and to political turmoil in Muslim countries.8 But there is still a lack of understanding of the seemingly irrational behavior that drives intractable wars and conflicts, or of the moral imperatives that produce enduring revolutionary change.

The prospect of crippling economic burdens and many deaths does not necessarily sway people from their positions on whether going to war, or opting for revolution or resistance, is the right or wrong choice. One possible explanation is that people are not weighing the pros and cons for advancing material interests at all, but are rather using a moral logic of sacred values—convictions that trump all other considerations—that cannot be quantified in straightforward ways.9

Most of the theories and models that researchers use to study conflicts like the wars in Iraq and Libya,10 or the fight for or against Al Qaeda, assume that leaders as well as their rank and file make a rational calculation: if the total cost of the war is less than the cost of the alternatives, they will support war. But our experimental and survey research in the field suggests those models are insufficient. Our studies with “holy warriors” and people who support terrorist groups, and with political leaders and populations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Pakistani-Indian dispute over Kashmir, the Iranian-American nuclear standoff, and other seemingly intractable conflicts, reveal that participants ignore cost-benefit calculations, relying instead on sacred values.11

In one set of studies designed by Morteza Dehghani and Rumen Iliev, for example, we found that a relatively small but politically significant portion of the Iranian population believes that acquiring nuclear energy (but not necessarily nuclear weapons) has become a sacred value in the sense that proposed economic incentives and disincentives backfire by leading to increased and more emotionally entrenched support.12 Here, it appears that sacred values can emerge for issues with relatively little historical background and significance when they become bound up with conflicts over collective identity—the sense of “who we are.”


Scott Atran
The Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel.

Meanwhile, the key justification that President Obama evoked in going to war in Libya (a case in which America’s survival and safety was not directly threatened) was that failure to act “would have been a betrayal of who we are.” The message, to remind ourselves and the world, was that America protects people who are menaced with annihilation for wanting freedom.

By contrast, Obama’s erstwhile presidential rival, Senator John McCain, countered that while this moral imperative may be laudable, “the reason why we wage wars is to achieve the results of the policy that we state.” Yet the inconsistency between war as a moral imperative versus political policy runs far wider and deeper than the Libya conflict. It goes to the heart of human nature and the character of society. For despite the popular delusion that war is, or ought to be, primarily a matter of political strategy and pragmatic execution, it almost never is.

Sacred Values

Recent work in social and cognitive psychology and in anthropology suggests that sacred values may be critically involved in many of our decisions,13,14 as well as in sustaining seemingly intractable cultural and political conflicts.15 Even in objectively economic contexts, such as when playing one-shot economic games, people will make what seem to be morally motivated and personally costly decisions to obey social norms or to punish those who do not.16 In potentially violent situations of intergroup conflict, sacred values appear to operate as moral imperatives that generate actions independently, or all out of proportion, to their evident or likely results, “because it is the right thing to do, whatever the consequences.”17

For example, regardless of the utilitarian calculations of terror-sponsoring organizations, suicide terrorists appear to act as devoted actors,18 willing to make extreme sacrifices that use a “logic of appropriateness”19 rather than a calculus of likely costs and benefits. We also have suggestive evidence from neuroimaging studies that people tend to process sacred values in parts of the brain that are devoted to rule-bound behavior rather than utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits.20

Across history, as in the contemporary world, there is clear evidence that deteriorating or rapidly changing economic conditions may initiate a cascading series of social events that produces a political crisis. One working hypothesis of my research group is that such a crisis leads to a revolutionary collapse of the prevailing power—and to fundamental political, economic, or social change—only when action becomes morally motivated by a shift in core cultural norms or sacred values.

Consider the American revolutionaries who, defying the greatest empire of the age, pledged “our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor” in the cause of “Liberty or Death,” where the desired outcome was highly doubtful. The U.S. Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” No reasonable study of human history up to the time of the American Revolution would have supported such an outlandish declaration. Indeed, human rights—including equality before the law and freedom to pursue happiness—are anything but inherently self-evident and natural in the life of our species.21

Slavery, cannibalism, infanticide, racism, and the subordination of women are vastly more prevalent across cultures and over the course of history. It was not inevitable or even reasonable that conceptions of freedom and equality should emerge, much less prevail, among genetic strangers. These, when combined with faith and imagination, were, as a matter of historical fact, originally legitimized by their transcendent “sacredness.” Human rights were not discovered, but invented for social engineering of a kind unprecedented in human history. The American and French Republics began to render real the fictions of individual and equal rights through new mores, laws, and wars and not through providential revelation or investigation of the workings of nature.22

As Osama Hamdan, the ranking Hamas politburo member for external affairs, put it to me in Damascus, “George Washington was fighting the strongest military in the world, beyond all reason. That’s what we’re doing. Exactly.” And I do believe he truly meant it.23 It is also the sentiment of many young Muslims who preach nonviolence as a sacred principle of the Arab Spring, as in Yemen’s Youth Revolutionary Council, calling for “basic human rights, equality, justice, freedom of speech, freedom of demonstration, and freedom of dreams!”24 As Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad said to Robert Axelrod and me in a recent conversation, “I believe in nonviolence, not just as a tactical strategy, but as a value of principal, as the only way we will ever convince the Israelis, and ourselves, that we are ready for a permanent peace of equals.”25 Of course, in the absence of economic improvement, emerging democratic movements and civic values may well falter or collapse and more belligerent mores could arise.

The World’s Symbolic Knot: How Words Could Help End War

Understanding how adversaries compromise to end conflict is a theoretical problem with enormous moral and political consequences. And no small credit for the steep decline in interstate conflicts since World War II must go to the upsurge in “businesslike” negotiations based on give-and-take. But for the conflicts of today, the dominant rational-actor model needs to be augmented by a new paradigm of devoted actors, such as suicide terrorists, who are willing to make extreme sacrifices for their sacred values.

Conventional wisdom suggests that negotiators should either leave sacred values for last in political negotiations or try to overcome them with sufficient material incentives. Our empirical findings and historical analysis suggest that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, offering to provide material benefits for giving up a sacred value actually makes settlement more difficult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. Leaving issues related to sacred values for last only blocks compromise on otherwise mundane and material matters.26

But there is another way: in wide-ranging talks with terrorists and their supporters across the world, and in interviews and surveys in global hot spots with leaders and their people, I have found clues for how we might leverage the “unreason” of religion and sacred values to end conflict.

Sacred values provide the moral frame that delimits which material trade-offs and agreements are possible. For the most part, members of a moral community—be it a family, ethnic group, religious congregation, or nation—implicitly share their community’s sacred values. Thus, there is usually no need to refer to these values or even to be conscious of them when pursuing trade-offs or negotiations within a community. In most cases, sacred values become highly relevant and salient only when challenged, much as food takes on overwhelming value in people’s lives only when it is denied. Direct threats to a community’s sacred values are most apparent when different moral communities come into conflict. These conflicts cannot be reduced to secular calculations of interest but must be dealt with on their own terms, a logic very different from the marketplace or realpolitik.


Scott Atran
A Hamas election poster. Standard surveys that ask whether, or to what extent, people in Muslim countries support democracy and Islam can be misleading, in that what many Muslims and Arabs mean by “democracy” may be different from what Westerners mean.

Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Muslims across the globe refer to as “the Mother of All Problems” and which may well be “the World’s Symbolic Knot.” Rational cost-benefit analysis says the Palestinians ought to agree to forgo sovereignty over Jerusalem, or the claim of refugees to return to homes in Israel, in exchange for an autonomous state encompassing their other pre-1967 lands because they would gain more sovereignty and more land than they would renounce. They should support such an agreement even more if the United States and Europe sweetened the deal by giving every Palestinian family substantial, long-term economic assistance. Instead, Jeremy Ginges and I repeatedly found in studies involving thousands of people that the financial sweetener makes Palestinians more opposed to the deal and more likely to support violence to oppose it, including suicide bombings.15,27 The Israeli settlers also rejected a two-state solution that required Israel to give up “Judea and Samaria” or “recognize the legitimacy of the right of Palestinian refugees to return” (with the agreement not actually requiring Israel to absorb the refugees). But they were even more opposed if the deal included additional long-term financial aid for their resettlement or a guarantee of living in peace and prosperity.

Fortunately, our work also offers hints of another, more optimistic course. Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Remarkably, our survey results were mirrored by discussions with political leaders. Mousa Abu Marzook (the deputy chairman of Hamas) said “no” when we proposed a trade-off for peace without granting a right of return. He became angry when we added the offer of substantial American aid for rebuilding: “No, we do not sell ourselves for any amount.” But when we mentioned a potential Israeli apology for 1948, he brightened: “Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning. It’s not enough because our houses and land were taken away from us and something has to be done about that.” His response suggested that progress on sacred values might open the way for negotiations on material issues, rather than the reverse.

We got a similar reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu shortly before he became prime minister of Israel for the second time. We asked him whether he would seriously consider accepting a two-state solution following the 1967 borders if all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, were to recognize the right of the Jewish people to an independent state in the region. He answered, “OK, but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their anti-Semitic textbooks.”

Later, when I asked if Prime Minister Netanyahu might have a question for Hamas politburo chairman Khaled Meshaal (whom Netanyahu previously had tried to poison), whose answer might change Israel’s attitude toward Hamas, I was asked to pose the following question: “Is there any possibility that Hamas could ever recognize Israel, not necessarily now but in the future, under whatever conditions?” When I put the question to Mr. Meshaal in Damascus in December 2009, he answered that his people had been in jail for 60 years and he was not about to discuss recognizing the rights of his jailer until they had been freed from prison. (Needless to say, this response did nothing to change Israel’s attitude toward Hamas.) Then, I asked Mr. Meshaal if he might have a question for the Israeli prime minister, whose answer might change Hamas’s attitude toward Israel. His response: “Will Israel ever recognize the harm it has done to the Palestinian people?”

Making these sorts of wholly intangible symbolic concessions, like recognition of a right to exist or an apology, simply does not compute in any utilitarian calculus. And yet the science says they may be the best way to cut through the knot.27 There are also historical precedents. For example, in the lead-up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that largely ended sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, Protestant Unionists and the Catholic IRA each offered apologies for the harm done to civilians on the other side. These gestures greatly facilitated negotiations.28 But many agree that the conflict neared its end when, on a state visit to Ireland in May 2011, Queen Elizabeth expressed sincere regret for those who had suffered for centuries of conflict between Britain and Ireland.29 This was a symbolic follow-up to British prime minister David Cameron’s unequivocal apology the year before for the brutality of British troops in the shooting of unarmed civil rights protestors and bystanders in Derry, Northern Ireland, on January 30, 1972—an incident that generated critical popular support for the Provisional IRA’s campaign of violence.30

The Challenge of Youth: Hopes and Heroes

In 2007, I researched attitudes related to political violence among youth in the tumbledown neighborhood of Jemaa Mezuak in Tetuan, Morocco.2 The Mezuak had provided five of the seven young men who blew themselves up when cornered by Spanish police for their role in the 2004 Madrid train bombing, as well as several others who had volunteered for suicide missions in Iraq. One of the questions I asked was, “Who’s your hero? Who do you want to grow up to be like?” Number one was a soccer star; number two the fictional film character the Terminator (with no awareness of any relation to the then-governor of California); and number three, Osama bin Laden. But in mid-November 2008, when I repeated the survey, Obama had surpassed Osama as the youths’ top political role model.

The research suggests two insights about the moral life paths these young people may choose, independent of any personality traits: their hopes and aspirations for the future are fairly malleable and may oscillate between wildly different paths, and whether a young person follows a path toward political violence or peaceful participation may depend in large part on what path his friends at the time may choose. (Of course, a lack of possibility for political change will adversely bias the choice.) “Happiness is martyrdom” can be as emotionally contagious to a lost youth on the Internet as “Yes, we can.” That is a stunning and far-reaching development that we have not yet begun to master or steer.


Rumen Iliev and Richard Morin/Solutions
The values and issues “most important” to democracy and to Islam for Arab Springers in Morocco (rounded in increments of 10 percent). Data were collected by the author in the fall of 2011.

In the long run, perhaps the most important counterterrorism measure of all will be to provide alternative heroes and hopes that are more enticing and empowering than any material offerings. (Jobs that help to relieve the terrible boredom and inactivity of immigrant youth in Europe and the underemployed throughout much of the Muslim world will not alone offset the alluring stimulation of playing at war.) It is also important to provide alternative local networks and chat rooms that speak to young people’s inherent idealism, sense of risk and adventure, and need for peer approval. It has to be done with the input and insight of local communities, and it must be chiefly peer-to-peer, or it won’t work: deradicalization, like radicalization itself, engages mainly from the bottom up, not from the top down. This, of course, is not how you stop terrorism today, but how you do it for tomorrow.

At a White House meeting in March 2007, a woman from Vice President Cheney’s office told me in the sternest tough-guy voice she could muster that the way to stop young people from choosing the path to radicalization is to bomb and kill them in their lairs. (Never mind the impracticality of this, seeing as how the places I had talked to her about were in the middle of several large European and allied cities.) I should have replied with a few words of wisdom from Abe Lincoln: In a speech during the heat of the Civil War, Lincoln spoke of Southern rebels as people just like any others. An elderly lady, a staunch Unionist, upbraided him for speaking sympathetically of his enemies. “Why, madam,” Lincoln replied, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” There are in fact only two ways to defeat enemies. First, by exterminating them. Has anyone heard a peep out of Carthage for the last 2,000 years? Second, by turning enemies into friends. How, precisely, to make our enemies our friends is our most difficult political challenge—without having to fear or fabricate a common enemy to do it (as when Reagan mused to Gorbachev that a Martian invasion might finally bring humanity together).

At least for would-be jihadis, the recent Arab uprisings may be doing the job of destroying our enemies for us, and mostly without us. Spearheaded by communication-savvy youth, these revolutions have almost destroyed Al Qaeda’s central narrative and support. Egyptian protestors accomplished in 18 days what Al Qaeda failed to do in more than 18 years: topple a core regime of the Arab world. And they did it without using violence against America or anybody else. Only if the Arab Spring’s oft-twittered quest for “Dignity and the Freedom to Dream and Do!” implodes can Al Qaeda hope for a comeback.

Perhaps the best long-term approach to countering violent extremism is to identify shared values with currents of the Arab Spring and determine how they may be used to build relationships and encourage others in ways favorable, or at least not hostile, to our way of life. Such an approach must reflect the reality we face, with interwoven religious, cultural, political, economic, psychological, and military and policing processes. Surveys and polls consistently reveal that majorities throughout the Muslim world prefer governments that uphold both “Islamic values and principles,” including dignity (qarama) and social justice (al-‘adalah ijtima‘iah), and democratic principles, including exchange and tolerance of opposing views, political representativeness and responsibility, and human rights. The emerging union of Islam and democracy is new to the Muslim world and foreign to most non-Muslims. And we must engage these phenomena in ways that challenge and educate our own ways of thinking, lest we needlessly support, suppress, or ignore what we do not understand.

Democracy and Islam

In the fall of 2011, I did fieldwork among young Moroccan Springers in two recurrent hot spots: Jemaa Mezuak (a rundown barrio of Tetuan, home to five of the seven principal plotters in the 2004 Madrid train bombings who blew themselves up when cornered by police, and to several suicide bombers who died in Iraq) and Sidi Moumen in Casablanca (a densely populated shantytown, home to terrorists who carried out bombings in 2003, 2005, and 2007). Defense of family and country, honor, and dignity represented 83 percent of the values that people said they would be willing to sacrifice their lives for, and 52 percent of the values that people were willing to sacrifice good jobs for. Unsurprisingly, all Islamist groups, whether militantly extreme or liberal and moderate (like Turkey’s JDP and Morocco’s PJD), preach such values as inviolable, nonnegotiable, and basic to “democratic Islam.”

But what, really, do people mean by “democracy” in this context? To test the idea, I asked people what values and issues they deemed most important to them and to “others like you.” Based on the frequency of values mentioned, I fixed a list of 50 values and asked the next sample of people in the two neighborhoods to sort the values into groups that “go together by their nature.” A statistical analysis of the aggregate results revealed a “cultural consensus,”33 with three largely distinct clusterings of values that overlap at their extremes: Islamic values (brotherhood, charity, respect, honor, tolerance, pardon, altruism, etc.), family issues (children’s and women’s rights, divorce and polygamy, etc.), and a mixture of issues relating to democratic institutions (transparent elections, representative government, independent judiciary, etc.) and economic problems (employment, education, housing, nepotism, etc.).

Particularly striking (on a multidimensional scaling) is the strong separation between values traditionally associated with Islam and those institutional principles of democracy that Western political scientists and policymakers emphasize, for example, “nation building.” Yet, when I asked people what they think the important principles for democracy are, there was a strong overlap with listings for Islam. Of the 50 items, only seven items were mentioned in more than two-thirds of responses to Islam or to democracy (figure 1).

These results suggest that standard surveys that ask whether, or to what extent, people support democracy and Islam can be misleading. As with differing concepts of “human rights” held by Western versus Communist countries during the Cold War, what many Arabs and Muslims mean by “democracy” may be importantly different from what Westerners mean. If so, policymaking that simply assumes a convergence or consensus regarding notions of democracy is liable to fail or backfire. Additionally, the people I interviewed interpreted human rights as “collective” or “community” rights, maintaining that individual rights should be respected only to the extent that they do not infringe on collective rights. One implication is that militant Islamist groups can coherently claim to favor “true democracy” as possible only under Islamic law, whereas Western notions of democracy are denounced as false and pernicious.

Rethinking Post–World War II Foreign Policy Paradigms

The National Strategy for Counterterrorism issued by the White House in June 2011,31 although colored by awareness of the momentous events unfolding, continues to chiefly rely on two interrelated post–World War II paradigms that are insufficient in today’s world: (1) a theoretical rational-actor model of decision making based on cost-benefit analysis; and (2) an applied foreign-aid model of government-to-government military and development assistance.

I have already discussed the problems with the rational-actor model. Regarding the foreign-aid model: In the regional context of North Africa and the Middle East, continued adherence to this paradigm arguably props up corroded patronage relationships that tend to centralize power, thus reinforcing remnants of the authoritarian regimes that Arab populations—which have majorities of deeply frustrated but aspiring young people under 30—now massively reject. The alternatives are not simple, straightforward, or clear. This is especially so in places where the government is weak and democratic forces are not yet strong. But we must earnestly begin to think and act in ways that do not risk further alienating, and thus undermining, popular sentiment against groups that encourage violence or exclusive control over national life.

U.S. and EU development aid, which is largely channeled through the patronage networks of ruling regimes, has focused on materially improving the lot of ordinary people in the region by encouraging “market integration” and “entrepreneurship.” In fact, a random perusal of proposals submitted to and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) clearly reveals that most money awarded by the U.S. government for development assistance goes toward paying the overhead of the U.S. organizations administering the aid. These same organizations tout their access to the families and private patronage circles of the old guard (senior ministers and military leaders) in the countries they seek to support. Much of the remainder goes for local kickbacks and padding once money leaves U.S. hands. This process reinforces cronyism and corruption, and the people of the region are left with very little, if anything, in the end.

Although many commentators note the problems that the notorious “youth bulge” across the Arab world poses for the security of weak, failed, and authoritarian states, few highlight the potential upside of a generation of “baby boomers” itching to help their society progress. But, so far, Western aid has done little to address the yearnings of youth who comprise a majority of these countries’ potentially productive workforce and future leaders. Instead, in Morocco, for example, there is a greater focus on “local governance” initiatives that involve first training local officials to initiate “good citizenship” programs among youth and women. Unfortunately, in terms of actual dollars spent and effort made there is less evidence of engaging youth and women than of helping cliques of local contractors help themselves (inflating salaries and time worked, pandering to the king’s relatives and other influential people by renting their property for offices at high rates, greasing officials to arrange meetings and sign-offs on doctored reports, etc.).


Maggie Osama
Protests in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo in April 2011.

Our best shot at enhancing the democratic forces of the Arab Spring and undermining violent extremism is to promote civil society from the ground up and not through top-down government programs. This means directly engaging collective forms, distinct from those of the state or market, that promote uncoerced action around shared interests and purposes: for example, NGOs, grassroots community groups, women’s organizations, trade unions, social movements, advocacy and self-help groups, professional and religious associations, and so forth. This is consistent with our own values and with what social and political science suggests is strongly complementary to long-term prosperity, peace, and stability.32 Democratic institutions alone (e.g., constitutional rights, elections) do not guarantee democracy, peace, or stability; but when they are supported by civil society there is more opportunity for political expression, less risk of chaotic transitions, and thus greater constancy and coherence in the struggle against violent extremism.

The course of subtly promoting civil society rather than pouring more money and arms into the fray carries significant risks: there is no guarantee, nor even much evidence at present, that Arab Spring movements will produce democratic institutions. But the main alternative, which basically continues past policies of government-to-government military assistance and development aid, has too often contributed to the centralization and corruption of national power and alienation of much of the population. What is clear is that the ongoing Arab Spring uprisings retain a strong democratic impetus, even if youth-driven democratic forces are increasingly challenged (as in Egypt) by potentially powerful coalitions of convenience between remnants of the old guard (the military and security apparatus) and traditionally well-organized Islamists with doubtful democratic intentions (the Muslim Brotherhood).

How, then, might the United States better assist the new democrats of the Middle East to shore up mass support and marginalize the appeal of violent political and religious extremism?

  • Minimize overt military involvement and government-to-government aid. In the current climate, such policies reinforce massively unpopular and corroded regimes.
  • Side with democratic forces over the autocrats. Civil society provides the best chance at stability. It reduces the risk of chaotic transitions and allows constancy and coherence in the struggle against Al Qaeda.
  • Engage America’s creative, productive, and efficient nongovernmental groups. These include faith-based organizations, universities, entertainment media, and small businesses, which may be better able to finance, explore, and establish local initiatives by working with various “revolutionary” youth councils, tribal elements, religious organizations, merchants, and women’s groups in support of organic movements for a more inclusive and tolerant government.
  • Let third parties carry the heavy water. It is probably unwise for the United States to attempt to direct, or even too strongly embrace, and thereby strangle, democratic forces in the Arab Spring. A significant measure of cultural ignorance is inevitable without years in the field. We probably cannot understand others well enough to manage their societies, or even fully engage them on their own terms. We will get things wrong, create resentment by playing favorites, and end up as scapegoats. Neither should we directly try to counter Al Qaeda’s narrative in the realm of Islamic theology. It is not our history, nor is it a familiar mode of thought, and we will lose.
  • Encourage support for some sacred values rather than others. For at least some of the important players in the Arab Spring, the principle of nonviolence has taken on aspects of a sacred value. The United States should encourage diffusion of their message, so that nonviolence may become a dominant virtue over violence (as ultimately happened with the U.S. civil rights movement).

So now let us leave behind the dictators, kings, and princes, and turn to encouraging that great moral quest, which is surely more consistent with our own sacred values.

Responding to the Arab Spring

Perhaps the key set of world events since the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 is the Arab Spring, whose consequences may not be clear for years, possibly decades. The Arab Spring creates a brief opportunity for America to demonstrate moral leadership, by gearing efforts against violent extremism toward a “democratic dynamic” that creates the conditions for people’s movements to lead their societies. This can be a less costly but more promising framework for countering violent extremism than nation building, enhancing national and global security while reducing military and foreign aid expenditure.

Let us consider the following:

  • What is the risk to U.S. national security if we continue to deal with and support remnants of the authoritarian old guard versus youth-driven democratic forces in the region?
  • Even if the dictators and autocrats leave power, there is a strong prospect that government institutions, including military and security forces, will—at least in the short term—continue to be in the hands of a former leader’s family, tribe, and friends. If so, then endemic cronyism, corruption, and concern with local power advantages will vitiate any attempt to eradicate extremist groups, or even contain them.
  • For, if the democratic core of the Arab Spring grows, then continued U.S. support for remnants of the old guard could well marginalize our influence in the region, including our influence in keeping Al Qaeda and associates from planning attacks against our homeland and undermining regional democratic movements.
  • And if the Arab Spring implodes, then we may see the resurgence of a viral movement that has recently suffered two crippling blows: its charismatic leader is dead, and its central narrative of “change only through violence” is being discredited—for now—by the nonviolent success of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere.

The critical issues thus become:

  • What can the United States do to keep the hope of the Arab Spring alive, without too strongly embracing, and so strangling, the movement in perhaps another “nation-building” project?
  • What can the United States do to keep the pressure on extremist groups, without too strongly relying on, and so reinforcing, remnants of the political and military old guard?
  • How do we deal with the diverse and popular nonviolent Islamic groups and currents in the region in order to ensure that they remain nonviolent and tolerant of representative government and individual rights?

Recommendations for a change in course in dealing with foreign forms of political and religious extremism that take violent aim at our society should be geared to a policy of “less is more,” that is, less costly and more effective:

  • CUT short-term and long-term costs of U.S. military and foreign aid.
  • LIMIT U.S. military and ideological involvement to a minimum, consistent with support for—rather than management or direction of—local, national, and regional democratic aspirations and initiatives.
  • SHIFT from top-heavy government-to-government planning and programs to establishing relationships with local actors and groups, including relationships involving America’s most influential, efficient, and productive nongovernmental national resources: U.S. universities, entertainment media, small-business groups, and faith-based organizations.
  • INCREASE America’s moral standing, influence, and leadership.


I thank the National Science Foundation and the research offices of the Department of Defense (AFOSR, ONR, ARO) for their support.