Dickey: Bush and Al Qaeda's Lessons of War

"Ideology" is a word that President George W. Bush likes to use almost as much as "terrorist." In presenting the lack-of-progress report about Iraq yesterday, he justified the negligible and negative results of the surge in troops by arguing "we are at the beginning of a great ideological conflict." In fact, he used variations on that word and that theme a dozen times in an hour. But if you listen to the president, it's hard to tell just what he means.

As Bush puts it, the struggle is "between those who yearn for peace and those who want their children to grow up in a normal, decent society, and radicals and extremists who want to impose their dark vision on people throughout the world." But the sad irony is that this is precisely the argument, in reverse, that Al Qaeda and its many spinoffs use to justify their fight. And Al Qaeda's people, as leading counterinsurgency strategists admit, make their case much more effectively.

An idea, of course, is only the beginning of an ideology, but if you don't have a firm grip on it, you're going to have trouble with all the rest. And the basic idea used by Osama bin Laden's fellow travelers to justify their actions is that they're under attack and on the defensive everywhere just because they're Muslims.  They could raise their families in peace and with dignity if it were not for the "dark vision" of the Bush administration and the forces of godless globalization that it represents.

The proof of American intentions, they argue, lies in Washington's support for the Israeli occupation of Arab lands, as well as its own occupation of Iraq. And it's not like the people of the Middle East, Africa and Asia haven't seen this sort of thing before—and hated it deeply. In much of the world, Bush's rhetoric rings less of freedom than the rationalizations of the old British Empire.

As Byron Farwell wrote 35 years ago in his book "Queen Victoria's Little Wars," the more far flung a great nation's interests, the more pretexts for war present themselves: protecting one's citizens or businesses; repelling an attack you provoked in the first place; filling "a power vacuum" to "restore law and order"; preventing another country from expanding its empire, or suppressing a rebellion "by those who did not understand the benefits of British rule and were ungrateful for the blessings of English civilization bestowed upon them." President Bush often seems as puzzled by the ungrateful Iraqis as Queen Victoria must have been by the Afghans or, for that matter, the Boers. But, of course, in those days the people Rudyard Kipling sometimes called "the Fuzzy-Wuzzies" didn't crash airplanes into London's towers.

Obviously, if the United States is going to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world, it's going to have to distance itself from the notion of occupation-as-liberation. But as the White House has made clear, it's not about to do that. When Bush talks about leaving Iraq, even today, he talks about "beginning" to exit, never finishing. So there's an evident trend among many of the best thinkers in the counterterrorist trenches to deal with Al Qaeda's ideology as if it were divorced from any core idea.

Their focus increasingly is on jihadist methodologies and details, doctrine and culture, of the kind represented in the writings of Abu Musab al-Suri and others. Stephen Ulph, a research associate with the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee that "we have failed to take the jihadists seriously, intellectually and culturally, and as a result their corrosive influence is progressing unopposed."

Ulph argues that a detailed map of the enemy's thinking is needed "to pinpoint and exploit internal weaknesses in their ideology, to know who your friends are and ally ourselves accordingly, to understand our own vulnerabilities at home and protect ourselves from the slow erosion of our commonly held values, which alone can safeguard our peace and our freedoms."

But what's known so far about the terrorists' ideological map is, to say the least, discouraging. In a much-passed-around essay published a few weeks ago, "New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflict," David J. Kilcullen—an Australian who is the senior counterinsurgency adviser to the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus—lays out the enemy ideologues' advantages:

They integrate "terrorism, subversion, humanitarian work, and insurgency" to support propaganda that influences global and local audiences.
They've been able to create grass-roots movements pulling together people from many different countries into a whole that's greater than the parts, "with dispersed leadership and planning functions that deny us detectable targets."
They exploit the speed of modern communications to mobilize people much faster than any government bureaucracy can do.
They play on deep-seated beliefs founded in "religious, ethnic, tribal or cultural identity" to create what Kilcullen describes as "extremely lethal, nonrational reactions."
They exploit safe havens on the ground and in cyberspace—any place that is ungoverned or ungovernable—as well as ideological, religious and cultural "blindspots" and legal loopholes.
They use high-profile symbolic attacks that provoke nation-states into overreactions that damage the states' long-term interests.
They mount "numerous, cheap, small-scale challenges to exhaust us by provoking expensive containment, prevention, and response efforts in dozens of remote areas."

Kilcullen's recommendations for how to address this situation are eminently sensible. He suggests that we think less in terms of international relations and more in terms of anthropology. (Although, I have to say, I've rarely met a cop or soldier who didn't cringe at the word.) He also raises the issue of grand strategy—should the West be thinking of "rollback" or "containment"—without quite prescribing one or the other.

In a conflict that's much more like a global counterinsurgency than a conventional war, government priorities have to change, says Kilcullen. "About 80 percent of effort should go toward political, diplomatic, development, and informational activity," he writes, with only about 20 percent going to the military. "At present," he notes, "the U.S. defense budget is approximately half of total global defense spending"—that is, half of all the money spent on defense by every government in the world combined. The U.S. armed forces employ about 1.68 million uniformed members. But the State Department only has about 6,000 Foreign Service officers. As Kilcullen notes, there are more musicians in America's military bands.

For Al Qaeda, propaganda is not an afterthought; it is the core of the strategy. The bombings, terrorism and insurgent activities all feed into its "information war." "Contrast this with our approach," says Kilcullen. The United States typically plans "physical operations" first, then crafts "supporting information operations to explain our actions."

Which brings us back to President Bush, alas. Kilcullen does not criticize him, but you can draw your own conclusions. The invasion and occupation of Iraq that Bush now describes as the beginning of this ideological war was carried out, in fact, with utter disregard for the ideological consequences. Bush literally decided to shoot first and ask questions later. So, as he continues trying to explain, as an afterthought, he finds no other solution than to keep fighting, whether or not progress is made on the ground, much less in the war of ideas.