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America's Fatal Flaw in the War on Terror: Underestimating the Jihadist Enemy

America's Fatal Flaw in the War on Terror: Underestimating the Jihadist Enemy

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Hillary Clinton recently gave a foreign policy speech in what seems to be part of her early groundwork for an eventual 2016 Presidential candidacy.  In a speech widely panned by conservatives and foreign policy hawks, the former Secretary of State called out for more “smart power”, specifically encouraging that in the pursuit of peace the United States should be,

Leaving no one on the sidelines, showing respect even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.”

The remarks led to outrage and were called “naïve,” and “irrational.”

But Clinton is correct, although, admittedly, not in the way she meant. One of the largest problems since the beginning of the “Global War on Terror” has been the inability of U.S. policymakers to adequately understand the nature of the threat posed.

We have not shown respect for our enemies as Clinton demands. Instead we have minimized them as a “tiny minority of extremists,” when in reality the imposition of Shariah law-the stated raison d’etre of jihadist groups everywhere- is supported by substantial percentages of Muslim populations throughout the Middle East, Southwest and southeast Asia, and by significant percentages of Muslims in the Europe and North America.  

We additionally fail to show respect by not taking our enemies and their ideas seriously. Instead we continuously assert-without evidence- that jihadist organizations, the members of Islamic State, Al Qaeda, etc. are ignorant of their own professed beliefs. We insist on this narrative even though the speakers in almost every video they produce- from the lowest AK-47-wielding foot soldiers to the highest-ranking propaganda spokesmen- remain utterly consistent in the quotation of traditional Islamic scripture, orthodox exegesis and the citation of canonical shariah jurisprudence regarding their actions.

It is we who are ignorant.

Clinton is correct as well in saying we lack empathy, the ability to put ourselves into the shoes of our opponents and understand their mindset sufficiently to know their goals, their dreams, their nature. Empathy is not something that can be outsourced to “cultural experts,” or regional allies. Instead of understanding, we super-impose our own values upon others, assuming that the sorts of things that would motivate us (access to clean water, governmental corruption, poverty etc.) automatically motivate our opponents.

As a result the United States finds itself flat-footed in attempting to comprehend, and respond to the Islamic State-for example- whose efforts to re-establish a Caliphate ruling all Muslims everywhere seems ludicrous to us, but represents a genuine dream held by millions of people around the world. That remains true, even though some of those people may also disagree with ISIS’s leader Abubakr Al-Baghdadi as the head of it.

Instead of genuine empathy, understanding the enemy as he understands himself, Clinton is proposing mere sympathy, an expression of apologetic support because it’s the “polite thing to do.”

Instead of getting into the minds of our opponents, we prefer to see them as aberrations. This is admittedly easy enough to do, with beheadings, forced conversions, sexual slavery and suicide bombings. These things seem alien to us, but they are not aberrations. They are the acts of real people with a different, but equally real, world-view. Viewing the enemy as a mere “aberration” does not lead to victory.

In the Orson Scott Card novel “Ender’s Game,” a piece of military sci-fi which remains part of the USMC Commandant’s Professional Reading List, the main character Ender, a young boy who is being prepared to lead the combined forces of the entire human race against an implacable alien enemy, says:

I don’t know anything about them, and yet someday I’m supposed to fight them. I’ve been through a lot of fights in my life, sometimes games, sometimes- not games. Every time, I’ve won because I could understand the way my enemy thought. From what they *did*. I could tell what they thought I was doing, how they wanted the battle to take shape. And I played off that. I’m very good at that. Understanding how other people think.

What Ender goes on to point out, and what Clinton’s “smart power” formulation misses, is that while understanding is essential to victory, it does not inevitably lead to peace.

Contrary to Clinton’s belief, it may be the case that a genuine understanding of the enemy- an examination of his doctrine and intentions that respects the seriousness of his commitment and the nature of his cause- does not lead to peace. It may lead to recognition that the enemy’s foundational beliefs rest on views of human nature, freedom, the relationship between God and men, and how society is meant to be organized which are fundamentally different from our own.  

Hillary Clinton is right. To exercise “smart” power calls for understanding our enemies. But Clinton is wrong if she thinks that understanding the enemy obligates us to acquiesce to them. 


Kyle Shideler is the Director of the Threat Information Office at the Center for Security Policy.


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