How the West can prevent Nice from becoming the 'new normal'

By: 
Peter Van Buren

HOURS after a truck plowed through a crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump outlined his policy against Islamic State: as president, he will seek a full declaration of war from Congress, the first such formal invocation since Pearl Harbor.

Trump was clear he would take the strategies of the post-9/11 era into a new administration. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, for her part, intends on "intensifying the current air campaign [and] stepping up support for local forces on the ground."

One of the two candidates will become the fifth consecutive American president to make war in the Middle East. Following the Nice attack, their French counterpart, President Francois Hollande, declared “We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil.”

Tough talk. The problem is that nothing these politicians have suggested will work.

Post-Nice, post-Brussels, post-Turkey, post-Paris, it is clear the last 15 years of the war on terror in general, and the last two against Islamic State in particular, have not accomplished much. No society can defend itself fully when any truck can be turned into a weapon of mass destruction.

No amount of curating social media will fully prevent disenfranchised people from becoming radicalized. Ramadi fell, Fallujah fell, Mosul will likely fall, Islamic State is being forced off Twitter, and then Nice still happened.

While necessary, military force and security measures are far from sufficient to defeat attacks from radicalized Islamic groups. A new set of strategies is needed.

The West must decide whether it wishes to tackle the problem at its core, or simply choose to live with a new normal where incidents like Nice will continue to happen.

Here is what should be considered.

– Understand the roots of Islamic attacks rest in part in the Sunni-Shi'ite divide, which the West helped fuel in arming jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and whose fuse the West lit in 2003 when it destroyed once-stable Iraq.

Sectarianism is a ready tool of recruitment; a significant number of the violent acts perpetrated globally take place inside the Muslim world.

At the same time, both sides of the divide recruit well off of the horror stories of Central Intelligence Agency torture; the continued existence of the prison at Guantanamo Bay; the fits of Islamophobia played out in Western refugee policy; and the French and American militarization of Islamic Africa.

Running alongside those issues is a fear among many Muslims that the goal of the West is not to defeat Islamic State, but to create a permanent state of war against Islam, all the while garrisoning the Middle East (the concern used to be more about taking Arab oil, but the point is the same.)

To strip away such easy recruitment themes, and to begin to chip away at memories of past injustices, the West must scale back its military presence across the Middle East and Africa, avoid starting new conflicts, and not expand current ones.

– Another driver of Islamic unrest is the unhappiness of many Muslim youth with the autocratic, secular governments in their homelands. The West must lessen its support for such governments and tamp down its fear of non-secular ones.

What Washington sees, for example, as realpolitik decisions to support the repressive Saudi government; remain in Bahrain, where the United States turns a blind eye to human rights in return for a naval base; or allow the Arab Spring to be crushed in Egypt as a military coup unseated the only democratically elected president in the nation's history, have not worked well in even the medium term. Same for supporting a string of corrupt governments in Baghdad.

The West must find rapprochement with the kind of conservative Muslim leadership (Iran, with a robust participatory component inside a fundamentalist theocracy, is an interesting example) that will someday come to the Middle East.

Much of radical jihadism is less about destroying the West than it is about changing governments at home; even 9/11 had – as its extended purpose – pulling the United States into Afghanistan to trigger a broader Muslim uprising across the region.

– Immigration from the Middle East is toothpaste out of the tube. It cannot be snaked back in by rough policies against refugees or by preventing Muslims from entering the United States. Western nations must assimilate their Islamic immigrants or bare the ongoing consequences of their disenfranchisement.

Islamophobia, law enforcement's discriminatory targeting of Muslims, and the rise of right-wing governments serving citizens anxious to trade their freedom for faux security, fuel the anger and sense of displacement of so-called lone wolves, and send them seeking the so-called solutions offered by Islamic State.

It is not about cleaning up Twitter. It is about chipping away at the conditions that make those 140 character messages so attractive.

This is, in the end, a long war of ideas that must take into account the tides of history moving across the Middle East. No one can stop every truck. But the West does have a chance at making it much less likely a man won't choose to get behind the wheel.

Peter Van Buren, who served in the State Department for 24 years, is the author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” a look at the waste and mismanagement of the Iraqi reconstruction.

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