October 16, 2006 | National Interest Online

A War, or Un-War?

Dear Dr. Pham:

In the spirit of constructive debate to advance American foreign policy to navigate “through the shoals of the coming years” and “safely steer the ship of state”, I'd like to address some of your comments in your review of my book Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.

First, you write that I fail “to address the reality with which policymakers have to deal: regardless of how it became that way, Iraq today is the central front in the War on Terror.” What you're really saying is that you don't agree with my analysis that Iraq is not the central front in the un-war. Fair enough. But that's not the same thing as me not addressing the issue. In fact, Chapter 2 “A Dangerous Distraction” makes the case for why Iraq is not the central front. And the latter part of Chapter 3 “Clearing the Decks for War” addresses why I believe it is in our strategic interests for the un-war to exit Iraq sooner rather than later. You believe that we need to win in Iraq. I believe that, at best, we might achieve a tactical victory but that ultimately trying to prevail in Iraq is a recipe for strategic defeat vis-à-vis the real enemy: Al-Qaeda and radical Islam.

Second, you write that my “proposition that 'moderating' U.S. support for both 'apostate' Muslim governments and Israel would remedy the hatred of Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups towards the United States is left disappointingly vague and facile (even were it not highly questionable).” Here again, I think this is more a case of you simply not agreeing with my analysis. The latter part of Chapter 5 “Yin and Yang of al Qaeda” goes into detail examining and documenting Al-Qaeda's stated reasons for attacking the United States, including support for apostate Muslim governments. I concede that changing U.S. support for these governments will not likely change Bin Laden's or other hard core Islamic radicals' hatred towards the United States, but it will take a lot of the wind out of their sails in terms of support within the Muslim world. As I documented in Chapter 3, numerous polls show that negative Muslim attitudes towards the United States (which is the basis for being able to recruit to the terrorist ranks) stem largely from American foreign policy, in particular U.S. support for authoritarian, oppressive, and corrupt regimes, which are many of the same ones cited by Bin Laden. My proposition would only be highly questionable if there was overwhelming evidence to suggest that it wouldn't work. Indeed, the evidence suggests the opposite yet it hasn't even been tried.

Finally, you write that my “work raises some very significant questions without quite providing the satisfactory answers” but never quite say why. Perhaps you find my answers unsatisfactory because I'm not proposing a more activist, interventionist, and hands-on U.S. foreign policy approach of trying to shape the world. But since my argument is that such a foreign policy is what has done much to make America a target for Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists, a similar approach — however much realist — would only make the problem worse. Hence, I favor a foreign policy approach more along the lines of what Ted Galen Carpenter has characterized as “strategic independence” or what Stephen Walt would call “offshore balancing”, both of which are perfectly realist views.


Charles Peña

Dear Mr. Peña:

Thank you for your communication in response to my review of your book Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism. Before responding to the points you raise, permit me to once again renew my appreciation for your work and the important questions which you eloquently raise. Our differences, as you note, largely come down to three points.

First, with respect to whether Iraq is today the central front in the War on Terror, while you make a convincing case that it may not be the main theatre for the prosecution of America's fight with Al-Qaeda, I am still of the opinion that the texts you cite do not address the question of the larger conflict with the epiphenomenon of Islamist terrorism which has found a geostrategic focus point in that country. I agree with you that Iraq need not have become our “dangerous distraction”, but once it did, the Islamists responded by switching their attentions to it. Even a cursory examination of Al-Qaeda-linked publications like Sawt al-Jihad and its internet successor Sada al-Jihad, as well as the accounts of jihadi theorists like those published by well-connected Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein will point to the centrality of Iraq in the plans of the radicals. Add to this largely Sunni radicalism Iran's penetration, both open and clandestine, of post-Saddam Iraq, and one has a critical situation that the United States cannot afford to walk away from if it is serious about containing — much less defeating — Islamist terrorism.

Second, I am reassured that you agree that there is little that the United States can do to divert Osama bin Laden and other radicals from their extremism and violence. While polls — themselves tricky things in closed societies — may indeed show that negative attitudes towards the United States throughout the Middle East “stem largely from American foreign policy”, there is again no evidence that even if we withdrew from the region today and the state of Israel disappeared tomorrow things would be much better. It might “take a lot of the wind out of their sails in terms of support within the Muslim world”, but the problems of the Arab Muslim world run far deeper and it is rather likely that whatever new regimes took the place of “apostate” governments would find it just as convenient to channel their peoples' frustrations on the “Great Satan.” This is even more probable given the fact that most Islamists have been focused on their own version of “regime change” and given hardly a thought to how they would actually govern.

Third, while I have little sympathy for the current regimes in the Middle East (other than Israel), your position is to advocate a policy shift without any assurance that it will accomplish anything. I am more comfortable with the conservative approach of no innovation without convincing proof that the net result will be positive — “not having been tried” is not sufficient, especially given the stakes involved. While I share your affinity for a less interventionist foreign policy — perhaps the modest approach promised by candidate George W. Bush in 2000 — I also believe that, prescinding from how we got where we are, the only way to return to it is via acquitting ourselves well in the battle in which we have become engaged.

In conclusion, while disagreements remain between us, I thank you for the opportunity to engage on these important issues. If nothing else, our exchange highlights the extraordinary richness and vitality of the realist tradition.

Yours truly,

J. Peter Pham

Charles Peña is a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and an adjunct fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.