How not to fight extremism in America

By Khaled Diab

A sudden lurch from ignoring or underplaying the threat of right-wing extremism in America to treating white crusaders like jihadis and QAnon like al-Qaeda will set off the insurgency timebomb rather than defuse it.

New Jersey National Guard near the Capitol to set up security positions. Image: National Guard

Thursday 4 March 2021

If the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 had a sense of the unreal about it, some reactions since have been even stranger. Take Robert Grenier, the former CIA officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and was the director of counterterrorism under the Bush administration, from 2004 to 2006, the height of the so-called “War on Terror”.

“We may be witnessing the dawn of a sustained wave of violent insurgency within our own country, perpetrated by our own countrymen,” he wrote in The New York Times. “Three weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency programme. But that is where we are.”

After two decades watching the United States futilely and destructively chasing the phantom of violent Islamism across the globe, it is welcome to see Americans finally waking up to the greater threat to their security and wellbeing posed by homegrown white and Christian extremism – which I, like others, have been warning about for many years.

But the idea that the practices the US has pursued in the Middle East over the last 20 years should now be deployed domestically fills me with a chilling sense of unease and trepidation. The United States could be on the brink of committing similar catastrophic errors at home as it did abroad.

The very fact that Grenier is presenting the War on Terror positively as a template for action should set alarm bells ringing. American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq cost trillions of dollars, which could have been far more productively invested in nation-building at home, and it cost those countries untold thousands of civilian lives, unleashed endless conflict and accelerated or deepened state collapse. It also led to the massive growth of the surveillance state and to broad human rights abuses, epitomised by the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

“Just as I saw in the Middle East that the air went out of violent demonstrations when [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein was defeated and seen to be defeated, I think the same situation applies here,” Grenier told NPR.

The wishful picture the retired CIA officer presents here is very different to the reality I and others have observed on the ground in the Middle East. The American invasion of Iraq transformed Saddam Hussein, in the eyes of many Arabs, from an unpopular dictator into an undeserving symbol of anti-imperialist resistance.

And the US invasion and subsequent counterinsurgency operations in Iraq fuelled the rise of violent jihadism in a country that had previously not known it. Heavy-handed and destructive military operations in cities like Fallujah fanned popular resentment, while American-run prisons proved to be breeding grounds for extremism and a powerful networking tool for Islamists and former Baathists to join forces.

If the United States were to use similarly militarised tactics at home, even if toned down compared with the heavy firepower mobilised abroad, it could turn an already bad situation into an outright catastrophe. Treating the situation in America as an insurgency carries grave risks. It encourages the kind of security-centric approach that erodes civil rights and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Although I don’t doubt that Donald Trump was attempting to foment a coup – one that I had been expecting since his defeat in November – America is not (yet) in the throes of an actual insurgency. But with the wrong handling that could easily and quickly change.

America is sitting on a ticking bomb: perceived conservative grievances, a white supremacist movement with a serious inferiority and persecution complex, and right-wing gun owners with enough firepower to invade a medium-sized country, including increasingly radical gun groups and extremist militias.

A sudden lurch from ignoring or underplaying the threat of right-wing extremism to treating White crusaders like jihadis and QAnon like al-Qaeda will set off the timebomb rather than defuse it.

Launching a counterinsurgency campaign in the War on Terror mould against right-wing extremists will not defeat the tiny and disparate bands of armed groups across the country. Instead, if the US experience in the rest of the world is any guide, it will transform these zeros into heroes. It will embolden them and strengthen their resolve. And it will enable them to excel in their favourite role, that of persecuted martyr.

For each small group or militia the counterinsurgency defeats, a larger, stronger and more determined replacement will rise up to take its place. This could further radicalise the large numbers of Republicans who express sympathy with the “patriots” who stormed the Capitol, transforming them from passive supporters of authoritarianism into active aiders and abetters of violent extremism.

In fairness, Grenier did seem to partially recognise this danger: He talks about the need to “isolate and alienate the committed insurgents from the population”.

“I mean, it’s trite to say that we need a national conversation, but in fact, that’s what we need,” he told NPR. “And so it’s people, it’s all of us who really need to be engaging with one another in a very sincere way, admitting what we don’t know and trying to seek out the truth together.”

While there is most definitely a need for dialogue, this suggestion is, indeed, trite. It is the kind of vague talk of “winning hearts and minds” that hawks used to convince the public to swallow the bitter pill of the endless War on Terror.

But this approach tends to harden hearts and close minds – not just that of the targeted population but also of decision-makers. Once war rhetoric takes wing, the hawks are empowered and the doves are silenced, leading to mission creep and an ever-escalating cycle of violence.

It sometimes feels like that the US declaring war on something, be it terrorism or drugs, acts as almost a guarantee that the phenomenon it is fighting will get worse rather than better.

Rather than seeing the situation through the narrow security prism of insurgency, it is far more useful to look at the rising tide of violent extremism and fascism not as an isolated problem but a symptom of the deeper malaise of deepening state failure.

This is a tough admission for any people to make but especially so for the world’s richest society, which believes deeply in its own exceptionalism.

But that is the reality – and one that is implicitly recognised by the progressive side of the Democratic Party. In today’s America, many of the fundamental building blocks that constitute a functioning and fair modern society are either broken or at breaking point.

I recall the bewildered live reaction of an American news anchor to the storming of the Capitol, that this was the kind of thing that happens in Third World countries, not America. The sad truth is he was just not paying attention or in denial. America’s political dysfunction is not a million miles away from that of some coup-prone countries in Latin America and other parts of the world – with American exceptionalism confined to how this level of failure can occur in the world’s richest country.

This was clear in America’s disastrous handling of COVID-19 and its failure to minimise the death toll and human cost of the pandemic. It is apparent in the expensive and ineffective partisan circus that has overtaken the democratic process. It can be seen in the oversized cost and influence of the US military. It is also evident in the obscene and widening inequalities that are transforming America into a de facto oligarchy.

Without democratic, economic and social reform, conflict and tribalism will thrive as people struggle to survive. The United States needs to move beyond its obsession with identity politics and identify the real problems and challenges it faces.

In terms of governance, the United States needs not only to find a way to reform the outdated electoral college system but also to break the two-party stranglehold on its political system by implementing proportional representation. It also urgently needs to repeal or reinterpret the Second Amendment and disarm the population before it is too late.

President Biden’s massive economic recovery efforts need not only to deal with the immediate pain of the pandemic, but also tackle the obscene and socially corrosive levels of inequality plaguing society that have seen the fruits of economic development go to the superrich at the expense of the poor and middle classes.

This requires quality healthcare and education for all, redistributive economic justice and a shift away from the current model of casino capitalism towards a system that provides a decent minimum level of wellbeing and welfare for everyone.

The United States needs to overcome its obsession with identity politics and identify the real problems and challenges it faces.

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This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Washington Post on 22 February 2021.

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