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Fighting the War On Terror

President Bush’s plan forward in Iraq called for a major jobs program and increased construction aid in addition to a surge in troops. Military experts and foreign policy wonks have been knocking each other out arguing about the merits of the president’s troop strategy. But let’s stop debating whether or not the front lines of the War on Terror pass through Iraq -- or even Afghanistan.  It doesn’t matter.

Indeed, it’s possible that the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security can play only a supporting role in the War on Terror. The agencies that should really be on the front lines are the Departments of Treasury and Commerce with the State Department in a facilitating role. And U.S.-based global companies should be their strongest allies.

Although the war on terror has claimed thousands of lives here and abroad, it is not primarily a military conflict but political and economic. Terrorists are not united in the common purpose of righting wrongs or even winning territory. The only thing they have in common is the same desperate tactic. And according to the Brits, even calling the struggle a "war on terror" feeds the radical Islamists' claim that its a religious war, as Joseph Nye points out here.

What we are battling is desperation so deep that blowing oneself up seems like a reasonable option. America’s troops can root out those who enable and encourage such acts, but unless we address the causes of that desperation, the jihad will continue until Heaven runs out of virgins. As America’s new Secretary of Defense once wrote, the only effective solution is to “pursue policies and strategies that in the long term weaken terrorism's roots.” 

Islamic terrorism draws its recruits from the ranks of young men and women who see few realistic possibilities for themselves or their families. The Arab Middle East has among the highest unemployment rates in the world. In fact, in many countries of the region, unemployment rates are higher among the better educated than the illiterate. It has only a third as many engineers and scientists as the world average and only a fifth as many computers per capita. The World Bank estimates it requires 20 times more capital to start a business in the Middle East than in Europe.

America’s declining reputation abroad – especially in the Islamic world – is not a consequence of the War on Terror but its cause. Many people around the world have given up on America because we have given them the impression that, if they are not buying something we sell, we have given up on them. And in trying to protect ourselves from terrorists, we have reinforced the very feelings and beliefs on which the terrorists feed – that we are arrogant, care only about ourselves and particularly don’t care about them.

When we have acted to the contrary, local attitudes have changed quickly. America’s response to the Asian tsunami of 2004 dramatically increased favorable attitudes toward the United States in Muslim countries such as Indonesia. Significantly, it also decreased support for Osama Bin Laden. And to practically everyone’s surprise, those positive attitudes have held solid for nearly two years.

Successful corporations have learned that “aid” or philanthropy has the longest-term benefit when operates at the intersection of both the donor’s and the recipients’ values and interests. Avon’s decade-long breast cancer crusade, IBM’s education initiatives, Johnson & Johnson’s support of nurses, American Express’ campaigns to feed the hungry, and General Mills’ youth fitness programs win friends and supporters because they are relevant to both sponsor and beneficiary.

Similarly, America’s reputation cannot be rebuilt solely on donated bags of rice. Foreign aid is important, but it must be directed to the intersection of America’s core values and the aspirations of people around the world. For example, U.S. foreign aid that promotes freedom of opportunity responds not only to the legitimate interests of people in developing countries, but also to the values that have sustained America since its founding.

Just as the Pentagon has clear rules of engagement for its part in the war on terror, so should every other agency of government. We will only out-recruit Bin Laden if we deny him the economic and social environment that breeds desperation. Nothing will dissipate desperation in the Arab world faster than economic reform. And nothing will frustrate the recruitment of terrorists more than the rise of a vibrant new business class. As it happens, that’s more within the charters of the Treasury and Commerce Departments than the Pentagon’s. And American companies have a major role to play since they are, almost by definition, vehicles of liberalization.

There’s a certain comforting neatness in the notion that anti-American feeling around the world is all about the War in Iraq, which in turn is all about the War on Terror.  The world, alas, is seldom that neat.