Steven Simon *83
As senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, Steven Simon *83 observed the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalist groups. He later co-authored a book on the subject, The Age of Sacred Terror, which this year won the Arthur Ross Award, presented by the Council on Foreign Relations for the best book on foreign policy or international affairs. Simon, now a senior analyst for the RAND Corp., recently spoke with PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83.
What should be our next steps in fighting al-Qaida?
Whatever the United States does has to take into account that this is a long-term battle — but Americans aren’t good at thinking in those terms. The Bush administration, for example, said this war was going to be won in 30 days by attacking Iraq and conquering it. The adversary, on the other hand, isn’t thinking in terms of a 30-day war. They’re thinking in terms of a 30-year war. So long as we embrace the idea that there can be a quick victory by military means, we’re not going to get very far. The U.S. also needs to stop doing things that many Muslims find deeply repulsive and a moral affront, such as invading Iraq, allowing the Palestine issue to fester, describing our actions in the region as being part of a “crusade,” and fostering the idea that the United States is at war with a particular religion.
But haven’t many American actions, such as deposing Saddam Hussein and stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, served to help Muslims?
The U.S. has been really terrible, unfortunately, at capitalizing on the things it has done to help Muslims. Having said that, there is a very clever twist to the radical rhetoric, which is that everything the United States says is a lie, and that in fact Muslims are insufficiently aware of the extent to which they have been deceived. This twist is neat because it casts the radicals as the only reliable dispensers of “truth” and creates an environment in which anything the U.S. says is going to be regarded as a trap. It puts the U.S. at a real disadvantage.
What should the Europeans do to fight al-Qaida?
They need to tighten up their law enforcement and intelligence operations, not just within their own countries but between countries. They also have a problem integrating a large Muslim population into their societies. European countries ought to adopt an affirmative-action program. The one that was implemented in the United States over the last 40 years is not without its flaws and may not be a perfect model, but the Europeans probably need to do something like that because European Muslims are underrepresented politically as well as in universities and certain job categories. This is fostering alienation, especially among second- and third-generation European Muslims, which is very dangerous, and not just for Europeans but for the United States, too.
Is there something the Islamic countries themselves should also be doing to fight this threat?
There’s no question that among the grievances that have animated the jihad in the Middle East, lack of opportunities for political participation is one big one. So it would be great if, for example, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak created greater political space for opposition movements, meaning Islamic movements, because in most of these countries they are the only organized opposition movements. But is that going to happen in the foreseeable future? Probably not. Is the U.S. in a position to do something about it? Probably not. There are real obstacles to action, and even if the U.S. did act, it probably wouldn’t be well received.
Having gone this far in Iraq, for good or bad, is the United States strategically obligated to see it through?
I think the objective now would be to see it through to some modicum of stability, where the level of violence drops significantly, foreign investment can get some traction, and the economy revives. I don’t expect the U.S. to maintain 130,000 troops in Iraq until there’s a western-style democracy functioning.
Are we safer now than we were three years ago?
We’ve captured a significant number of upper midlevel managers in al-Qaida, and though we may be just plucking the low-hanging fruit, we have captured some important people. But at the strategic level, what we’ve done is galvanize the movement, increase its appeal, and thereby increase the longer-term danger to the United States. There are people in al-Qaida and groups affiliated with it who are looking for weapons of mass destruction with which to attack the United States. Some of them seek those weapons as tactical instruments of asymmetric warfare, so they can trade us blow for blow. But others see those weapons in an apocalyptic light, as something that will settle the argument with the West once and for all. It is essential that we keep fissile material out of their hands. We also need to get our homeland security in order. Homeland security is in complete disarray. It is implemented by a huge, cumbersome, and ineffective bureaucracy. We need better security sooner, rather than later.