War of Ideology

By DAVID BROOKS

The New York Times

July 24, 2004

When foreign policy wonks go to bed, they dream of being X. They dream of writing the all-encompassing, epoch-defining essay, the way George F. Kennan did during the cold war under the pseudonym X.

Careers have been spent racing to be X. But in our own time, the 9/11 commission has come closer than anybody else. After spending 360 pages describing a widespread intelligence failure, the commissioners step back in their report and redefine the nature of our predicament.

We're not in the middle of a war on terror, they note. We're not facing an axis of evil. Instead, we are in the midst of an ideological conflict.

We are facing, the report notes, a loose confederation of people who believe in a perverted stream of Islam that stretches from Ibn Taimaya to Sayyid Qutb. Terrorism is just the means they use to win converts to their cause.

It seems like a small distinction - emphasizing ideology instead of terror - but it makes all the difference, because if you don't define your problem correctly, you can't contemplate a strategy for victory.

When you see that our enemies are primarily an intellectual movement, not a terrorist army, you see why they are in no hurry. With their extensive indoctrination infrastructure of madrassas and mosques, they're still building strength, laying the groundwork for decades of struggle. Their time horizon can be totally different from our own.

As an ideological movement rather than a national or military one, they can play by different rules. There is no territory they must protect. They never have to win a battle but can instead profit in the realm of public opinion from the glorious martyrdom entailed in their defeats. We think the struggle is fought on the ground, but they know the struggle is really fought on satellite TV, and they are far more sophisticated than we are in using it.

The 9/11 commission report argues that we have to fight this war on two fronts. We have to use intelligence, military, financial and diplomatic capacities to fight Al Qaeda. That's where most of the media attention is focused. But the bigger fight is with a hostile belief system that can't be reasoned with but can only be "destroyed or utterly isolated."

The commissioners don't say it, but the implication is clear. We've had an investigation into our intelligence failures; we now need a commission to analyze our intellectual failures. Simply put, the unapologetic defenders of America often lack the expertise they need. And scholars who really know the Islamic world are often blind to its pathologies. They are so obsessed with the sins of the West, they are incapable of grappling with threats to the West.

We also need to mount our own ideological counteroffensive. The commissioners recommend that the U.S. should be much more critical of autocratic regimes, even friendly ones, simply to demonstrate our principles. They suggest we set up a fund to build secondary schools across Muslim states, and admit many more students into our own. If you are a philanthropist, here is how you can contribute: We need to set up the sort of intellectual mobilization we had during the cold war, with modern equivalents of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, to give an international platform to modernist Muslims and to introduce them to Western intellectuals.

Most of all, we need to see that the landscape of reality is altered. In the past, we've fought ideological movements that took control of states. Our foreign policy apparatus is geared toward relations with states: negotiating with states, confronting states. Now we are faced with a belief system that is inimical to the state system, and aims at theological rule and the restoration of the caliphate. We'll need a new set of institutions to grapple with this reality, and a new training method to understand people who are uninterested in national self-interest, traditionally defined.

Last week I met with a leading military officer stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose observations dovetailed remarkably with the 9/11 commissioners. He said the experience of the last few years is misleading; only 10 percent of our efforts from now on will be military. The rest will be ideological. He observed that we are in the fight against Islamic extremism now where we were in the fight against communism in 1880.

We've got a long struggle ahead, but at least we're beginning to understand it.

E-mail: dabrooks@nytimes.com