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Richard Haass dealt with terror threats for the U.S. State Department. He is now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and has authored 10 books on U.S. foreign policy.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The White House spent much of this week defending its strategy against al-Qaida. That is because a U.S. intelligence report suggested that the terrorist group blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is getting stronger, not weaker. The report said some U.S. efforts have negative consequences. In particular, it said the war in Iraq has become a recruiting and propaganda tool for al-Qaida.
Richard Haass has dealt with terror threats from Afghanistan to Northern Ireland for the U.S. State Department. Now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Haass offers some perspective.
Steve Inskeep: Strictly in terms of its effect on al-Qaida, the global organization, does Iraq count as a positive or a negative right now?
Richard Haass: "Iraq is a clear negative. You could almost say if Afghanistan was Terrorism 101 in their university, Iraq has become Terrorism 201. It is the advanced course in urban terrorism, in particular. And it's also been something of a galvanizing cry, or call, for terrorists. Iraq was not a state involved in terrorism five years ago. It might be the only positive thing one could say about Saddam Hussein; so, on net, Iraq has been a setback for the United States in the war on terrorism."
How do you deal with that if you are an American strategist because (White House counterterrorism adviser) Frances Townsend has pointed out this week that you can't necessarily back away from a fight just because people might take advantage of it in this way?
"Well, fair enough. As people always say, 'We are where we are.' So, we can't undo the last four or five years of history, so when it comes to dealing with existing terrorists, we have to keep doing what we're doing. That means strengthening intelligence, strengthening international law enforcement cooperation, strengthening homeland security. When we have targets of opportunity, to go after them. It's a little bit like struggling against disease, you do what you can to attack it. You do what you can to increase your ability to be resilient, to recover from it. But it's an open-ended struggle, and, like disease, it's one we're going to have to live with probably for the rest of our lives."
Could you imagine an entirely different approach to attacking al-Qaida? Back away from Iraq, even, perhaps, quiet down in Afghanistan and approach the problem in some entirely different way. Is there a different way?
"When it comes to groups like al-Qaida, I think not. These are committed terrorists. They've made, if you will, their career choice. They have radical agendas. They want to essentially return the world to the seventh century. So, you couldn't sit down with an Osama bin Laden, if you could find him, and say, 'Look, let's compromise. You want the seventh century, we want the 21st, so let's compromise on the 14th.' It doesn't work that way. I would contrast them with the success the United States and Britain and Ireland have had over the last decade, say, with the IRA, where, over the years, we were able to reach a political accommodation and persuade 95 percent of those who associated with the IRA to give up terrorism and to turn to traditional politics."
So, you're saying you can't negotiate with them. You're also saying there are negative effects, blowback, if you will, if you attack them directly and don't do it in the right way. Is there perhaps a more clever way to attack this terrorist organization than is being tried right now?
"Well, Afghanistan was part of the answer — you deny them a safe haven. The problem is they've now switched their safe haven to Pakistan. But that only applies to those, again, who have already joined. Probably, the thrust of our efforts is to try to persuade young men — and we're mainly taking about men — from joining them in the first place; is to try to frustrate what you might call the process of radicalization. And that's where you get into tools that have nothing to do with the military, Steve. But, instead, you're looking at things like education. That's where you're looking at political and economic opportunity. It's where you're trying to influence the debate within Islam."
So much of that has been said since Sept. 12, 2001. How is it that so much of that remains undone?
"The short answer is that the United States has obviously been preoccupied with the day-to-day challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq. We've also, as a country, been preoccupied with such things as improving intelligence focus on these groups with law enforcement and homeland security. Perhaps these are more measurable things. In some ways, they're things that it's easier for bureaucracies to do. To try to win an ideological battle gets you into a softer area. It's not necessarily the sort of thing that governments are well-designed to do. Some of the more interesting things are — actually, where we're making progress — come from other groups. For example, certain foundations — the Carnegie Foundation — has been translating classical works of liberal Islamic thought and Arab thought; making them available in local languages; putting them on the Internet for free. And that's the sort of thing that, over time, could help influence the intellectual debate within the Arab world, within the Islamic world. Essentially, it's small-bore stuff. It doesn't transform a situation immediately, but it's the sort of thing that modestly, over time, can perhaps make a difference."