WASHINGTON – The White House convened a mega-summit on Countering Violent Extremism, with the participation of 65 countries. To accomplish what? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This excessively large number, 65 governments, big and small, relevant and irrelevant, means that there is no serious purpose.
And by “serious purpose” I mean the intention to reach or deepen agreements on intelligence sharing, threat assessment, joint operations protocols, concerted actions, and more. These are the serious things you talk about with may be three or four motivated players at the table. Not at a convention with 65 government representatives.
This event is a modest public relations effort that will change almost nothing. Even worse, Obama’s carefully crafted speeches in which he talked about violent extremists but refused to say that this extremism is rooted in some interpretation of Islam shows a reluctance to admit that our enemy is an ideology, and not some generic expression of destructive violence that has no particular foundation or goal.
Look, I fully admit that saying clearly that “We are fighting people who believe in a radical interpretation of Islam” is not, by itself, a recipe for victory. But not saying it is an indication of confusion that breeds more confusion.
It is all about poverty
And this becomes really clear when Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in addressing the audience, espoused the shopworn and misleading “poverty-is-the-root-of-terrorism” theory.
“Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is all about poverty and lack of hope. If these young men could get an education and then a job, then they would not be tempted to subscribe to extreme ideas whereby justice can take place only through the violent destruction of those who protect the old order.”
Create growth and this will stop extremism
Therefore, according to Obama, here is the remedy. The societies that have seen the growth of extremism within themselves should engage in enlightened reforms. They should promote development, prosperity and jobs.
And this will be the end of extremism.
This is a bland, and almost meaningless explanation. Of course, as in every broad generalization, there are elements of truth. Poverty can create tensions; and tensions may find political vehicles, some of them based on violent ideologies. But to say that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between poverty and the terrorism phenomenon we are dealing with today is absurd.
Poor countries, Muslim and non-Muslim, with no terrorists
if this were the case, then Bangladesh, a Muslim and extremely poor country, should be a hot bed of terrorism. And we should see a lot more terrorists come from Indonesia, a large Muslim country in which millions are poor.
Finally, we should have plenty of terrorists among the 172 millions of Muslims in India. But we do not.
And how about the non-Muslim poor or very poor Hindus? Why aren’t they terrorists? If we say that terrorism is about poverty and not about religion or ideology, then in many if not most poor countries we should find plenty of terrorists. But we do not.
Terrorists are not poor
Furthermore, we know that many known Muslim terrorists were not at all poor. The Saudi 9/11 hijackers were not poor. Osama bin Laden, the first major prophet of the renaissance of the Islamic Caliphate, actually came from a rich, influential Saudi family.
The notion that the leaders or the rank and file of subversive movements or revolutions are motivated by poverty and injustice is just factually incorrect. T
he fact is that there are people who subscribe to certain millenarian ideas because they appeal to them.
Jack up the USAID budget
However, if Obama really thinks that the root of terrorism is poverty, then here is an idea for his administration.
Supposedly the US Government fights poverty around the world through development assistance. This is carried out mostly via USAID, the US Agency for International Development.
If the President really thinks that poverty is our enemy, then multiply the USAID budget by 10. Right now, if we pool together all the foreign assistance accounts, we come to about $ 20 billion spent every year by the Federal Government. Some money; but not a lot.
In contrast, we spend about $ 525 billion for our national defense. But we are told by the President that this security threat originates from poverty, not from military forces arrayed against us.
So, if the problem is poverty, jack up the USAID Budget, and get the extra development assistance funds by cutting the Defense Budget.
Having identified the source of the disease, this should be the Obama cure: a lot more money for development. Therefore, as a result of this smart reallocation of resources, we shall have less poverty, fewer radicals, and far less terrorism.
The nature of the problem
The fact is that is that fighting a violent ideology is really difficult. And it becomes even more difficult when this ideology is embraced by small loosely connected groups, spread over many countries, that are focused on plotting violent actions.
Sadly, the Obama “poverty theory” is just a pre-cooked, meaningless platitude. However, even those who really want to find a way to stop young people becoming radicalized are wasting their time. There is no way to do this, especially in the short-term.
Over many years it may be possible to create more constructive intellectual models that hopefully will be embraced by many who are now convinced that there is no alternative to jihad. But this will take a long time.
We need intelligence
For the moment, this terrorism battle has to be fought mostly with good intelligence. That said, while there are many small groups operating in the shadows in several countries, the self-proclaimed Islamic State offers an important physical target. It is an entity of sorts. And this entity is also a propaganda tool. Its very existence has become a recruiting instrument. IS should be annihilated. The sooner, the better.
Convening summits in Washington in which participants are lectured by Obama about the need to end poverty and injustice, is silly. While there are other targets, the Islamic State is not Osama bin Laden in a secret hide out. It is a large, organized entity, operating in the open. It should be destroyed.
Of course, this would not be the end of terrorism. But such a defeat would diminish the appeal of the idea.