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Issue No. 75 (September 15, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Conference offers fresh and compelling new views on terrorism

(as nation's partisans sleep)

Where do you go if you think terrorism is a clear and present danger but can’t buy into the Bush Administration’s way of dealing with it?

For two days last week in Washington DC, there was no question where to go. You got yourself to the gorgeous multi-chandeliered ballroom at the Capital Hilton and took part in the New America Foundation’s “Terrorism, Security and America’s Purpose” conference.

Unlike left-wing conferences of a vaguely similar ilk, this one was NOT organized to rally opposition to the war in Iraq. Or to “rally” anything else. It was rhetoric-free, thoughtful, honest, and (therefore) genuinely inspiring. You couldn’t sit through it without concluding we can build a better world.

Tone, Participants, Action

The opening speaker, New America chair and Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jim Fallows, set the thoughtful-and-honest tone by acknowledging that there’s no consensus in the U.S. on the Iraq war.

But there is, he said, an “emerging consensus” that there’s been a “diminution of America’s real security” since 9/11. So there’s an urgent need to ask fresh questions and “think honestly” about our foreign policy future.

That’s why New America collected over 70 politicians, government officials, policy analysts, mainstream journalists, top-tier academics, and leaders of civil society (businesses and nonprofits) -- and ran them at us virtually nonstop for one 14-hour day followed by one eight-hour day.

The speakers covered the political spectrum, from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform on the right to a couple of far-left academics (including one from my own law school -- ah, how she brought back memories of that righteous place!).

But the vast majority of the speakers were at what New America likes to call the “radical center,” and so was the vast majority of the 1,000 of us who crowded into the ballroom over the two-day run.

I met law firm partners, journalists, bloggers, Congressional aides, think-tank analysts, graduate students in international relations, movers and shakers at various nonprofits, and members of what I’ve come to think of as the “transformational underground,” idealists from the 1960s who are still at it and who recognized each other choicelessly just as Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson in The Cultural Creatives said that we would.

What Is To Be Done

Early on, Richard Medley, former chief economist for the House Banking Committee, warned that between Iraq and Katrina our sense of competence had begun to disintegrate. And Bob Kuttner, economic policy writer, said that both Iraq and Katrina mirrored our “failure to engage reality,” and suggested that now, with Katrina, we have “cultural permission to ask impolitic questions.”

But 80% of the conference was not about the sorry past or bogged-down present. It was about the future, about What Is To Be Done.

And it was not a mere potpourri. If you paid close attention, you’d have discerned -- as I did -- a coherent new agenda emerging.

It emerged in bits and pieces, to be sure. From most but not all of the speakers. And you also had to pay attention to the five “expert working groups” that had been meeting for months before the conference and continued to meet during it and finally made a joint presentation and released position papers toward the end.

To date, nobody has summed up the coherent new agenda I discerned at the conference.

Even the best mainstream journalists focused on what the stars said (that’s why they’re mainstream journalists, I suppose). Even the most popular blogs used the conference to regurgitate prepackaged views.

So here is the heart of what really got said at the conference, boiled down to 12 points. Call it a 12-Point Plan for Combatting Terrorism and Becoming More Understanding, More Humane, AND MORE EFFECTIVE in the Process.


1. Stop! Listen! Learn!

We can’t move forward without doing a lot more listening and learning.

It is “important to listen to what others are telling you,” Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, said with a very straight face. We’ve got to know our enemies and friends, urged Michael McFaul, political science professor at Stanford.

We behave as if only we have the answers!, said Rita Hauser, international lawyer and longtime New York Republican Party operative. Ever since the war on terrorism began, she said, we’ve drawn very poorly on the the knowledge and skills of other nations. And it’s cost us.

2. Beyond Good Versus Evil

Although many explanations for terrorism were offered, nearly all of them avoided the “good versus evil” framework of most Republicans and Democrats.

For example, Nir Rosen, one heroic journalist (see, e.g., “Letter from Falluja,” The New Yorker, 5 July 2004), blamed it on American support for corrupt Middle Eastern regimes. Robert Pape, political scientist at the University of Chicago, studied 71 Al-Qaida suicide bombers and concluded that the stationing of U.S. troops on the Arabian peninsula was the main factor.

Francis Fukuyama, dean of international studies at Johns Hopkins (and author of one of the most widely discussed foreign policy articles of all time, “The End of History"), argued that Muslims’ “alienation from modernity” is the cause of the terrorist problem. Young Muslims now have to ask, “Who am I?,” choose a personal identity, just like everybody else; and that's hard; and Osama bin Laden gives them a prefabricated identity just as traditional Islam used to be able to do.

Note the overriding empathy in all the analyses above.


3. Provide Servant Leadership

Although the popular business management term “servant leadership” wasn’t uttered from the podium, it deftly expresses what many of the speakers were getting at: To lead effectively in the war on terror (or in any other global endeavor), the U.S. needs to practice collaboration, foresight, and an ethically informed approach to power.

It’s what Brookings Institution Vice President James Steinberg was getting at when he told the conference, We don’t need better slogans. We need to re-examine the core of what we do. We need to ask, How can we help provide better governance, better economic lives, better political contexts.

It’s what pollster Andrew Kohut was getting at when he reported that U.S. tsunami aid made a dramatic difference in how Indonesian Muslims think of us.

It’s what Michael McFaul’s working group was getting at when it urged, “Lead by example. The U.S. government and the American people will only be effective advocates for democracy promotion if they act like democrats and defenders of human rights at home and abroad.”

4. Help Bring Democracy to Muslim Nations

At the radical middle, it’s not politically incorrect to wish democracy on Muslim nations. In fact, as pollster Andrew Kohut reported to the conference, most Muslim fundamentalists appear to want multi-party democracies.

George Soros, the investor (and chair of the Open Society Institute), offered a more self-interested reason for democracy promotion when he said, “We must foster democratic development in order to provide legitimate avenues for dealing with grievances that otherwise might be exploited by terrorist movements.”

Although Madeline Albright said she’s proud of what she’s done to promote democracy, she offered a couple of cautionary notes.

First, democracy has to come from the bottom up. Second, America can’t present itself as the sole model. And third, although elections are important, even more important are (a) rule of law, and (b) having a genuine opposition party take root.

5. Help Bring Prosperity to Muslim Nations

For many at the conference, this was front and center.. For example, Richard Vague, co-founder of the First USA Bank, eloquently argued that a primary cause of terrorism is economic and that any solution to terrorism will therefore require us to help induce economic progress in all Muslim states, from Morocco to Indonesia.

Senator Joe Biden, top ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, basically agreed. He urged us to commit to debt relief and investment in practical education in the Muslim world.

He had his Republican counterpart in former Senator Warren Rudman, co-chair of the Hart-Rudman Commission (which predicted a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil). Rudman explained, “America and our allies must address global poverty, disease, and underdevelopment in a far more aggressive and comprehensive manner.”

6. Mobilize Global Civil Society

It was clearly understood that even a mobilized and competent U.S. government -- working in partnership with other governments -- can’t do it all. Businesses and nonprofits would also have to step up.

Madeline Albright, now a distinguished scholar at the University of Michigan business school, said that public-private partnerships would be crucial in Gaza. People in Gaza urgently need to know they have a future, she said, and a future means jobs.

Diego Hidalgo, founder of Spain’s FRIDA (Foundation for Research and Investment for the Development of Africa), focused on the importance of a robust “civil society.” Without it, he said, there can be no democracy in the Middle East and no true end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Certain nonprofits give him hope, he said. The Club of Madrid is a gathering of former heads of state and selected academics and policy analysts that’s helping developing nations move toward democracy.

And the Geneva Initiative is a project of high-level Palestinians and Israelis who’ve hammered out a detailed peace plan for their region, proving that it can be done.

7. Keep Nuclear Weapons Out of Terrorists’ Hands

Our near-term focus, said Stephen Walt, international affairs professor at Harvard, should be on keeping weapons of mass destruction -- especially nuclear weapons -- out of terrorists’ hands.

Many other speakers agreed. Charles Kupchan, international affairs professor at Georgetown (and former Director of European Affairs on the National Security Council), put it well when he said we can’t eliminate everyone who’d do us harm, but we can and must make it a lot harder for such people to get their hands on nuclear weapons.

Kupchan’s working group recommended “stepped up efforts to secure fissile materials in the former Soviet Union . . . and vigilant efforts to contain and shut down nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.”


8. Eliminate Overdependence on Our Armed Forces

One of the reasons the war on terror is not going well, Harvard’s Stephen Walt said, is because we’ve overemphasized military solutions.

Military force is a crude instrument, he explained. It makes us look trigger-happy. And it gives credibility to bin Laden’s accusation that we want to dominate the Middle East.

This is not World War Two, said General Wesley Clark (Ret.), former commander of NATO and former presidential candidate. When we kill people we make enemies all over the world. We should concentrate on removing the grievances that spur terrorist recruitment. We should create a new global security framework, build up the U.N., and only use force as a last resort.

A working group headed by Louise Richardson, author of What Terrorists Want and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, nicely summarized the points above: “[F]orce alone will not be sufficient . . . and can be counter-productive when not part of a comprehensive, integrated, and long-term strategy.”

9. Reform Our Political Institutions

If there was one topic that made every speaker’s blood boil, it was this one. You couldn’t listen to them on this topic without realizing you were witness to the accumulation of years -- decades -- of bureaucratic frustration and anguish, all coming out now on stage.

On top of that, Robert Hutchings, diplomat-in-residence at Princeton, added an ominous note when he said we’re becoming more centralized and rigid while the terrorists are becoming more decentralized and flexible. (The remark carried special weight because he’d been chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2003-05.)

Mary Fetchet, founder of Voices of September 11 (and ABC News Person of the Year for 2004), called on Congress to streamline itself. After her son Brad died in the attack on the World Trade Center, she discovered that 413 Representatives and all 100 Senators have responsibility for one or more pieces of the national intelligence apparatus. That may give them all stature to crow about, but it makes comprehensive intelligence reform virtually impossible.

Michael McFaul’s working group called on the executive branch to reform itself: “A most bold step would be the creation of a Department of International Development which would incorporate into one bureaucracy programs designed to promote democracy, development, and state building currently scattered throughout the executive branch.”

Bob Hutchings’s working group called on our intelligence services to reform themselves, beginning first and foremost with their internal culture: “Our intelligence culture needs to transcend the Cold War notion of intelligence as something done by a few highly secretive agencies to a much more expansive conception of a ‘global intelligence community’ [consisting] of flexible and often ‘virtual’ (i.e. online) partnerships among the widest variety of partners around the world.”

Finally, several speakers took our foreign service bureaucracy to task. Radcliffe Institute’s Louise Richardson pleaded with it to do something about the gap between our rhetoric at home and the often ham-handed implementation of our policies “on the ground.” Mitchell Reiss, former State Department official under Colin Powell, pointed out that our “best and brightest” foreign service officers don’t go into public diplomacy because it’s not seen as a way to advance. That has got to change, he said.

Reiss also pleaded with foreign service officers to “tell the truth” to people. Our diplomats won’t or can’t communicate with the people in the countries they serve, he said. We desperately need to connect with the local people.

10. Reform the Law, Don’t Thwart It

This was a radical middle conference, not a radical left conference, and one way you could tell is that most speakers did not want the U.S. to go back to the old prosecute-terrorists-under-the-criminal-law approach.

Juliette Kayyem, counterterrorism expert at Harvard (and former advisor to Attorney General Janet Reno), made the essential point when she emphasized there’s a group of people that can’t be covered by the old legal rules -- e.g., terrorists who may need to be detained for a long time.

But none of the speakers wanted us simply to thwart the law. Instead, they wanted us to change it where necessary. George Soros captured this approach and its rationale when he said, “We must stay within the constraints of the law, even if the laws may have to be modified to deal with terrorists. If we create innocent victims, we are likely to reinforce the terrorist threat.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the international affairs school at Princeton (and President of the American Society of International Law), presented the fullest rationale for modifying the law.

We need new rules because we face a new set of threats, she said. In addition, some of the applicable law is ambiguous. We should work with other countries that have experienced terrorism, Britain, Spain, France, in order to change or clarify the Geneva Protocol and all relevant statutes.

11. Mobilize U.S. Civil Society

Several speakers argued that we can’t combat terrorism and make the world right if the people themselves aren’t mobilized.

Mary Fetchet, from Voices of September 11, told us she hadn’t been politically active until age 51 (!). But if there’s one thing she’s learned in her new role, she said, it’s this: Even a small group of people can make a difference.

The front line of democracy promotion must not be the U.S. government, said Stanford’s Michael McFaul. It must be non-profits, NGOs. Government should “privilege” them.

Spanish journalist-activist Diego Hidalgo cited the U.S. group Seeds of Peace, which brings young people from opposite sides of global conflicts to rural New England where it teaches them negotiation and conflict resolution skills and gives them reason to become friends and future allies.

12. A Little Self-Improvement

Some speakers had the courage to note that the American people is not perfect and has some work to do.

Yosri Fouda, London bureau chief of Al-Jazeera, said that if more Americans were truly interested in the world and truly willing to accept and understand The Other, our responses to terrorism might be more productive. Diego Hidalgo said essentially the same thing.

Michael McFaul’s working group proposed pumping billions of dollars into education to help us “better understand our friends and foes in the wider Middle East.”

Charles Kupchan, from Georgetown, said that the public debate about U.S. strategy in the world has been inadequate (everyone understood he meant more like “abysmal”). His working group blamed Congress and the media for “fail[ing] to perform adequately in contributing to informed and reasoned deliberation on matters of grand strategy.”

Wesley Clark fingered another culprit, the culture-at-large, when he observed that no “sacrifices” are being asked of the American people. The truth is, he said, we need hundreds of thousands more people right now to bolster American security in various ways.

In perhaps the most heartfelt talk of the conference, Anne-Marie Slaughter, from Princeton, expressed bafflement and outrage that there’d been no march on Washington after the scandals at Abu Ghraib prison. We need to tell the world that that’s NOT who we are!, she cried.

It is certainly not who we were.

The conference’s real message

After the last speakers had left the stage, conference organizer and fabulously effective M.C. Steve Clemons shared some personal reflections.

He used to be at RAND out in L.A., he said. A think tank that concentrated on “hard power” -- military power, economic pressure.

But he’d come to understand that “soft power” -- values, culture, leading by example, mutually beneficial trade, etc. -- is just as important. In fact, he no longer saw them as separate or separable (neither did a new booklet made available at the conference.  Its title: Integrated Power).

Clemons also learned that if we want to build a new and radical centrist consensus, then we need to listen to what everyone is saying. That’s why the conference included expert voices from every credible point on the American political spectrum, and from at least eight other nations.

Finally, Clemons learned that -- if we want to construct a sturdy foreign policy -- then we need to mix real, “empirical,” “frontline” experience in with the theoretical and political. Just as the conference had done.

The conference’s holistic perspective was its real message. It modeled the holistic, integrative, ethically aware worldview we’ll all need to adopt if we want to become more effective opponents of terrorism, more substantial global citizens, and more responsive human beings.


For a complete list of speakers at the conference and free access to video recordings of each of their talks, see Terrorism, Security and America’s Purpose. For free access to the five working groups’ position papers, see Summary Reports of the Working Groups.

For a fascinating and well-written introduction to terrorism by a member of one of the conference's working groups, see Peter Bergen, Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (2002).

For a useful review-essay of 26 recent books on terrorism (in the premier issue of a new foreign policy journal that was distributed at the conference), see Mary Habeck, "Reading 9/11The American Interest, Autumn 2005, pp. 101-08 (n.b.: article not freely available online).

For a wonderfully accessible overview of world affairs by a conference sponsor (free on the Web and a virtual work of art in the $20 printed, tabbed, and bindered version), see U.S. in the World: Talking Global Issues With Americans (2004).


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