12 Feb 16. The civilized world is still being caught flat-footed by global Jihad, but at least we’re now realizing that our societies are engaged in a whole new kind of conflict—with a decentralized nonstate enemy, fueled by an archaic-techno mix of messianic theology and social media outreach. The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is of course not a legitimate nation-state, but it still proclaims its goal to establish a caliphate governing Islam, while al Qaeda and numerous other jihadist groups position for the same goals. What’s needed next is an allied military strategy for reversing the jihadists’ recent shift toward territorial conquest, then, more challenging still, a coherent diplomatic process for stabilizing the Muslim world that offers its populations a path to better economic prospects and more participatory governance alternatives than they’ve enjoyed to date.
Let’s acknowledge that this will be a multidecade undertaking across the globe. It calls for an unprecedented diplomatic effort to replace over a century of colonialism and self-interested exploitation—by both foreign and local powers—with a genuine foundation for peaceful self-governance, a real alternative to the recent historically exploitive model that offers economic benefit and participation to Muslim populations that have been impoverished, uneducated, and oppressed for generations. We call on the G-20 and majority Eurasian Muslim nations to convene an international summit and working group, a “Geopolitical G-X,” with the goal of working toward consensus on the geographic, political, and economic arrangements for restoring stability to the Middle East and in due course the rest of the Muslim world.
IS is by no means a unique adversary; it’s only today’s manifestation of a multiheaded hydra: Decapitate IS, like al Qaeda, degrade or even destroy it, and expect to see another known, or as-yet unknown, iteration step up to proclaim itself the leader of the supposed sharia caliphate increasingly impervious to physical and digital boundaries. And another frequently overlooked fact is that today’s jihad transcends sectarian divisions within Islam: IS’s branch in the Sinai, for example, formerly known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABAM)—a Salafi (Sunni) group formed after the September 11 attacks by jihadists mainly from Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia—is directly trained and financed by the military wing of Hamas, whose patron and sponsor is none other than the Shiite Iran. Powerful Iranian players are more than willing to channel clandestine aid to Daesh so long as it advances its goals of destabilizing Egypt and Israel and its own hegemonial ambitions. Indeed, we find elements of both Sunni and Shiite communities jockeying for the leadership position by opportunistically supporting terrorism, with motivations that range from destabilizing regions and adversaries to full-blown caliphate-ist jihad.
A serious allied strategy will have to trace and counter jihad from every identified source, bypassing sectarian and national boundaries, and without regard to national borders or even historical alliances. The enemy is jihad, and the allies are nation-states, communities, and other nonstate actors willing to confront it. Does this mean cooperating with “bad” to defeat “worse”? Unfortunately, yes, at least initially. The West will have to work with moderate Muslim nations, counter the adversary’s use of social media with its own message, and find the “least bad” partners in this enterprise, including Russia, and define tactical arrangements for specific goals, including simultaneous joint air strikes, no-fly zones, and house-to-house clearing.
Even then, if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that winning the war is just the first step. Establishing the peace will require an exceptional international collaboration, in turn calling for an open-minded rethinking of some assumptions and multinational institutions that have become so comfortable they’re calcified. The Geopolitical G-X process should be forward looking, rules of engagement and discussion structured to liberate the participants from the baggage of entrenched alliances and to instead openly respect the historical roots of those involved in the talks. These are necessary preconditions for exploring the cultural, theological, and economic drivers of the jihadist phenomenon. The foundation should be built on open-minded analysis of the successes and deficiencies of various models of governance that might contribute toward unique, locally appropriate, social and institutional solutions which would endure.
The Geopolitical G-X doesn’t necessarily need to adapt the identity of new international bureaucracy. Recent experience with ad hoc thematic alliances like the G-20 or G-7/8 has delivered more efficient and impactful results than many of the sclerotic twentieth-century institutions. While less formalized structures do allow for more cultural sensitivity and creative outcomes, they still lack the normative power of international law. Still, we believe a model based on these experiences seems to offer the best perspectives for effectively tackling the priority challenge of jihad.
The G-X will need to be initiated and curated by political heavyweights with broad enough credibility to attract all the necessary parties of interest. The initiative should ideally be convened by a Sunni-Shiite coalition, though that seems unlikely in the near future. While the United States, Russia, and some of the former colonial powers in the region must of course play a critical role in the process, the conveners and agenda setters should include nations that are less burdened with the baggage of the last century’s colonialism and self-interest.
Germany and China, despite their own current domestic economic and political challenges, might play a novel and constructive convening role, coordinating with other G-20 nations, including, of course, the United States and Russia. Germany and China are relatively free of recent adverse experience in the Muslim world and maintain well-established relations with both Sunni and Shiite leaders. A silver lining of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s highly disputed decision to accept open-ended refugees might be that it has at least engendered goodwill in the Muslim constituencies. And both are directly impacted by jihad at home—China in its southwestern province, and Germany as the target of jihad from the source, from rogues potentially embedded among its refugees and from a growing number of returning IS-fighters with German passports. Finally, both China and modern Germany are free of the history of self-serving exploitation in the Middle East for their own economic and geopolitical purposes. If German Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Xi Jinping of China—who have a trustful relationship—would join or lead in convening a first summit, the invitation would be difficult for others to decline.
It might seem challenging for the United States and Russia to share exclusivity in convening with Germany and China. Then again it might also be demanding for China and Germany themselves to assume the mantle of a larger leadership role on the geopolitical stage: Germany will have to overcome its modern culture of leadership reticence outside of Europe; and China will have to rise to the opportunity to demonstrate diplomatic leadership playing for the indirect payoff of a stabilized global environment, instead of its own tactical economic gain.
There is opportunity here for all the major powers. The G-X should include the members of the G-20 (including of course, members Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Indonesia) and majority Muslim nations that are acknowledged by the international community. Permanent guest invitations should be extended to the United Nations, the African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the Association of Southeast Asia Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Observer status could be offered to nations that are geographically exposed to any solution, including, centrally, Israel, or countries with a rapidly growing Muslim community as in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. After an initial year cochaired by Germany and China, the chair should rotate to the United States and Russia and then—analogous to the G-20 system—to one (non-Muslim) chair nation. A separate rotating team of four member states should be responsible for the monitoring process, potentially including relevant multinational institutions.
Islamism has been allowed to prosper in the decades-long vacuum of political and institutional progress in the region, leaving vast populations with limited economic prospects, frequently facing a devil’s alternative of economically exploitative authoritarian regimes or radicalism. The focus of the Geopolitical G-X initiative would be on the cultivation of new alternatives.
The substance of a longer-term political solution would start by arresting the ongoing balkanization of Syria and Iraq. This will of course require effective coordination between the current military alliance and the Geopolitical G-X. The parties involved should appoint an envoy who acts as a point of contact between the two entities with the additional goal to identify synergies.
A wide spectrum of governance systems should be studied in the context of each local culture. While Western-style democracy might be the best long-term solution in some cultures, others might function well with moderate, nonexploitive authoritarian models, like those of the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. Monarchies have attained enduring popular support in these cultures, largely because wealth has been more equitably shared and education, women’s achievement, and overall standards of living have been on an upward trajectory. Above all, promoting stable and fair alternatives to the devil’s alternatives will most likely only emerge from an open consensus-building process instead of the traditional effort to replicate one or another constituent model. Ultimately, the map of nations might benefit from a realignment around ethnic and sectarian lines, delineating and protecting separate ancestral homelands for Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Kurds, and other distinct ethnic groups.
The civilized world can only hope there are millions of Muslims, as in other ancient faiths, who choose a more civilized, modern interpretation of their liturgy and seek a peaceful, prosperous life. Others may be passively supportive of jihad, or at least impartial, yet few seem to have the courage to vocally oppose the theology, presumably fearing that they will be branded and victimized as “polytheist” themselves. The deafening silence of Muslim communities in response to serial events of terror and conquest suggests, at the very least, that peace-loving Muslims need to be reassured and empowered to lead the theological fight.
Western democracies are themselves now waking to the fact that jihadist theologies are infiltrating insidiously, through the door of our freedoms of religion and expression and our well-intentioned instincts of offering sanctuary to oppressed refugees. Disallowing all Muslim immigration is obviously not the answer, but incitement to jihad is criminal, not constitutionally protected, speech. We are not at war with all people of the Muslim faith, but rather with jihadist actors—and those need to be preempted and contained, whereever they are. Hate speech cannot be accepted in any context, including in community centers. Let us not forget that the foundations of IS itself were set over a decade ago in an Iraqi prison under American oversight, and jihadist theology is openly preached in mosques worldwide.
President Obama described the recent 195-nation climate declaration as “the best chance we have to save the one planet that we’ve got” over the coming centuries. Maybe so. Let us now use the same spirit to unite in countering the clear, present danger of more paralysis, radicalization of moderate Muslims, and a potentially weapons of mass destruction–capable caliphate today, and with the discipline to rethink outdated assumptions of the old world order.
Daniel J. Arbess is the founder and chief investment officer of Xerion Investments, a private investment firm; lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and cofounder of No Labels, a U.S. political organization promoting constructive collaboration across the spectrum. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg served as federal minister of defense and federal minister of economics and technology of the Federal Republic of Germany and is currently a distinguished statesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and founder and chairman of Spitzberg Partners, a New York–based investment and advisory firm. The authors are cofounders of Xerion-Spitzberg Partners, an investment and strategic advisory joint venture.
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