Cliff May

The “fog of war” is a concept derived from the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, the great 19th century Prussian military theorist who recognized that those leading troops into battle often lack data, perspective and situational awareness. Enveloped within this “fog of uncertainty,” they may not know whether they are winning or losing, and they may take actions that weaken their position and strengthen their enemies.

Would Clausewitz not be fascinated by the war dominating the 21st century, a conflict so murky we can’t even agree on its name? It is the War on Terrorism or the Long War or the War Against al Qaeda or just Overseas Contingency Operations?

Over at Foggy Bottom -- an apt nickname if ever there was one – an unnamed “senior State Department official” told National Journal’s Michael Hirsh that “the War on Terror is over.” He (or she?) elaborated: “Now that we have killed most of al-Qaeda … people who once might have gone into al-Qaeda see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism.” A White House spokesman later issued a “clarification”: “We absolutely have never said our war against al Qaeda is over. We are prosecuting that war at an unprecedented pace.”

Both statements miss – if not the elephant in the room -- the guerillas in the mist. Yes, Osama bin Laden sleeps with the fishes and many of his lieutenants have learned the hard way how accurate American-made unmanned aerial vehicles can be. But as Rand Corp. scholar Seth Jones recently noted, with “a handful of regimes teetering from the Arab Spring, al Qaeda is pushing into the vacuum and riding a resurgent wave as its affiliates engage in a violent campaign of attacks across the Middle East and North Africa. … al Qaeda is regrouping.”

Nor have we defeated al Qaeda’s many affiliates and allies. Among them: the Taliban, the Haqqani network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Hezbollah and Hamas.

And, most significantly, there is Iran, which the State Department itself has for years designated as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Iran’s rulers do not think their war against “the world of arrogance” is over. And they have standing on this issue.

As for “legitimate Islamism,” that is meant to imply the Muslim Brotherhood whose members may indeed believe that elections are preferable to violence as a path to power. But if the Brothers differ with the jihadis over means, they sing from the same hymnal when it comes to ends. Both believe in Islamic supremacy; both are committed to the establishment of Islamic hegemony over the Middle East and, eventually, well beyond; both seek the power to silence critics at home and abroad; both are engaged in persecuting religious minorities in “Muslim lands”; both are committed to the destruction of Israel, the only Middle Eastern nation not ruled by Muslims.

And, as Andy McCarthy recounts in “The Grand Jihad,” American Muslim Brothers meeting in Philadelphia in 1991 produced an internal memorandum candidly proclaiming their mission: “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house …” Should we really be calling this “legitimate Islamism” -- and should we really be comfortable with it?

There are those who predict that the Islamists taking power in Egypt and elsewhere will become pragmatic once they have to pay bills, fill potholes and curry favor with voters. But that has not happened in Iran over the past 33 years – much as we’ve tried, from time to time, to convince ourselves such a transition was at hand. Nor has it happened in Pakistan and Turkey – both have become increasingly Islamized in recent years.

Others scholars -- my friend and colleague Reuel Marc Gerecht prominent among them -- argue that Islamism should be seen as a way station rather than a destination. They argue that Muslim-majority societies will learn soon enough that it’s not true that “Islam is the answer” to all the vexing questions of economic and societal organization. Once that happens, they predict, a process of liberalization and democratization will commence. But what is the basis for the belief that the Islamists will allow themselves to be voted out of power? Again, that’s not been possible for Iranians who, ample evidence suggests, long ago became disenchanted with theocracy.

That brings us to the most egregious way in which our thinking has been befogged. In 2009, President Obama visited Fort Hood to honor the 13 Americans massacred by Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army officer who proclaimed himself a “Soldier of Allah.” The Americans who were gunned down, Obama said, “did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of this great state and the heart of this great American community. This is the fact that makes the tragedy even more painful, even more incomprehensible.”

Such incomprehensibility not only persists – it is being reinforced by official U.S. policy. Last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered all military schools to make sure they are not including “anti-Islamic themes” in training courses. Dempsey’s order prohibits instructors and guest lecturers from “advocating ideas, beliefs and actions that are … disrespectful of the Islamic religion.”

Imagine if, during the 1930s, the U.S. government had prohibited ideas, beliefs and actions that might be seen as disrespectful of the German, Italian and Japanese nations. What if, during the Cold War, there had been a ban against ideas, beliefs and actions that could be seen as disrespectful of Russian culture – or of socialism since most socialists are not “violent extremists”?

To see through the fog of war, Clausewitz wrote, requires “a fine, piercing mind.” He probably took for granted that it also requires intellectual courage – something not often exhibited by Western leaders in the current era.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.