We Got Islamism Wrong

Contrary to public commentary, Iran’s direct and proxy threats against America and Israel in the Middle East is neither new nor uniquely about October 7.

In fact, the threats from the Iranian regime as well as other Islamist actors has only escalated since its inception in 1979 predicated on counterproductive U.S. Foreign Policy in the region.

From a military planning standpoint, the campaign Iran drafted in 1979 appears to have been brilliantly executed over the last 44 years. Today the Revolutionary Regime virtually controls Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza, through its proxies. A reemergence of the Persian Empire.

All of this was aided by a U.S. policy of denial, if not accommodation, which has precipitated the success of political Islam, particularly of the Iranian form. Iran’s destructive agenda has emboldened and enabled other strains of Islamism to flourish. In 2024, the United States has not changed much—whether myopic calls for pivoting to the Indo-Pacific, non-enforcement of sanctions against the Iranian regime, or a refusal to enable Israel—the first in the fight, and always in the fight—to finish the job with Hamas. This, even as Hamas holds Americans hostage and Hezbollah synchronizing its efforts in the north.

Coupled with other current policy failures and gaps, the lights are once again blinking red. Indeed, it is no wonder that several ISIS-linked individuals were apprehended trying to enter the United States illegally through the southern border; the only surprise is why it took this long.

The threat that was born in 1979 has metastasized in complexity and scope. Today, Iran and other adversaries are aligning their efforts to realize the most of these opportunities—whether global jihadists cheering on the campus protests, Iran facilitating Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, or deepening economic ties by both with China.

The threats posed by today’s strategic adversaries to the United States is exacerbated by and intertwined with an evolving Islamist threat, one whose course was defined by U.S. willful ignorance.

Iran’s actions in the region are consistent with the regime’s destructive agenda since its founding, as well as the broader ecosystem of groups subscribing to an Islamist (otherwise known as political Islam) worldview.

What is new is Israel’s actions. Unlike the United States, Israel is defining and addressing the threat consistently and clearly on its own terms—and therefore responding to it accordingly—rather than projecting unrelated policy ambitions onto a narrower problem set, which has characterized the approach of the United States.

The loss of innocent lives among the Gazan population is a tragedy with global ramifications and needs to be resolved. At the same time, eradicating Hamas and pushing Iran back in the region is required to restore peace and stability to the region, and prevent additional future tragedies.

Although the Islamism of the Iranian regime and the Sunni global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda are different in their theologies, both have borrowed from contemporary totalitarian doctrines in their evolution over the last several decades, and both traditions exploit failed and fragile political environments to sow destruction and oppress innocent local civilians. Both traditions share objectives of weakening the United States, its allies, and annihilating Israel.

Israel’s leadership holds that its mission in Gaza is not complete until Hamas governance ends. It also demonstrates through its actions in Syria and inside of Iran that it is committed to use force to push back the military presence and threat posed by the Iranian regime and its proxies. There is, in other words, no stronger language than force in addressing groups committed to violence and destruction. Defeat of Islamism requires not only an appreciation of its ideological underpinnings and objectives, but also the fact that addressing it requires military force.

It is this clear-eyed and consistent objective—across its southern, northern, eastern and far eastern (viz. inside Iran) fronts—as well as its bold commitment to using force to achieve it that is not only the right approach to restore security to its citizens, but should serve as a lesson for the United States.

America, by contrast, has consistently made the policy decision to define Islamism based on whatever political ambitions a U.S. administration faced, whether domestically or abroad. This has been true since the founding of the Iranian regime and has remained the case in its view of jihadists.

Many in America touted Khomeini’s return to Iran in 1979 through the lens of America’s liberal democratic tradition. A New York Times column about the event dismissed Khomeini’s “anti-Americanism” as something that could be “altered [by] the reality of power.” An account of Khomeini’s return featured in Time Magazine observed that “for all the problems ahead, there was a sense of controlled optimism in Iran last weekend. Now that the country’s cry for the Ayatullah’s return has been answered, Iranians will surely insist that the revolution live up to its democratic aims.” U.S. policy regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions in more recent years has almost consistently focused on negotiations, trusting that the processes and institutions that have maintained world peace can ensure Iran remain an honest broker and not seek the destructive ends around which its ideology is based.

The U.S. could not view the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan beyond its Cold War terms. The United States therefore began providing resources, including Stinger missiles, to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan as a deterrent against the Soviets. Although Stingers were the single capability in Afghanistan that could push back the Soviets by eliminating their airpower, it became part of a new arsenal that would be used to target Americans several decades later. Indeed, it was this very environment that molded the group that would become al-Qaeda, as well as its leader, Osama bin Laden.

More recently, during the two decades of the War on Terror, U.S. policy consistently reflected what we aspired to achieve rather than the growing threat of the adversary.

Despite a robust immediate response by the Bush administration following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the objective of defeating terrorist groups soon became indistinguishable from the objective of promoting democratic governance in parts of the world where the concept could not be more foreign. A still unclear legacy in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which still contain havens for terrorist groups, is the result of this muddled approach.

Under the Obama administration, a repentant tone about America’s purpose and recent policies during the War on Terror meant terrorism could no longer be associated with religion. In a 2009 speech then-Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan explained that President Obama does not “see this as a fight against ‘jihadists’”—a term Brennan noted refers to purification of oneself—and that the focus must be on countering “violent extremism.” The solution, to Brennan, does not require “a military operation but a political, economic and social campaign to meet the basic needs and legitimate grievances of ordinary people; security for their communities, education for children, a job and income for parents, and a sense of dignity and worth.”

In other words, by becoming about literally everything (other than the religious ideology) the terrorist threat became about nothing.

The Biden administration projected its own views about equity and inclusion into how to define and address terrorism. A recent Intelligence Community newsletter on the one hand dismissed any terminology that associates terrorists with Islam while, on the other hand, recommending a polemical theological term. The recommended term, “Khawarij,” refers to an early Islamic sect that was known to have employed extreme measures in its observance of the faith. It’s because of those methods that mainstream Sunnis describe jihadists as “Khawarij,” but otherwise the term has no connection to contemporary terrorist groups. In other words, use of the word is confounding for practitioners without this sectarian context, while unnecessarily complicating the policymaking process.

Winston Churchill warned American audiences in his famous 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri that “[w]e cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength.”

Nearly eight decades later, the United States sees at home the fruits of working on the margins when it comes to the Islamist threat. It is no wonder therefore that U.S. campuses are a breeding ground for terror sympathizers. Students or other participants can passionately wave the flags of terrorist groups, even dress as Hamas operatives, seeing no contradiction with their life and privileges in the United States.

As the United States twists itself into a linguistic pretzel, Israel is conducting a serious military campaign to send a message to Iran that it can strike inside its turf whenever it chooses to, and that it will not stop until Iran and its terror proxy network cease to threaten the people of Israel. Israel’s time and resources are precious, and there appears to be an understanding that those cannot be wasted on anything not directly tied to eliminating the terrorist threats on its borders.

Whatever comes next, whether in Gaza or as far as Iran’s regional escalation, Israel’s response will not include the naval-gazing nuisance that has prevented serious U.S. counterterrorism policy over the last two decades.

Perhaps Israel’s actions can be a starting point for a new U.S. approach on the basis of what Israel has thus far demonstrated works so well against those seeking to harm its citizens.

VADM Robert Harward, (U.S. Navy, ret.) is the former Deputy Commander of U.S. Central Command and is a 2022 participant in JINSA’s Generals & Admirals trip to Israel. Dr. Jacob Olidort was Director of Research at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy.

Originally published in RealClearDefense.