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The United States vs Al Qaeda: Who’s winning?

The Power Problem: Part of a series of views on lessons learned in the exercise of American power in the decade since 9/11. By Stephen Walt Who won the war between the United States and Al Qaeda?  Which side is … Continue reading >

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Leveraging smart power against terrorists

Some hawks have cited the skillful military operation that killed Osama Bin Laden as proof that terrorism must be dealt with by hard power, not soft power. But such conclusions are mistaken. A smart strategy against terrorism also requires a large measure of soft power.

Terrorists have long understood that they can never hope to compete head on with a major government in terms of hard power. Instead, they use violence to create drama and narrative that gives them the soft power of attraction. Terrorists rarely overthrow a government. Instead, they try to follow the insights of jujitsu to leverage the strength of a powerful government against itself. Terrorist actions are designed to outrage and provoke over-reactions by the strong.

For example, Osama bin Laden’s strategy was to provoke the United States into reactions that would destroy its credibility, weaken its allies across the Muslim world, and eventually lead to exhaustion. The United States fell into that trap with the invasion of Iraq. According to a May 6 article in the National Journal, “By conservative estimates, bin Laden cost the United States at least $3 trillion over the past 15 years, counting the disruptions he wrought on the domestic economy, the wars and heightened security triggered by the terrorist attacks he engineered, and the direct efforts to hunt him down.” Continue reading >

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Killing bin Laden’s myth and his brand

Killing Bin Laden does not end terrorism. In the short run, it may even lead to a spurt of decentralized revenge attacks, but in the longer term it deals Al Qaeda a severe blow. Over the past decade, Al Qaeda became a loose network, almost a franchise, where much of the activity was developed by local terrorist entrepreneurs. Now the value of the brand name is diminished, and that makes the franchise less valuable.

As I describe in The Future of Power, terrorism is not about military strength or military victory. In an information age, it is not always whose army wins, but also whose story wins. Continue reading >

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