Graeme Wood, the noted Atlantic journalist and author of the newly published The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, sat down with Admiral Stavridis, Dean of The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, on February 27th as part of the “Fletcher Reads” program to discuss his book, his interactions with supporters of radical Islam, and the myriad of challenges in finding a viable solution to the Islamic State problem. At one point, the Dean posited a question about the future of the Islamic State, as Mosul is on the verge of liberation and Raqqa is likely to follow. Will the Islamic State escape into the desert, reconstitute, and continue to maintain their focus on establishing a legitimate, territorial caliphate? Or will they simple fade into the desert, dispersing across the globe while finding other ways to support the resurrection of the caliphate and spread their radical ideology? These questions present a very applicable case study amid President Trump’s recent call for a military plan to defeat IS, coupled with the administration’s budget proposal, released almost simultaneously with Mr. Wood’s visit to Tufts, to increase defense spending at the expense of the State Department and similar developmental programs. Pushing IS out of its strongholds and into the desert no doubt requires an effective military plan, a plan that requires follow-up if the Islamic State simply escapes and continues to fight. But hopefully they are militarily defeated and forced to fade into the world population, a result which will also necessitate a vibrant, engaged, and fully-funded State Department and the multitude of other developmental programs and foreign aid the United States typically provides the world.
The proposed budget calls for more than a 30% reduction to State Department funding in conjunction with an increase in military spending on the order of $54 billion, which the Department of Defense admittedly needs in order to recapitalize the current force. Yet some, including Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, while stating that $54 billion may not be enough, argue that diverting funds from State would be counterproductive. In the first place, there isn’t much water available from the State Department stone to begin with. State is a veritable pauper in the government bureaucracy, pulling less than $60 billion per year as compared to DoD’s almost $600 billion. Second, not only is foreign aid only about 1% of the overall budget, but, as Admiral Stavridis points out, foreign aid “is not about altruism. It is about pragmatically improving the security of the United States.” Foreign aid provides stability, security, and sows the seeds for economic engagement and cooperation. Third, even staunch supporters of the military believe defunding State is ill-advised, as articulated in an open letter from the Global Leadership Coalition, signed by over 120 retired flag officers. While military capability provides a means to treat the symptoms (e.g. IS and terrorism writ large), diplomacy, development, engagement, education, job creation, and humanitarian aid set the conditions to eradicate the disease. All of the above is perhaps best summarized by the now oft cited quote from then General Mattis in 2013: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Hard power wins the battle; soft power wins the war.
In response to Dean Stavridis’ question, Mr. Wood stated he felt the hard core of the Islamic State would continue to fight in the region and eventually be militarily defeated, but the less dedicated or ancillary supporters would continue spreading their ideology while whimsically longing for their warped version of all-encompassing sharia rule. He also hoped that these particular supporters of IS would gradually dwindle in number, strength, and devotion, comparing them to aging hippies who, while keeping their tie-dyed shirts in the closet for the sake of nostalgia, no longer smoke marijuana, eschew social norms, and attend protests. When using that analogy, it is important to realize that the hippies of the sixties changed their ways not because the world entered some utopian state of being or that they abandoned their beliefs. Those hippies hung up their tie-dye because they got jobs and started families in an environment that provided for freedom, security, economic opportunity, and social mobility. Though the hippie ideology is undeniably more malleable than that of religious radicalism, it is not a far cry to speculate that similar conditions could have the same mollifying effect on the supporters and soldiers of the Islamic State. Organizations like The Department of State, USAID, and the Peace Corps are essential to setting those conditions.