Foreign Policy Blogs

Fighting Extremism in the Trump Age


On the campaign trail, President-Elect Trump’s virulent rhetoric linked the prospect of terrorism to Muslim immigration. Banning Muslims from entering the country, then compelling American Muslims to register with the government, emerged as campaign policy proposals. Concurrently, the Trump campaign fed a strain of intolerance and extremism domestically that has now been further empowered by his victory and his appointment of advisors known for their own inflammatory views.

Extremism is on the rise in America—in its electorate and potentially in its government. At the same time, combatting extremism abroad remains a policy priority. How do these facts relate?

A November 15 forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) marked the release of Turning Point, a report commissioned by CSIS to outline “a new comprehensive strategy for combating violent extremism” (CVE).

The word “new” meant that no truly comprehensive strategy had yet been identified and implemented. The word “comprehensive” proposed a marriage between America’s “hard power” capabilities for CVE—its military and intelligence capacity—and the “soft power” of U.S. cultural and economic influence. The CSIS Commission on Countering Violent Extremism is chaired by former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both men of deep experience at the highest levels of government who are familiar both with the use of force and its limits.

Trump’s surprise victory colored the Commission’s presentation of its findings. Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State included actions that pointed to some receptivity to soft power. She implemented a Quadrennial Development Review modeled on the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review and aimed at targeting America’s development funding to unstable regions that might otherwise foster terrorism.

Trump, by contrast, pledged to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” while claiming a secret plan to defeat it—a commitment to hard power that was as bellicose as it was vague.

With a growing global population of Muslims under 30, and martyrdom as a recruitment tool, demographics point to the limitations of a hard power solution to extremism. CSIS Senior Advisor and former Deputy National Security Advisor Juan Zarate put it bluntly: “you can’t kill your way out of this problem”.

Instead, the Commission’s plan would degrade the power that distortions of Islam and other extremist ideologies hold over individuals, particularly youth. It proposes a long-term battle for the hearts and minds of those susceptible to extremist ideologies that will draw on America’s hard power and soft power resources.

So what will this battle look like? And how prepared is America to fight it?

Some recommendations in Turning Point reflect the U.S. government’s proven ability to project hard power. One recommendation would have the U.S. build a new international force capability to “quickly dislodge terrorist groups that control territory, avert and respond to immediate threats, (and) weaken violent extremists’ projection of strength”.

So long as ISIS or groups like to aim to wrest and hold territory from sovereign states, a military-led solution to extremism is vital. Other recommendations—directing $1B in new funding to CVE and appointing a new White House assistant to the president for CVE—speak to government’s ability to direct money and personnel at problems. They are also measurable outcomes.

Recommendations covering the soft power side of the battle express ideals rather than concrete actions. Calling for “Expanding CVE models”, the Commission asks America and partner nations “to enlarge the CVE ecosystem, creating flexible platforms for funding, implementing, and replicating proven efforts to address the ideologies, narratives, and manifestations of violent extremism”. Governments are not expected to create the solutions; rather, government funding should catalyze private sector and philanthropic funding of CVE activities by NGOs.

Embedded here are two realizations: first, we do not really know what successful CVE solutions will look like; second, government is not the forum in which to create them. Commissioners recognize the role that social media plays in changing the CVE landscape—both threat and response. Those most susceptible to extremist ideology are “digital natives”, in the words of Commissioner Farah Pandith. Social media networks are manipulated to foment extremism and should be used as CVE platforms.

Direct government involvement in battles of religious ideology, however, gets tricky. Commissioner Mohamed Magid, Imam of the All Dulles Muslim Society, acknowledged that Muslim communities must communicate the true values of the faith, and maintained that “government should not be active in religion”. That is an American value.

It is also a political reality that free governments can share ideas but they cannot impose them. Think of a strong public library system: a local government can and should build it, but it cannot tell its people when to go and what to read.

Soft power has been denigrated in part because its tools and outcomes are less quantifiable than its hard power counterparts. Then hard power fell on hard times. The Iraq War—America’s most recent exercise in hard power—has not yet produced its promised promotion of democracy in the Middle East. President Obama embraced aspects of hard power – particularly the use of drones – but his overall foreign policy recognized the limits of force as a policy tool.

The biggest obstacle to America’s use of soft power against extremism is the recent emergence of extremism in America. The Commission recommends that “The United States should put human rights at the center of CVE, ensuring that its engagement with domestic and foreign actors advances the rule of law, dignity and accountability”. It certainly should. To do this, however, America must first put human rights front and center at home.

The 2016 election exposed the degree to which racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia still plague America. To have any credibility on the issue abroad, America must steadfastly protect the human rights of its own citizens. We must take the plank out of our own eye first. That done, America has power to spare in helping others do so abroad.

“When all you have is a hammer”, the saying goes, “all problems become nails.” The bad news is the CVE represents a complex array of problems. The good news is America has more tools in hand to fight it than it has been using. Time to pick them up.



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.