“Einstein gave the English language one of its most used clichés: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Bruce M. Lawlor and Kevin McCarty
“The people who know most about how to change minds are not found in the federal government.” Ibid
The president is about to get the same results
Julius Caesar went to Pontus (now Turkey) in 47 B.C. to make war on the king, and proclaimed “I came, I saw, I conquered.” President Trump went to Washington to make war on ISIS and met Albert Einstein.
Like Caesar, Mr. Trump wants to put a quick, decisive end to the barbaric “dirty rats” of ISIS, shorthand for the Islamic State. Unlike Caesar, he has to rely on others to devise a strategy that will kill his enemy. To do that, he’s ordered the Pentagon to come up with a new strategy.
It’s undeniably true that the United States needs a new approach to defeat ISIS. While President Obama issued press releases about drone attacks against individual ISIS leaders, the organization expanded into 31 countries and carried out or inspired terrorist attacks in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. Mr. Trump has wisely said we need to do something different. That’s where Albert Einstein comes in.
Among his many achievements, Einstein gave the English language one if it’s most used clichs: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By asking the Pentagon for a new strategy, the president has made it virtually certain that he will not get one, only more of the same, but with greater emphasis on its violent execution.
The problem is that the president is asking the same questions, of the same people, about the same situation, in the same institution, and yet expects to hear something different. James Mattis as the new secretary or a covey of new political appointees at Defense doesn’t change the problem because the people who make war plans aren’t civilian appointees. They’re seasoned veterans of war-making, and they’ve been looking at ISIS for some time. They use equipment, people and concepts to attack and destroy physically the nation’s enemies. As one Army general put it so eloquently, “We kill people and break things.” That’s how they will respond to Mr. Trump’s request. They will recommend that we attack ISIS, kill its people and destroy its facilities because that’s what they know how to do.
So once again, Einstein will be proven right. The president will get a new plan. It will have more airstrikes, maybe a refugee safe zone, a no-fly zone, more boots on the ground, looser rules of engagement, arming the Kurds, more drone attacks, more firepower. The result, however, is likely to be the same because the underlying strategic concept hasn’t changed. We think we can kill Islamist extremism by killing Islamist extremists.
This is not to argue that the Pentagon doesn’t have a part to play, because the “dirty rats” are so deserving of a bullet. But it’s not enough to win, and the Pentagon doesn’t know how to do more. This is not about who has more firepower. It’s about who has the best idea about how you will be governed. It’s an information fight about their version of theological conformity against individual freedom. Military force is part of the struggle, but we will not win until we change the minds of millions of Muslims who believe in this Islamist jihad.
We proved in Vietnam that you can’t kill an idea with firepower. After we lost that war, Col. Harry Summers told a North Vietnamese Army officer, “You know you never beat us on the battlefield,” to which he replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” Saigon fell in 1975 because we didn’t understand that strategically, the conflict was about ideology and information, and about how it was conveyed to and perceived by our enemies, our friend, and by us. In Clausewitz-speak, it was about the enemy and our own will to resist. We are making the same mistake with ISIS.
There needs to be an information component in the new ISIS strategy, one that meets head-on the issue of Islam being used to justify terrorist violence. The vast majority of Muslims are already with us in condemning hatred in the name of Islam, but there are still many who aren’t because a small percentage of 1.6 billion Muslims is still a lot of people. We need a political campaign to influence their ideas, to convince them that suicide vests and beheadings on the beach are not part of an answer to their problems.
The Pentagon can’t run such a campaign because it doesn’t know how, as it has proved time and time again. Ironically, it was George C. Marshall, one of our greatest generals, who understood that sometimes firepower is not the best option, and that solutions can be found outside of government, if one is willing to accept a different conceptual approach. That is what is needed here. The people who know most about how to change minds are not found in the federal government. They live in political campaigns, think tanks, advocacy groups, academia, and yes — Hollywood and the media. If you want to change people’s thinking, that’s where you go to find the men and women who can do it.
Bruce M. Lawlor, a retired U.S. Army major general, is a former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security. Kevin McCarty is a former naval officer and strategist who served under two presidents as a member of the National Security Council staff.