August 17, 2020
Vicious Cycles: How Disruptive States and Extremist Movements Fill Power Vacuums and Fuel Each Other
- Great-power competition and the terrorist threat intersect and interact with one another in Africa and the Middle East. US disengagement from these regions to prepare for great-power competition in other theaters will increase a growing vacuum that is drawing more regional and global actors—states and non-state extremist groups—into a series of vicious cycles that will pose grave threats to American national security in the coming decades.
- Breaking the vicious cycle will require the US and its allies to separate the Libyan and Syrian conflicts and disentangle and discourage proxy conflict by external players while supporting the development of responsive governance in the two countries.
- Preventing similar crises will require a proactive strategy to seal off localized conflicts and prevent them from becoming larger competitions between external players while taking action to improve governmental responsiveness in at-risk areas.
A strategy oriented on great-power competition and managing terrorist threats must focus on Africa and the Middle East rather than pull away from them. These regions are home to one of the world’s largest and densest concentrations of Salafi-jihadi groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State. They have also become the epicenter of proxy and sometimes direct competition among great powers, including Russia and China, and important regional states such as Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. The interactions of these states and non-state actors create a number of vicious cycles that perpetuate and expand conflict while feeding the Salafi-jihadi movement and giving it room to expand. Embracing the need to engage in great-power competition makes sense. Pulling away from Africa and the Middle East to do so does not.
American war-weariness and retrenchment has opened a power vacuum across the Middle East and Africa. Disruptive states such as Iran and Russia, which seek to upend regional or global balances of power and fundamentally alter the current world order,[i] have aggressively filled that vacuum by intervening in conflicts in ways that erode international norms. Such interventions, especially those that become multisided proxy wars, prolong and worsen conflicts by flooding them with weapons, money, and man power, all while raising the conflict’s geopolitical stakes and paralyzing the international community’s response.
This prolonging and deepening of conflict also destroys responsive governance and deepens popular grievances in the host country. These are exactly the conditions that fuel extremist insurgencies, which draw strength from their ability to forge relationships with aggrieved populations.[ii] Well-known examples include Hezbollah supporting Lebanon’s underprivileged Shi’a and al Qaeda supporting Syrian Sunnis against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime.[iii] Extremist insurgent groups can recover from catastrophic losses so long as their support base faces an existential threat, which protracted conflicts create.[iv]
This expansion and protraction of conflict are most advanced in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. What began as domestic conflicts have become regional proxy wars with global implications, including humanitarian disasters, mass displacement, and emerging threats to NATO’s security. The Syrian and Libyan conflicts are now merging, moreover, making them even more difficult to resolve and raising the stakes even higher.
The growth of extremist movements is a catalyst, not just a result, of multisided proxy wars. Extremist movements and disruptive states form a mutually reinforcing vicious cycle. The presence of Salafi-jihadi groups provides justification and opportunity for disruptive states to intervene in a way that masks their true objectives. Russia’s air campaign in Syria is a classic example. The Kremlin’s “counterterrorism” campaign against the Islamic State has primarily helped Assad attack the legitimate alternatives to his rule.[v] Assad has even freed jihadist prisoners to add a veneer of truth to his accusation that all his opponents are terrorists.[vi] Disruptive states and their protégés—particularly dictators and would-be dictators like Syria’s Assad or Libya’s Khalifa Haftar—use the language of counterterrorism to preserve a facade of legitimacy. This framing makes it easier for war-weary US leaders to stay away, arguing that someone else is taking on the counterterrorism fight.[vii]
The US cannot insulate itself from the world’s dangers, as the COVID-19 pandemic makes painfully clear. The US does not have a stake in every far-flung war, but Washington does have an interest in ensuring that conflicts do not become proxy battles that fuel transnational extremist movements and morph into global geopolitical crises. The Syrian and Libyan wars are setting conditions for serious challenges to Mediterranean security and NATO for which the US is neither diplomatically nor militarily prepared.[viii]
More geopolitical crises are likely. Several Middle Eastern and African states face mounting internal pressures: See the protest movements in Lebanon and Iraq, fragile transitions in Sudan and Algeria, ethnic tensions in Ethiopia, and increasingly lethal Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.[ix] The collapse of even one of these states would open another battlefield for proxy conflict and Salafi-jihadi expansion.
This increasingly chaotic world demands proactive policies. Early recognition and action yield the most effective and cheapest policy in both lives and dollars. This insight is as true for national security as it is for public health.
Breaking the vicious cycle will require Washington to pursue a strategy to seal off localized crises, stopping them from becoming larger conflicts between external players. Such a strategy needs a new policy framework that takes a long-term view of US interests and global stability and explicitly subordinates short-term political, security, and economic objectives to those ends. Proactive strategy must include early diplomatic and foreign assistance-based interventions, prioritized according to an analysis and forecasting framework that identifies the most dangerous likely hot spots. Washington should also recommit to its allies and partners—and to its ideals—recognizing that doubts about America’s commitment are partly responsible for pushing states to turn to proxy war to defend their interests.
Alongside this engagement, Washington must be more willing to pressure and, if necessary, punish its partners when they engage destructively in third-party conflicts, such as in the case of Egypt’s and the United Arab Emirates’ military support for Libya’s Haftar and aspects of Turkey’s support for the internationally recognized Libyan administration. The long-term damage caused by allowing partners to wage proxy war with impunity is worse than any short-term damage to the bilateral relationship.
Foreign policy professionals should take this lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic: Better management of growing overseas threats is infinitely preferable to dealing with them at home. America’s leaders need to prepare for the inevitable and prevent foreign conflicts from worsening until they force the United States into crisis mode.
The age of counterterrorism has passed into the age of great-power competition. The US national security apparatus has been shifting its formal policies and strategies away from the former and toward the latter for several years.[x] Successive administrations have demonstrated with words and actions their determination to draw the United States out of the Middle East and Africa.[xi] These shifts reflect an effort to realign US priorities with a changing world, but they unfortunately are also shaped by war-weariness and a desire by the US public and policy community alike to close their eyes to familiar and seemingly intractable problems.
The great-power competition framework falls far short of capturing the scale of the global challenge the US faces. The China and Russia challenges are subsets of a murkier and more dangerous threat: The liberal democratic world order that the US and its allies built in the aftermath of World War II is eroding, possibly permanently. The key to stopping this erosion or building a new order that is still conducive to American interests and values lies in the same places that the US policy community and public want most to set aside—the conflict zones of the Middle East and North Africa.
Declining US leadership is leaving a void that others have rushed to fill. China and Russia are the most obvious “revisionists”[xii] that seek to challenge US leadership of the international order,[xiii] but smaller-scale revisionists, such as Iran, also seek some version of regional hegemony. Others still, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), prefer the Pax Americana but have grown nervous about America’s commitment to their security and seek to secure their interests by intervening throughout their region.[xiv]
These players and more are intervening in Arab civil wars—particularly in Syria and Libya—and have made these conflicts more complicated, harder to resolve, and more destructive to the local social fabric. These protracted and expanding conflicts demolish institutions of governance and destroy the public’s confidence in those that remain, setting the ideal conditions for the growth of violent extremist movements. Extremist movements in turn feed disorder, providing opportunities and justification for revisionist powers to degrade the world order further. Together, revisionists and extremists form a vicious feedback loop that knits together individual crises—which Western governments and publics see as distant threats—into a geopolitical nightmare.
The leadership vacuums left by the US in Syria and Libya have enabled the current disorder, and the current trajectory of US policy increases the likelihood of worst-case scenarios with sweeping global implications. The US response to great-power competition thus far is accelerating a US shift away from the conflict zones that revisionist actors are exploiting to degrade the global order. Further US withdrawal—particularly if it includes abandoning burden-sharing partners and failing to rally allies in support of the global order—will invite opportunist malefactors and rattle those states that rely on American steadfastness.[xv] Great-power competition also risks causing US policymakers to justify backing partners whose actions enliven extremist movements for the sake of maintaining influence and keeping such states out of the Chinese and Russian orbits.[xvi]
Breaking this vicious cycle requires a US strategy to prevent and mitigate the internationalization of conflict zones. More broadly, it requires American policymakers and the public alike to recognize that the US withdrawal from global leadership is already making the world a more dangerous and chaotic place.[xvii]
[i] Gary J. Schmitt et al., Rise of the Revisionists: Russia, China, and Iran (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2018).
[ii] Katherine Zimmerman, Road to the Caliphate: The Salafi-Jihadi Movement’s Strengths, Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, June 6, 2019, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/road-to-the-caliphate-the-salafi-jihadi-movements-strengths.
[iii] Mona Alami, “The Role of Hezbollah Among Its Shia Constituents,” Atlantic Council, February 28, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-role-of-hezbollah-among-its-shia-constituents/; and “Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” International Crisis Group, March 14, 2016, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/exploiting-disorder-al-qaeda-and-islamic-state.
[iv] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Deadly Cycle of Terror That Has Iraq and Syria in Its Grip,” Spectator, June 21, 2014.
[v] Zack Beauchamp, “Russia Says It’s Bombing ISIS in Syria. It’s Actually Bombing Their Enemies,” Vox, September 30, 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/9/30/9423229/russia-bombing-isis-syria.
[vii] Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr, “Trump Says US Will Withdraw from Syria ‘Very Soon,’” CNN, March 29, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/29/politics/trump-withdraw-syria-pentagon/index.html; and Steve Holland, “White House Says Trump Spoke to Libyan Commander Haftar on Monday,” Reuters, April 19, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-trump/white-house-says-trump-spoke-to-libyan-commander-haftar-on-monday-idUSKCN1RV0WW.
[viii] John W. Miller and Frederick W. Kagan, “The New Cold War in the Mediterranean,” Fox News, February 17, 2016, https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/the-new-cold-war-in-the-mediterranean.
[ix] Emily Estelle, “Forecast: The African Salafi-Jihadi Movement After COVID-19,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, May 13, 2020, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/forecast-the-african-salafi-jihadi-movement-after-covid-19.
[x] White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf; and US Joint Chiefs of Staff, “The National Military Strategy of the United State of America 2015,” June 2015, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Publications/2015_National_Military_Strategy.pdf.
[xi] Marc Lynch, “Obama and the Middle East: Rightsizing the U.S. Role,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/obama-and-middle-east; and Simon Tisdall, “Why Instinct and Ideology Tell Trump to Get Out of the Middle East,” Guardian, January 11, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/11/why-instinct-and-ideology-tell-trump-to-get-out-of-the-middle-east-suleimani-iran.
[xii] Schmitt et al., Rise of the Revisionists.
[xiii] Experts debate the extent of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions, with some arguing that it seeks to change the balance of power only in East Asia. While the CCP’s military objectives may be limited to its region, its global governance ambitions predicated on greater authoritarian control contradict the liberal democratic world order and US interests and values. See Melanie Hart and Blaine Johnson, “Mapping China’s Global Governance Ambitions,” Center for American Progress, February 28, 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2019/02/28/466768/mapping-chinas-global-governance-ambitions/.
[xiv] Ben Hubbard, “Arab World Split Over Iran Nuclear Deal,” New York Times, July 14, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-deal-provokes-sharp-reactions-across-the-arab-world.html.
[xv] Katherine Zimmerman, “Why the US Should Spend 0.3 Percent of Its Defense Budget to Prevent an African Debacle,” Military Times, March 12, 2020, https://www.militarytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2020/03/12/why-the-us-should-spend-03-percent-of-its-defense-budget-to-prevent-an-african-debacle/.
[xvi] Michele Dunne, “Democracies (Still) Make the Best Partners,” American Interest, March 14, 2020, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2020/03/14/is-a-new-kirkpatrick-doctrine-the-answer/.
[xvii] Robert Kagan, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” New Republic, May 26, 2014, https://newrepublic.com/article/117859/superpowers-dont-get-retire.