The counterfactual approach to foreign policy

British foreign secretary David Miliband made a splash today at a speech in Mumbai by describing the global war on terror as a “mistaken” enterprise. He expands on the theme in a Guardian op-ed today:

The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common. Terrorist groups need to be tackled at root, interdicting flows of weapons and finance, exposing the shallowness of their claims, channelling their followers into democratic politics.

The “war on terror” also implied that the correct response was primarily military. But as General Petraeus said to me and others in Iraq, the coalition there could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife.

That via Joshua at FP Passport. I think Miliband is right, but does anyone disagree? The framing is not, in my mind, a function of military effectiveness, but of political effectiveness.

Framing the war on terror as a simple binary struggle solves a political problem for leaders at home: how to sell a major shift in foreign policy and military spending, including costly wars, to a skeptical public.

The counterfactual is not simply “take a more nuanced approach to tackling terror” but also includes “take a more nuanced approach to selling the tackling of terror when the body bags continue to pile up”.

There is a respectable argument that the first approach, on net, is more effective (and more sustainable) than Miliband’s suggestion. What the Milibands of the world need to do is to find a way to solve every Senator and Minister’s primary political problem: how to maintain support for a messy, costly, long fight under a different guise?