Whoever becomes next President of the United States must give a higher priority to closing the long-standing gap in United States foreign policy in which religion is discounted as being of little consequence in the affairs of state. In a geopolitical context in which religious legitimacy trumps all, as it does for those who are resorting to terrorism in religion's name, this willful neglect is a luxury we can no longer afford.
For more than two decades, defense planners have been wrestling with the challenges of the asymmetric threat. This term of art is normally associated with creative, unconventional attacks by disadvantaged opponents against more powerful adversaries—much like that used by Osama bin Laden on 9/11 to rock the United States back on its heels. In response to this kind of threat, the Pentagon came up with a strategy of "irregular warfare," which calls for a much tighter coordination between defense, diplomacy and development.
This is all to the good; but there is simply not enough money in the U.S. Treasury to protect our country against the full spectrum of possible asymmetric threats. What is needed instead is an asymmetric counter, one that displaces the ideas behind the guns. The task of developing such a counter, however, is made all the more challenging by the religious nature of these ideas.
As has been clear from U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have very little ability to deal with religious differences in hostile settings or to counter demagogues like bin Laden who manipulate religion for their own purposes. It seems supremely ironic that one of the most religious nations on the face of the planet should be so incapable of dealing with the religious imperatives that permeate today's geopolitical landscape. Among the reasons for this shortfall, three stand out. First is our long-held commitment to the rational-actor model of decision making in which religion is deemed to be irrational and therefore outside the policymaker's calculus. Second is the fact that we have let our separation of church and state serve as an excuse for not doing our homework to understand how religion informs the worldviews and political aspirations of others who do not similarly separate the two.
Finally, there are the political ambiguities surrounding church/state separation that are inhibiting our political and military leaders from dealing with the religious dimensions of the threats that they face. This deep-seated aversion to dealing with religious factors seems particularly foolish when 84% of the world's population derives their reason for being from their religion. The looming specter of religious extremism married to weapons of mass destruction only adds to the urgency.
It is encouraging that the State Department is at long last waking to the need through its incorporation of new training programs on religion at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, where it trains its senior and junior diplomats. This training, however, is voluntary and therefore unlikely to have any deep-seated impact on how Foreign Service Officers think about and deal with religion's influence. The Department is also putting an increased emphasis on promoting and enforcing international religious freedom. While a highly important end in its own right, religious freedom is generally perceived by others as an American agenda (despite United Nations endorsement) and in any event represents a very narrow slice of a much larger pie.
Indicative of the larger need is the unanswered letter sent by President Ahmadinejad of Iran to President George W. Bush in May of 2006. Rather than quickly dismissing it out of hand (probably because of its rambling nature and numerous religious references), consideration should have been given to crafting a response that would have enabled the United States to stake a credible claim to the spiritual high ground, rather than ceding it outright to the Iranians. More recently, and as pointed out by Dr. Sebastian Gorka, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, in his June 2011 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, the U.S. government has resorted to using the term "violent extremism" as a way of finessing any requirement to address the religious character of the enemy's ideology.
With religion clearly on the ascendance, ignoring its influence will only subject us further to the law of unintended consequences (to which we have already fallen victim far too often). To the extent that this avoidance is driven by our inability to understand how to engage on such terms, my new book Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement explains in some detail how this can be done. The stakes are incredibly high, and the task more than merits whatever urgency we can give it.