U.S. Can Fight Domestic Insurgents With Lessons Learned Abroad

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The U.S. Secret Service has either no sense of irony or a very dark sense of humor. In naming a heavily protected part of downtown Washington the “Green Zone” in advance of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the agency evoked memories — mostly bad ones — of the secure area of U.S.-occupied Baghdad during the war in Iraq.

Yet the moniker was sadly appropriate, and not just because the more we learn about the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, the clearer it becomes that the U.S. only narrowly averted a historic catastrophe. The 2020s are likely to be a decade when foreign policy becomes domestic policy. A population that typically thinks of insurgency, political violence and democratic decay as things that happen “over there” now confronts these urgent challenges at home.

If that seems alarmist, consider what we’ve recently learned. There is a sizable faction of armed, right-wing zealots willing to use violence against America’s democratic order. A vocal minority of conservative elites, including the outgoing president, members of Congress and key media personalities, has explicitly or implicitly encouraged this behavior. The rhythm of threats, intimidation and attacks by white nationalist groups and other extremists is intensifying.

Even as most conservatives abhor political violence, many Republicans believe that Biden’s presidency is illegitimate. The threat of terror is already shaping public debates: Some Republican representatives were reportedly unwilling to break with Donald Trump for fear of assassination by their party’s radical fringe.

And that’s only one side of the political spectrum. There is also a troubling, if decidedly lesser, penchant for violence on the left, whether in the form of riots and looting or even the attempted assassination of conservative political figures.

Gun sales are rising and apocalyptic rhetoric is becoming commonplace. Washington in 2021 isn’t Baghdad in 2007; U.S. institutions and democratic traditions are strong enough that the country probably isn’t headed for civil war. But the specter of violence haunts American politics and the danger of domestic conflagration is too real to ignore.

Such a climate is not, unfortunately, unprecedented. The early Republic experienced more than one insurrection. Southern legislators used the threat of violence against their Northern colleagues to mute congressional debates over slavery before the Civil War. After that conflict, there was a full-blown insurgency in the South, which failed militarily but ultimately succeeded politically in securing the withdrawal of federal troops. And from the labor radicalism of the late 19th century to the militia movement of the late 20th century, America has seen waves of politically motivated bloodshed.

Yet elements of the U.S. predicament — a government with disputed legitimacy, radical actors using force against their political enemies, ambitious politicians who court an extremist fringe, proto-insurgencies looking to spark a wider conflict — are all too reminiscent of conditions a global superpower has encountered in countless developing societies since World War II.

One of the reasons American scholars have devoted so much intellectual energy to studying these phenomena is that they have figured so centrally to the nation’s involvement overseas. Which means the U.S. will now find itself in the strange position of drawing on lessons it has learned about the dynamics of internal conflict in foreign societies as a way of preserving its own democracy.

One such insight is that defeating incipient political violence requires relentlessly pursuing extremists without alienating comparative moderates. As Daniel Byman of Georgetown University has written, when political violence goes unpunished, it invigorates those who practice it. But when a government’s response antagonizes large swaths of the population, it risks pushing them toward the radicals.

Thus the critical need for the aggressive campaign the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement institutions are now launching against the perpetrators of the Capitol riot, as well as a larger law enforcement effort — which the Biden administration will surely undertake — to dismantle white nationalist and other extremist organizations. Yet Democratic elites need to avoid labeling all of Trump’s political supporters as “deplorables,” racists or irredeemable enemies of democracy, because doing so will only intensify the cultural and political siege mentality that pushed many of those people toward an illiberal demagogue in the first place.

Second, the U.S. needs a mutual nonviolence pact between responsible leaders on left and right. Comparative politics scholars have long understood that once elites begin encouraging violence as a weapon in domestic debates, the escalatory cycle can be extremely difficult to break. It is essential, then, that both Democratic and Republican leaders firmly reject any political violence — no matter the perpetrator — and isolate and condemn colleagues who incite, applaud, or profit from it. This does not amount to a suspension of political competition. It is simply a recognition that moderates on both sides will eventually be devoured by extremists if that competition doesn’t remain within bounds.

Third, democracies struggle to survive deep ideological or political splits within their security institutions, which can lead to civil war or simply to the cancers caused by extremism within the ranks. The U.S. is fortunate in this regard. Despite some early blunders — such as the participation of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in Trump’s infamous excursion through Lafayette Square  — the military command remained scrupulously apolitical and supportive of the Constitution amid Trump’s assault on democracy. The attempted insurrection on Jan. 6, the Joint Chiefs bluntly declared in a statement to the entire U.S. military, “was a direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building, and our Constitutional process.”

Yet reports of military and law enforcement personnel participating in the assault on the Capitol and joining extremist groups are troubling. They indicate that America’s security institutions will require a zero-tolerance approach to those who have violated their oaths or proved themselves disloyal to the Constitution.

Whatever the incoming Biden administration does, the U.S. is headed into an era of domestic turbulence and disorder more severe than any it has confronted in generations. The U.S. doesn’t have the luxury of retreating from the world to heal its wounds. But a superpower used to intervening in other countries’ conflicts will now need all the knowledge and insight it can get in dealing with its own.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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