In Terry Gilliam’s classic 1985 science-fiction film “Brazil,” Robert De Niro plays “Archibald Harry Tuttle,” a renegade heating engineer who clandestinely repairs the heating and cooling systems of a broken-down repressive regime. Instead of trying to destroy or overthrow the systems of the dystopian government, Tuttle fixes them to work for the everyday citizen. The United States needs a Tuttle strategy, covertly fixing systemic problems at the local level within fragile and failing states, tailoring each operation to the specific needs of the region, and positively affecting the lives of millions of people living under these fragile, repressive, or ineffectual regimes.
In July of 1969, President Richard Nixon announced a new approach to the United States’ national security objectives. His vision was to pursue American national security goals through partnerships with allies throughout the world. The Nixon Doctrine, as it would be known, would give military and economic assistance to allies resisting the Soviet Union and their proxies.
Currently the United States is providing assistance to fragile governments to resist al-Qaida and its’ affiliates influence, performing security capacity building, intelligence training, and counter-terrorism operations. The tactics currently employed by the United States to confront its largest national security threat are mostly top-down approaches. These government-level tactics can cause unintended blowback in the population’s attitude toward the United States, fostering anti-Americanism, and creating an environment for radical al-Qaida style ideology to flourish.
I am proposing that alongside the top-down tactics, a bottom-up strategy of direct action through non-state actor proxies could be adopted to further U.S. national security objectives.
Today, in countries that the local populations view the government as ineffectual and/or corrupt, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas have been able to sustain legitimacy by providing basic services to residents that the government is unable to provide. These organizations are building schools and hospitals, providing jobs, giving food to the poor, and even fixing household plumbing. This strategy of creating an alternative infrastructure and a network of services is key to any insurgent movement try to supplant a government’s authority.
This strategy does work. The United States can mirror this strategy by creating its own network of service providers that can compete at the local level. Along the same lines of building an intelligence network in dangerous regions of the world, the U.S. could build a network of local teachers, doctors, bankers and plumbers. By using this network as a proxy basic services provider, the U.S. can rival and disrupt terrorist organizations that are competing for the “hearts and minds” of the local population.
For instance, terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida have been using Islamic charities as front organizations for financing terrorist operations, supplying logistical support, and funneling recruits to the group. The United States could develop its own moderate Islamic organizations, using local citizens, to provide services such as micro-loan financing for businesses, health programs for children, and jobs for idle youth.
Using these organizations, the U.S. can gain a better understanding of local conditions and culture, recruit individuals for the betterment of their society, and supply aid directly. By hiding the United States’ helping hand, the U.S. can help stabilize fractured societies within fragile states, support social cohesion, and disrupt terrorist networks’ base support structures.
This strategy would be a thankless job for the United States. The local populations would not know of the U.S. government’s direct involvement. Everything should be done covertly to avoid misrepresentation of the U.S. goals and unintended anti-American blowback. If groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaida can do good for their society while planning attacks against the United States and its allies, then the United States should be able to help locals citizens while hunting down and disrupting terrorist organizations.
As Archibald Harry Tuttle said “Listen, kid, we’re all in it together.”
Christopher Barich is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Policy.