By Barry Rubin
Vice President Joe Biden has given a very revealing interview with Newsweek. In it, he confirms my consistent analysis that the administration defines the U.S. problem with revolutionary Islamism as only involving al-Qaeda. It cannot be stressed enough why this policy is so extraordinarily dangerous.
Why? The irony is that while the Obama administration refuses to use the expression “War on Terrorism,” this is precisely how they have defined the entire U.S. strategy, although one might also call it the “War on the Perpetrators of September 11.” What is missing here is any dealing with major strategic issues.
It is true that September 11 and other massive terrorist attacks are of huge significance. But there’s a whole world out there. Revolutionary Islamists are taking over the Middle East, moving toward the rule over tens of millions of people, getting nuclear weapons, carrying out subversion and terrorism against U.S. allies, and inciting hatred of the United States and a passionate desire to hurt it.
Among the countries where anti-American Islamists — however they conceal their views and goals — are in power are the following: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkey. Syria is their ally and so, to a certain extent, is Qatar. Pakistan often covertly supports such forces as well. The list of those supporting this stance is far longer than those on the other side.
The Obama administration has consistently underestimated the growth and spread of Islamism. No, let me go further: It basically claims that the phenomenon doesn’t exist at all. Worse still, like someone faced with fire who pours gasoline on everything in its path, the Obama administration is doing things that worsen the situation by backing radical Islamists and systematically failing to support their intended victims.
To be fair to Biden, however, it is understandable that he must downplay the Taliban threat in this case because he is justifying the coming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet what he says is far more revealing in a damaging way than the superficial criticism — Biden says Taliban is not our enemy — misses.
Regarding al-Qaeda, Obama said that the American goal in Afghanistan is “to fundamentally alter their capacity to do damage to American allies and vital U.S. interests….” Yet what about the other, far larger, more powerful, and more dangerous groups that are doing that?
The interviewer, the very capable Leslie Gelb (a liberal Democrat foreign policy establishment guy who nonetheless sounds very unconvinced by Biden), asks: “…Depending upon who comes to power in Afghanistan in the future, they [al-Qaeda] can come back.” And Biden responds, “I would argue they are not able to come back. I would argue that there has been serious damage done to their infrastructure in a way that the coherence of this thing called al-Qaeda and their ability to metastasize has been severely damaged.”
This is naïve to say the least. Al-Qaeda is functioning very seriously in Yemen, Somalia, and other places. You don’t kill a terrorist organization that has always been profoundly decentralized by killing a few leaders. But, again, what about new versions of al-Qaeda?
The main criticism of Biden has quoted him as saying that the Taliban is not an enemy of the United States, but that’s a misinterpretation of his words. What he actually says is something far more stupid in policy terms. The Taliban, he explains, “is not our enemy” unless it is in power. To quote him precisely:
“If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us.” So the Afghan government should “be strong enough that they can negotiate with and not be overthrown by the Taliban. And at the same time try to get the Taliban to move in the direction to see to it that they, through reconciliation, commit not to be engaged with al-Qaeda or any other organization that they would harbor to do damage to us and our allies….”
So he argues that, worst case, the Taliban can be kept from returning to power and, best case, they can be moderated. Of course, he underestimates the Taliban, even though he hints that it enjoys Pakistan’s support, and overestimates the Afghan government. And, of course, since he has no concept of the Taliban’s revolutionary Islamist ideology (God told us to do it), he simply cannot comprehend that this is not an ideologically flexible group.
This, of course, also applies to the administration’s entire Middle East policy. Ironically, the Arab equivalents of the Taliban are getting into power, often with U.S. help or even approval, everywhere. But the Obama administration believes that they will “move in the direction…through reconciliation” not to oppose U.S. interests and allies.
It should be needless to say — but it is highly necessary to say it constantly — that this is not based on any evidence whatsoever.
The Taliban created a safe haven for terrorists because it hates America and all non-Islamist governments. If, for instance, al-Qaeda were to be totally destroyed but the Taliban came back to power, it would do the same thing with other groups. Moreover, al-Qaeda leaders have taken refuge in Iran and are operating from there. We know this because U.S. intelligence people have leaked detailed information to the mass media.
Guess what? That safe haven scenario is precisely the situation developing in the anarchical Sinai right now. In the past, Hizballah also provided safe haven to terrorists operating against the United States and has done so itself. In Egypt, even if you were to excuse the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate,” groups that obviously preach anti-American terrorism are getting 20 to 30 percent of the vote. And if you actually read speeches by Muslim Brotherhood leaders being candid in Arabic, they sound like al-Qaeda.
Here is Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad al-Badi in October 2010: The United States is immoral, doomed to collapse, and “experiencing the beginning of its end and is heading towards its demise.” Thus, Muslims “crucially need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life.”
With friends (and moderates?) like these who needs Osama bin Laden?
The list goes on.
So to say that the Taliban can be moderated and kept out of power while following a policy of saying that the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizballah, and other such groups will be moderated by gaining power goes beyond silliness. Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One of my readers has coined a version of this for the Obama administration: “Power moderates and absolute power moderates absolutely.” Except, it seems, in the case of the Taliban.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com