By Barry Rubin
President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University, “The Future of Our Fight against Terrorism” is a remarkable exercise in wishful thinking and denial. Here is basically what he says: the only strategic threat to the United States is posed by terrorists carrying out terrorist attacks.
In the 6400 words used by Obama, Islam only constitutes three of them and most interestingly in all three the word is used to deny that the United States is at war with Islam. In fact, that is what President George Bush said precisely almost a dozen years ago, after September 11. Yet why have not hundreds of such denials had the least bit of effect on the course of that war?
In fact, to prove that the United States is not at war with Islam, the Obama Administration has sided with political Islam throughout the Middle East, to the extent that some Muslims think Obama is doing damage to Islam, their kind of non-revolutionary Islam.
And how has the fight against al-Qaida resulted in a policy that has, however inadvertently, armed al-Qaida, as in Libya and Syria?
Once again, I will try to explain the essence of Obama strategy, a simple point that many people seem unable to grasp:
Obama views al-Qaida as a threat because it wants to attack America directly with terrorism. But all other Islamist groups are not a threat. In fact, they can be used to stop al-Qaida.
This is an abandonment of a strategic perspective. The word Islamism or political Islam or any other version of that word do not appear even once. Yet this is the foremost revolutionary movement of this era, the main threat in the world to U.S. interests and even to Western civilization.
If one wanted to come up with a slogan for the Obama Administration it would be that to win the war on terrorism one must lose the war on revolutionary Islamism because only by showing that America is the Islamists’ friend will it take away the incentive to join up with al-Qaida and attack the United States.
Please take the two sections in bold above very seriously if you want to understand U.S. Middle East policy.
According to Obama:
If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Egypt that is not a strategic threat but a positive advantage because it is the best organization able to curb al-Qaida. And that policy proves that the United States is not at war with Islam.
If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Tunisia that is not a strategic threat but a positive advantage because it is the best organization able to curb al-Qaida. And that policy proves that the United States is not at war with Islam.
If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Syria that is not a strategic threat but a positive advantage because it is the best organization able to curb al-Qaida. And that policy proves that the United States is not at war with Islam.
If a regime whose viewpoint is basically equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood—albeit far more subtle and culture—dominates Turkey that is not a strategic threat but a positive advantage because it is the best organization able to curb al-Qaida. And that policy proves that the United States is not at war with Islam.
These and other strategic defeats do not matter, says Obama in effect:
“After I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qaeda, but also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leadership. We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home. We pursued a new strategy in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces. We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.”
And yet the Taliban is arguably close to taking over Afghanistan in future. The group has spread to Pakistan. The rule of law in Afghanistan is a joke and soldiers there know that the Afghan government still uses torture.
“Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants. There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure. Fewer of our troops are in harm’s way, and over the next 19 months they will continue to come home. Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world. In sum, we are safer because of our efforts.”
Well, it is quite true that security measures within the United States have been largely successful at stopping attacks. But the frequency of attempted attacks has been extensive, some of which were blocked by luck and the expenditure of one trillion dollars. Country after country has been taken over by radical Islamists who can be expected to fight against American interests in future.
“So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us…”
But he never actually defines it except to suggest that 1. Al-Qaida has spread to other countries (which does not sound like a victory for the United States) and 2. That its affiliates and imitators are more amateurish than those who pulled off the September 11, 2001 attack. Yet they got away with the September 11, 2012 attack.
Indeed, rather than a movement and ideology like Communism and fascism, Obama sounds like a comic book superhero describing life in Gotham City:
“Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.”
Yet his advisor on this issue, CIA director John Brennan has said that the United States cannot be at war with terror because terror is merely a tactic. So what is the problem: “the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings,” as if the Taliban, al-Qaida, the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas are equivalent to the Newtown, Connecticut shooting?
“What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”
In other words, it is not a strategic problem but a law enforcement one.
And at another point he added,
“Deranged or alienated individuals…can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.”
Appears? So Fort Hood and the Boston bombing are still not considered by the American president as part of a war against America but perhaps due to that evil that lies in the hearts of men?
And what is the nature of that criminal conspiracy?
“Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11. Instead, what we’ve seen is the emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates.
From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse, with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP –the most active in plotting against our homeland.”
One would never know, however, that al-Qaida was always basically decentralized. Al-Qaida in Arabic means “the base” and what Usama bin Ladin did was to create a focal point to start off a global jihad. Bin Ladin is dead but he accomplished his short-term objective. Moreover, al-Qaida’s partner, the Taliban, is doing very well. Who cares whether they directed the attacks in Benghazi (apparently it wasn’t a video) and Boston? They inspired those attacks.
“Unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria,” says Obama, a man who clearly need not fear the mass media turning his phrase against him. After all, it wasn’t just unrest but Obama’s policy that armed al-Qaida and helped it participate in a successful revolution. And the same point is true in Syria.
Indeed, if Bush was responsible for unintentionlly magnifying the appeal of al-Qaida in Iraq, Obama did the same thing in Syria, except Obama didn’t fight them but helped supply the weapons!
At least he called Hizballah a “state-sponsored” terror network though it might have been nice if he mentioned that the state in question is Iran, which also supported terrorists who killed Americans in Iraq. That is another point that Obama left out and yet could easily have mentioned.
And of course he mentioned Oklahoma City, which happened just 20 years ago, in order to suggest that right-wing extremists were also involved in terrorism, even when Fort Hood and Boston are due to some vague cause.
But here’s the kicker:
“Moreover, we must recognize that these threats don’t arise in a vacuum. Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology – a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam; and this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist acts.”
Yet clearly Obama has no notion—or will not admit to one—of what that “common ideology” might be, except for a misunderstanding, which presumably his outreach will correct, about American intentions.
In fact, though, in the sense that they speak of it, the United States is at war with Islam, the revolutionary sort of Islam of course. To help any country resist radical political Islam is, in their eyes, opposition to proper Islam. Perhaps this is why the Obama Administration seeks to help turn other countries toward Islamist regimes.
Of course, the United States is not at war with Muslims but not only al-Qaida but Hamas, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the Taliban and dozens of other groups, ideologues, and militants know that America is their enemy. No matter what Obama does he will not persuade them and their millions of supporters that the United States is their ally. Even though Obama has often actually made America their ally.
It would be like helping Communism in the Cold War to take over countries in order to show that America is not at war with the Russian people, or to do the same with Nazism to show that America is not at war with the German people, or to help Gamal Abdel Nasser or Saddam Hussein to take over the Middle East to prove America is not at war with the Arab or Muslim people.
A more accurate picture is offered by a Saudi writer in al-Sharq al-Awsat:
“The most acute [aspect of] the problem is that Obama is laying down the systematic groundwork for the development of extremism and sectarian violence that will make us miss the Al-Qaeda of George W. Bush’s era, while deluding himself that he eliminated Al-Qaeda when he killed Osama bin Laden!”
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——————– 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 next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.