By Barry Rubin
So you want to understand Obama foreign policy? Ok, here is an explanation in clear, simple, and accurate form based on Obama’s recent speech at Fort McNair about terrorism:
Obama Premise Number One:
If one wanted a slogan for the Obama Administration regarding the “war on terrorism” it would be:
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 of Muslims, including radical Muslims, to join al-Qaida and attack the United States.
This is NOT the same thing precisely as showing that the United States is the Muslims’ friend. For, after all, the United States is taking sides for some Muslims and against others. And the side it is taking is that of the Islamist Muslims against the moderate, traditionalist, and nationalist ones.
In other words, the administration is largely assuming in practice that the Islamists are the proper representative and leadership of the Muslims. (That is also true, by the way, of domestic preferences.)
Thus, if the Muslim Brotherhood governs Egypt, Tunisia, the Gaza Strip, and Syria, they would have what they wanted and there would be no need for them to attack America and would have every interest in suppressing al-Qaida.
Ironically, though, the Benghazi attack disproved this thesis, which was one of the reasons why the information about it had to be suppressed. The United States “proved” that it was the friend of Islamist rebels, helping them win the war and get rid of the oppressive dictatorship, but they still were ungrateful and attacked Americans. The same thing happened in Iraq where the Sunni Islamists objected to U.S. policy.
It is true that in Syria, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist radical Islamists are not the same as al-Qaida and might oppose it. But they are not necessarily hostile to its ideas. When the United States tried to isolate the Syrian branch of al-Qaida (Jabhat al-Nusra) in December 2012 by designating it as a terrorist group, even the Free Syrian Army, supposedly the moderates, denounced the move as did more than 30 Syrian Salafist rebel groups. How would these groups choose sides between the al-Qaida affiliate and the United States?
What would the policy of an Islamist Syria be toward the United States and its interests? While there is no reason to believe the Muslim Brothers or Salafists would attack the World Trade Center, they can be expected to attack U.S. diplomats, facilities, and citizens in Syria and to help Salafists stage revolutions elsewhere that would do the same thing.
At the recent meeting of the Syrian opposition, the State Department spokesman explained:
“We have recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and we will work with Prime Minister Hitto. Our assistance will be channeled in large part through him and his team into these towns in liberated parts of Syria.”
Translation: One among several opposition groups–the one controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood–is recognized by the United States as the legitimate representative (even though many groups are boycotting it); the Muslim Brotherhood’s guy is the “prime minister;” and the U.S. government intends to disburse a total of $1 billion raised internationally through the Muslim Brotherhood. How much patronage will that buy for the Brotherhood?
Kerry also announced that $250 million in U.S. taxpayer money is going to go directly to a group directed by the Muslim Brotherhood to spend as it wishes. Presumably most of that money will go to local Brotherhood groups and militias.
“We have not recognized it [the opposition grouping] as the Syrian government. We have recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and we will work with Prime Minister Hitto. Our assistance will be channeled in large part through him and his team into these towns in liberated parts of Syria.”
Translation: One among several opposition groups–the one controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood–is recognized by the United States as the legitimate representative (even though many groups are boycotting it); the Muslim Brotherhood’s guy is the “prime minister;” and the U.S. government intends to disburse $1 billion raised internationally through the Muslim Brotherhood. How much patronage will that buy for the Brotherhood?
Actually, there was a much better way for the Obama Administration to have explained the Benghazi attack. It could have said that of course the attack was from al-Qaida but that was because the United States was doing a good thing– helping put into power a non- Islamist, democratic, moderate government. That is how other presidents–as with George W. Bush in Iraq–would have managed this issue.
Listen to Obama’s words in his Fort McNair speech:
“What’s clear is that we quickly drove al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but then shifted our focus and began a new war in Iraq. This carried grave consequences for our fight against al-Qaida, our standing in the world, and–to this day–our interests in a vital region.”
Suppose one substituted the words “Libya” or “Syria” for the word Iraq? After all, Bush’s surge defeated al-Qaida, though of course not completely, but in Syria al-Qaida is stronger than ever at this point, and in Libya it also murdered Americans.
And such a stance by Obama would also have required admitting that from the Libyan (and potentially Syrian) Islamist viewpoint the help given them wasn’t enough, that it resulted in Libya in an American “puppet” regime.
And that approach would have forced the Obama Administration to open itself up to the same criticism it keeps making against Bush in Iraq: that U.S. intervention strengthened terrorists.
Obama Premise Number Two:
Think about the Benghazi attack in this context.
Real cause of attack: The Americans helped Islamists gain power so they could operate freely in Banghazi, a city where al-Qaida patrols the city and controls territory today. Thus, the mistake was that the U.S. government was too pro-Islamist.
Phony cause of attack: The Americans weren’t pro-Islam enough, i.e., they had this nasty video that offended Muslims.
In other words, the attack’s cause was reversed, it was made to seem as if it was the exact opposite of the truth.
Real lesson: Don’t arm radical Islamists. Fight them alongside Muslims who are also anti-Islamist.!
Phony lesson: Fight against Islamophobia.
Obama Premise Number Three:
Over and over again American presidents have said–as did Obama in the Fort McNair speech–that America is not at war with Islam.
But, Obama continued, the ideology America is fighting is based only on the mistaken belief that America is at war with Islam, which means the problem is not that Islamists should have good reason to believe that the United States does oppose their establishing anti-American, authoritarian dictatorships.
Obama’s lesson: Get Muslims–even better, radical Islamists–to suppress al-Qaida.
Fine. But what about this point:
Revolutionary Islamism is at war with America.
No matter how much the United States does to help revolutionary Islamists–like putting them into power in Syria–they will still hate and fight against America.
Obama Premise Number Four:
Most of those killed by Islamist terrorists are Muslims. Therefore, Muslims aren’t really responsible.
Response: Yes but first, that’s why many Muslims–the victims–want to fight against Islamists taking over their societies. Muslim terrorists kill Muslims because those Muslims don’t support those Muslim terrorists.
Obama policy: All Muslims are good except for a very tiny minority.
Proper statement: There are bad Muslims and good Muslims. The United States wants to help the good Muslims against the bad Muslims. The bad Muslims want to impose bloodthirsty dictatorships, hate America, chase out Christians, and suppress women even more than they are already.
In addition, the second largest group being killed by Islamist terrorists are non-Muslims. There’s a war going on.
BUT From the Islamist standpoint:
The killer if a British soldier in London quoted the Koran, yelled Allahu Akhbar and said: The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers.
–If an Islamist kills a Muslim who opposes him or even a bystander Muslim that’s ok.
–If a British soldier in Afghanistan saves a Muslim from being killed by Islamist Muslims that’s bad and worthy of “Islamic” revenge.
In other words, ideological Islamists will interpret anything but surrender to their violence as hostility to Islam.
Anti-Islamist Muslims interpret helping them against Islamist authoritarians as helping the proper version of Islam.
The real situation is a war among Muslims–just as World War Two was a war among European Christians and a war among Asians–in which the United States knew what side it should be on.
Obama Premise Number Five:
Never talk about the war on revolutionary Islamism or, more accurately, revolutionary Islamism’s war on the West.
Well, most of those killed by the Nazis up to late 1939 were German. Did this mean we had to talk all the time about how we liked Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, hamburgers, and other great achievements of German culture?
The problem is the political movements involved and the radical governments making such a big security threat for the United States. Not just the safety of Americans in the homeland but U.S. national interests (remember them?)
Obama Premise Number Six:
Why did Obama say that the heckler at his speech, leftist loony Medea Benjamin, was “worth paying attention to?” Because she was shouting that the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp or the use of drones made Americans less safe at home. That is what he considers regrettable, even if he has to do things to the contrary sometimes, because he knows that America’s defending itself is partly counter-productive. After all:
Fighting Islamist terrorism encourages more Islamist terrorism.
It is better to let other Islamists suppress it because non-Islamists backed by the United States would be called American puppets. By this standard, having for example President Husni Mubarak in power in Egypt endangers Americans and so does supporting moderate rebels in Syria or being too close to Israel or complaining about Turkish policy by that Islamist regime.
Supporting Muslim relative moderates makes Muslim terrorists angry and furnishes cause for terrorist attacks. Obama wants to remove–as in so many other things–what he believes to be the root cause of the grievance.
Consider this concept: America is not at war with Islam but who might think otherwise and respond with violence? Radical Muslims. So the problem is not, in Obama’s eyes, to prove that America is not at war with Islam but that it is not at war with radical Muslims. It is in fact not the enemy of radical Muslims but rather the friend of radical Muslims.
As a result, radical Muslims become more successful, gain power, rule over millions of people and become more radical. Muslims might believe that their successes show that radical Islam is the winning team or you might just be afraid of them and want to get along. Either way, revolutionary Islamism is getting more and more powerful in the region. Obama is the biggest disaster of all for non-radical Muslims, whether genuine liberals or conservative monarchies.
Obama Premise Number Seven:
If terrorism is merely local and spontaneous it doesn’t count as much. Actually, however, it should count more.
Because it shows that al-Qaida’s influence is widening, even to places in the West.
Because it is harder to counter through intelligence and other measures since there are scores of smaller attacks and plots that are more invisible because of smaller numbers and less organization.
Because time after time we see that terrorism happens because openly radical mosques and other groups plant the dynamite in the minds of young people but since they are not actually engaged in direct terrorism nothing is–can be?–done about it even when we know these mentors want terrorist acts to result. Here’s a case study of the London murder and the same was true in the Boston attack. Perhaps Obama might consider branding some places and people terrorism incubators.
Thus, within hours of Obama’s speech:
–A British soldier was ruthlessly murdered on a London street as a result of an extremely radical mosque and preachers operating freely to advocate violence along with an apparent conspiracy by a group of terrorists. Rather than be holed up in Afghan caves, al-Qaida terrorists stalk London streets.
And British soldiers have been told not to wear uniforms openly. That means the British army is afraid of al-Qaida in the streets of London.
In France, three soldiers and two Jews were murdered in Toulouse by those influenced by al-Qaida. Moreover, now another French soldier has been stabbed while on anti-terrorist patrol near Paris.
Within the United States, a couple of young men with perhaps some terrorist training and in touch with al-Qaida cadre murdered people in the streets of Boston and terrorized the whole city. They committed murders and apparently had a support network of friends willing to help them.
And even as Obama called the Fort Hood massacre an act conducted under the influence of international terrorism, his Defense Department found that this was an individual act, ignoring that the murders were recommended by an al-Qaida cleric in Yemen.
So when al-Qaida, Obama says, is cowering in the caves of Afghanistan, it is also recruiting on the computer screens of America, Britain, and France, among many other places.
Here is how a Saudi writer analyzes the situation:
“Al-Qaida’s former attacks were high-quality and were carried out be elite squads of fighters, [but these fighters] did not represent broad sectors of Arab society. The wars currently being waged in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, on the other hand, are frightening because they rely on [entire] social [sectors] that support [the fighters] and shelter them.” That same point applies equally to the West in that individuals or small spontaneous groups are more dangerous than small groups of elite squads.
Who’s actually winning the war on terror in the Middle East and the West?
And who’s winning the struggle between revolutionary Islamism and the West?
For a discussion of what I think U.S. policy toward terrorism and Islamism should be, see here.
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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.