Sunday, January 10, 2010

It's Not Al-Qaida the Obama Administration Doesn't Understand, It's Everything Else

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By Barry Rubin

A friend sent me an article written, in his usually witty style, by Mark Steyn in the conservative magazine, National Review, entitled "But We’re Still Gonna Kill You." Steyn writes:

"Barack Obama has spent the last year doing bigtime Islamoschmoozing, from his announcement of Gitmo’s closure and his investigation of Bush officials to his bow before the Saudi King and a speech in Cairo to `the Muslim world' with far too many rhetorical concessions and equivocations. And at the end of it, the jihad sent America a thank-you note by way of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear: Hey, thanks for all the outreach! But we’re still gonna kill you."

But Mr. Steyn, who goes on to talk about various al-Qaida and individual attacks by revolutionary Islamists misses the main point (and I don't say this in any antagonistic sense as I often admire his writings). Of course al-Qaida is attacking America, that's why Obama says the United States is at war with al-Qaida.

To be fair to Obama and his administration, they know that al-Qaida is an enemy that is going to go on waging jihad against the United States until it is defeated. (Though the blockheads running the counter-terrorism program seem surprised al-Qaida might send terrorists only one at a time instead of in groups of 18.)

They also know that some individuals are going to respond to al-Qaida's propaganda and launch attacks on their own. They also seem to understand that Hamas is not going to be moderated by concessions. Moreover, the U.S. government is conducting a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and a covert battle against al-Qaida in Yemen.

Consequently, Obama is not trying to persuade al-Qaida not to kill Americans. Rather, he is trying to undermine its appeal by trying to show Muslim bystanders that al-Qaida's view of the world is wrong. Obama is saying that America doesn't hate Muslims, respects them, follows policies that help them, and wants to get along with them. If this succeeds, fewer people would want to join or help al-Qaida. In addition, the United States is keeping up the military pressure on al-Qaida, at least in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq, along with some other places.

Of course, very few people do join al-Qaida, but enough to continue its terrorist campaign. Due to al-Qaida's own strategy--particularly its failure to couple political efforts with terrorist ones--it is unlikely to grow very much any way. Obama's effort is one more factor containing al-Qaida but cannot eliminate it completely. After all, Obama is not going to appeal to people whose perceptions of him and America are filtered through their own culture, history, local regimes and elites, and media. His greatest appeal will be to those who are already the least radical, though that appeal is diluted by his not supporting the efforts of some of them to achieve more democracy and freedom.

On fighting al-Qaida, no one else could probably do a much better job, but then they could succeed to the same extent at a far lower cost in apologies, concessions, and loss of credibility.

Another point that both Steyn and Obama leave out is a lot more important. Despite all of Obama's policy and rhetorical efforts no one in the Muslim-majority world--no major cleric, government, or group--is going to HELP the United States improve its image and defend itself better no matter what the U.S. government does. They may attack, they may cheer, they may do nothing, but no amount of concessions or flattery is going to get them actively to help the United States achieve its policy goals or even defend its people and institutions.

After all, Saudi money and youth are going into Iraq through Syria to kill Americans. Egypt's media promotes anti-Americanism. The Palestinian Authority won't even talk to Israel no matter how hard this U.S. government tries to give it a state and prove that it doesn't love Israel. Pakistan is most willing to fight the Taliban trying to overthrow the Pakistani government but helps the Afghani Taliban trying to kill Americans and overthrow the Afghan government.

A third issue, and probably the most important one of all, is that while al-Qaida is the biggest threat in terms of direct attacks on the United States and its citizens, on the larger stage it shrinks to relative unimportance compared to the Islamist regime in Iran and many revolutionary movements which are much larger and more successful in more than 50 countries around the world. Al-Qaida can carry out a few acts of terrorism each year which may or may not succeed. These movements are striving to seize state power. A historical comparison would be between the USSR and Soviet-directed Communist parties on one hand and scattered anarchist terrorist movements on the other.

The big problem, then, is that the administration thinks the threat comes from a small isolated minority of heretics while everyone else can be moderated somehow:

--The administration believes it can flatter, engage, pay off, or appease Iran, Pakistan, and various Arab governments to stop projecting anti-Americanism and cease sabotaging U.S. efforts to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons or make Israel-Palistinian peace.

--It thinks that by making it harder for members of the Iranian government and their closest supporters to make money abroad the United States can win favor with the Iranian masses and force the Iranian government into a deal not to build nuclear weapons.

--The current U.S. government expects that by saying how much it respects Islam and is sensitive to other customs, cultures, and polities, this will persuade the Muslim and Arab masses that America is their friend, so they shouldn't delight in terrorists killing Americans.

--It does not fully appreciate the extent to which Israel is an ally in a battle against mutual enemies.

--Apparently, it is close to concluding that Hizballah, Syria, and Iran can play a constructive role by almost running Lebanon.

--The government is particularly blind to the threat of the current Turkish government which is drifting so close to Iran and Syria while moving the country in an Islamist direction domestically.

As important as the attempted bombing of the airliner heading to Detroit was, it should be remembered that this is only the second time in more than eight years that a terrorist has gotten on board a U.S. plane.

Meanwhile, Islamists have been making both public relations' and material victories in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, against Israel, in Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen, and elsewhere. At the same time, the administration's confusion and weakness has demoralized U.S. allies or Arab countries which at least are being forced by their own interests to fight against the spread of revolutionary Islamism.

In addition, the administration's blindness has led to a spate of internal terrorist attacks in places like Texas (Fort Hood), Arkansas (against an army recruiter), Washington state (against a Jewish community office in Seattle), and many others without the government in any way rethinking its definition of the threat or its policies to protect Americans.

In short, the administration does understand about al-Qaida one of its two worst enemies, it just doesn't fully comprehend any of the other forces causing trouble for the United States, including Islamists in general, Iran, and Syria.

What's the other worst enemy? Why, the administration's own policies, of course.

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 latest books are 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). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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