The Magazine

The Audacity of Shallowness

What would the Democrats do?

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Among certain Arab elites, there is considerable interest in how a Democratic administration would differ from the eight years of George W. Bush. It's a good question. Most Democrats, at least those running for president or sitting in Congress, have spent more time attacking Bush than explaining what Democrats would do if they were making foreign policy. But the Middle East seriously wounded, if not disgraced, the last two Democratic presidents. The candidates' reticence on the subject is understandable. Yet sooner or later, Hillary Clinton and company have to tell us what they think about Islam, Sunni Islamic extremism, al Qaeda, the religious dynamics of Iraq, clerical Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, rendition (Bill Clinton, if we recall, established the practice), close intelligence liaison relationships with torture-fond foreign security services (again, President Clinton had no insurmountable problem with this), and the appropriateness of preemptive U.S. military strikes against terrorist targets.

To Barack Obama's credit, he, at least, has now told us what he thinks about many of these issues. His speech on August 1 at Washington's Wilson Center is a fairly serious attempt to tackle many of the daunting issues before us. And Obama deserves praise for stating openly that he would be prepared as president to strike al Qaeda training camps inside Pakistan. Saying isn't doing, but at least the Democratic senator from Illinois has put down a benchmark. After 9/11, Pakistan's generalissimo, Pervez Musharraf, had a chat with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and immediately decided that his government's pro-Taliban policies were unhealthy. Since then, America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began as demonstrations of indomitable will, have become distressing messes, and Washington has resumed aid to Islamabad, with the result that Pakistan's counterterrorist and anti-Taliban efforts have been executed with diminishing enthusiasm. Who knows whether Obama would have even mentioned this if it had not been for the recent National Intelligence Estimate on terrorist threats to the United States. Still, it is good that a left-wing Democrat has dared to voice support for preemptive military strikes. It takes us back to Rich Armitage's chat. It reminds foreigners that Democrats can start, as well as avoid, wars.

But its bellicosity aside, Obama's speech, if seen through Middle Eastern eyes, leaves one dumbstruck. Consider first its operational implications. For Obama, fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq is almost counterproductive, while fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is good. Al Qaeda in Iraq was born in sin because it "didn't exist before our invasion." Al Qaeda in Central Asia and the subcontinent has, for the senator, a cleaner pedigree, traceable directly to Osama bin Laden. But what in the world do the circumstances of birth have to do with counterterrorism?

Let us leave aside the controversy over whether al Qaeda had training camps in Iraq while Saddam Hussein ruled. Could it not have developed such camps since? Could they not develop even now in the Sunni zones of Iraq, especially if the United States withdraws and the Sunni-Shiite clash intensifies? Until recently--until the surge--the Sunnis of Anbar Province did not do particularly well at corralling, let alone killing and exiling, Iraqi and foreign members of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Sunnis of Iraq--the now vaunted anti-al Qaeda tribes of Anbar Province--are barely more unified than the Shiites. Al Qaeda has done rather well in Iraq precisely because many Iraqi Sunnis have been sympathetic to its methods and tactics, against both the Americans and the Arab Shiites.

The example of Pakistani tribes giving aid and comfort to al Qaeda and the Taliban has many similarities with the Iraqi Arab Sunni tribes' aid to al Qaeda. In both places, al Qaeda probably has sufficient support to sustain itself for years--especially if the Sunni-Shiite clash grows worse. Sen. Obama is desperately worried about the dozens of "groups affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda . . . worldwide"--but not about Al Qaeda in Iraq, which if you had to rank the al Qaeda offspring by their lethality to the continental United States, would rank no lower than third.