The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish .  .  . the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor -trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. -- Carl von Clausewitz

Far beyond the question of al Qaeda participation in the September 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and others, David Kirkpatrick’s notorious New York Times article—claiming no international terror group had a role in the assault—is evidence that, 12 years after 9/11, we still don’t understand the enemy. More fatally, even after seven decades of direct engagement and involvement in the greater Middle East, we do not understand the nature of the war.

The al Qaeda war—whether George Bush’s “global war on terror” or Barack Obama’s “overseas contingency operations”—is best understood as a component campaign in a larger contest for power across the Muslim world. The al Qaeda network is a unique and uniquely lethal participant in this contest, but most of the other local contestants, that is, the states of the region, are just as important to the outcome. Al Qaeda may be, for the moment, a “non-state” actor (though the “emirate” in western Iraq and eastern Syria walks and quacks like a state), but looking at al Qaeda in isolation distorts our view. An even bigger failure has been an inability to establish our enduring interests and a definition of victory. Thus, President Obama is attempting to turn the Middle East war into something alien to its nature: a war from which the United States can easily withdraw.

Al Qaeda’s War

In this contest for power, al Qaeda has a much stronger hand than it did in the 1990s. From a small band of terrorists with a grandiose vision, al Qaeda has morphed into a flexible and hierarchical network of militant groups operating throughout the greater Middle East. A list of the countries and areas afflicted with al Qaeda-linked violence—either serious terrorism or insurgency—is dismaying: Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Burma have all suffered thousands of casualties because of militants tied to al Qaeda. The expansion of al Qaeda-linked insurgencies has been especially alarming: In January 2011 there were just three; today there are nine, and the capabilities of the militants fighting in them are rapidly growing. A revitalized Al Qaeda in Iraq, for instance, has taken over several cities in Anbar, Fallujah most prominently, and has been able so far to repel regular forces sent to retake these areas.

It’s tempting to compare this network with the jihadist groups that carried out violent attacks or started insurgencies during the 1980s and 1990s—groups like Gama’a Islamiyya in Egypt or the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria—but this analogy would be misleading. Unlike the earlier local insurgencies, the al Qaeda network has a global vision and objectives that ignore borders and boundaries. Gama’a Islamiyya never carried out attacks in neighboring countries, and it didn’t train fighters for battlefields around the world. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Shabaab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the others have no such self-imposed limitations. The al Qaeda-linked insurgencies are also following identical political game plans wherever they take territory. In Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Northern Pakistan, and Northern Mali they have set up shadow governments that impose the same distinctive version of sharia using the same organizational structures—a feat that none of the insurgencies in the 1990s could match. The linkages and support between groups within the network are also unprecedented, with fighters and money flowing as needed between regions.

The network links help make the local affiliates much more resilient. It’s notable—and especially troubling—that where al Qaeda-linked groups have set up shadow governments, the official local governments can’t get rid of them without outside help. But for assistance from Ethiopia, Kenya, and an African Union force, Shabaab would still run most of Somalia. It took intervention by the French military to eject Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Din from Northern Mali. Local tribes in Yemen could not stop Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), nor would al Qaeda have been forced from Iraq in 2007-09 but for the American “surge.” The examples of Iraq and Yemen are also cautionary tales: In both cases the al Qaeda-linked groups survived the intervention and rebuilt once outside forces withdrew.

Despite the mounting evidence, Washington is faithfully wedded to its original conceptions of al Qaeda. Experts like Thomas Lynch, Will McCants, and Peter Bergen have argued that none of these militant groups is tightly connected to another or controlled by the leadership “core” back in South Asia, and Kirkpatrick’s entire case in his December 28 New York Times feature turns on that presumption. There is also the Obama administration’s view expressed by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who claim that these groups—with the exception of AQAP in Yemen—only have local or regional agendas and have no intention of attacking the U.S. homeland. Jeh Johnson, the new secretary of homeland security, has added that we’ll have won against al Qaeda as long as we are safe here at home.

But for al Qaeda, attacking the United States and killing Americans has always been a means more than an end. Al Qaeda aspired to be the “government in exile for the entire Muslim world,” as Osama bin Laden put it in September 2000, and, one day, to be the government in power across the Muslim world. By focusing on one of al -Qaeda’s tactics—terrorism targeted at the United States and Americans—we distort al Qaeda’s geopolitical purpose. And thus it should be no wonder that our strategy is ineffective. We got Osama bin Laden in the end, but al Qaeda is winning the war. We’ve declared victory and started going home, while they’ve renewed their efforts and are advancing.

The Other Middle East Wars

A second critical reason for al Qaeda’s recent successes is the fragile if not collapsing anciens régime across the Middle East. Many of the traditional pillars of power—in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad—totter on uncertain foundations. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions for modern Turkey cannot be fulfilled. With the ebbing of American interest in the region, Saudi Arabia stands increasingly exposed as a senescent oil oligarchy struggling to keep its Gulf neighbors in line, unable to respond to Iran’s bid for hegemony or to the al Qaeda it helped to create. Tehran is ascendant, but over time, its ambitions are likely to exceed its capabilities. Israel is powerful and prosperous but isolated. Deprived of their American sun, the planets are prone to unstable orbits.

The collapse is especially visible in the Sunni Arab states, beginning with the largest and most important, Egypt. The implosion of the Hosni Mubarak regime was not, to put it euphemistically, a transition to democracy, but rather a game of musical chairs among despots. The Egyptian Army is, for the moment, back on top, but whether it will provoke a larger civil war, as Mohamed Morsi’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government seemed likely to do, or prevent one is hard to say. There are reports every day of explosions and killings by mysterious “militants,” and the entire Sinai seems to have become a no-go zone. Meanwhile, someone is attempting to provoke a sectarian war with the Copts by destroying churches and randomly massacring Christians. Egypt, once a source of American strength in the region, is now a point of critical vulnerability.

Iraq, too, was until lately a source of American strength, but now is not just a vulnerability but a potential threat. The Maliki government has been a prisoner of its own sectarian agenda—one based in the Saddam era—and as elections loom in April, it’s gotten worse. That has allowed both Iran and al Qaeda to gain influence in Iraq. Maliki’s squeeze on Sunnis is the proximate cause of the current crisis in Anbar Province, creating an opportunity for the resurgent al Qaeda affiliate, which now boasts an “emirate” encompassing much of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Sectarian killings have returned to 2006 levels in Iraq, and the al Qaeda group is invoking the name and the spectacularly violent ways of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, including videotaped beheadings.

Syria was never a source of American strength, but the Assad regime was long thought to be a predictable quantity. Not that long ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that Bashar al-Assad might be a “reformer.” Now, after Assad has employed chemical weapons against the rebels fighting to overthrow him, the Obama administration has made the Syrian president its partner in nonproliferation. The outlook is increasingly bleak: A vicious civil war has torn Syria apart, killed over a hundred thousand and made refugees of millions—and this has become the new normal. Damascus is more than ever an Iranian satellite, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon played a huge role in saving the regime from extinction. The civil war in Syria has evolved into a regional contest between an Iranian-led, mostly Shiite alliance and a Sunni opposition fractured between militias sponsored by the Gulf states—the weaker, “moderate” opposition—and al Qaeda affiliates.

Saudi Arabia has been, in many respects, the longest-standing Arab ally of the United States, and this, along with oil riches, has allowed the Saudis to play an outsized role. The Saudis are still extremely wealthy, but the ebbing of the U.S. presence across the region exposes fundamental Saudi weaknesses. Senior Saudi princes, including Bandar bin Sultan, for 22 years the ambassador to the United States, have been hinting at a “major shift” in Saudi strategy to contain Iran and hedge against American retreat. But it’s not clear what that shift might be. Finding another great-power partner won’t be easy—Europe? Russia? China?—and other cures, such as acquiring a nuclear deterrent from Pakistan, could make the disease worse. The comments by the princes do make two things absolutely clear: The Saudis are unhappy with U.S. policy, and they are tempted to find another close partner, one whose interests might be at odds with those of the United States.

The lone source of strength and constant strategic partnership in the region, Israel, is understood by the Obama administration as the greatest liability. By many measures, Israel is more secure and more prosperous than it ever has been, but its growing isolation from the United States—or at least from the White House—serves to undercut these strengths. This irony is particularly well defined in the case of Iran’s nuclear program: What Washington seems to fear the most is that the Israelis will act unilaterally. Conversely, the Israeli fear that the Obama administration is ready to partner with a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran increases their incentive to act alone.

That Iran should stand at the center of a new Middle East balance of power would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The administration spin on the nuclear negotiations is that “biting sanctions” have forced Tehran to consider constraining its ambitions, but a more realistic assessment is that the Islamic Republic hopes to consolidate its gains. The domestic unrest of 2009 has been effectively suppressed for now. Iran has rescued its client in Damascus without sacrificing too much blood and treasure, or too much Hezbollah, and its semi-client in Baghdad is well entrenched. Even the prospect of nuclear talks has allowed the Iranians to put forward a more credible claim of legitimacy. And most of all, the United States, the Great Satan, seems ready to acknowledge Tehran’s primacy in the region, as long as the Iranians don’t make it too obvious or push too far too fast.

In sum, the state system—illegitimate and brittle as it has been—that largely defined the balance of power in the Middle East since World War II is in flux. Even if al Qaeda had disappeared into the Arabian Sea along with the body of Osama bin Laden, these changes would have made for a region-wide conflict. As matters now stand, the metastasizing conflict is creating a world of opportunity for a group once viewed as nearing “strategic defeat.”

America’s Stake in the Middle East War

Columnist and television host Fareed Zakaria has advanced the idea that Barack Obama “is like Ike,” that is, the president’s approach to foreign policy broadly and the Middle East in particular is an updated version of Eisenhower’s “strategic restraint.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel passes out copies of David A. Nichols’s Eisenhower 1956, largely a study of the Suez crisis of that year, when Ike famously refused U.S. support after France and Britain, in league with Israel, invaded Egypt. The supposed lesson: Don’t get lured into Middle East wars.

But Obama isn’t channeling Ike. Properly understood, the Suez crisis was a declaration that, rather than try to restore European power in the Middle East, from then on the United States would be the guarantor of Western interests there, and that strategy would be set in Washington instead of in London and Paris. Obama is reversing Ike and the consistent course of America’s post-World War II policy. The Middle East of 2008, for better and worse, was very much “the Middle East America made” over seven decades. Barack Obama’s strategic restraint is letting it go to rot.

The Middle East war is becoming a global as well as a regional disaster. The president may have convinced Americans that they’re tired of the Middle East and its problems, but the rest of the world still cares a lot. To begin with, they need the energy resources, particularly in China, Japan, Korea, and India. Second, the world economy needs stability to trade efficiently, and not just in the energy markets. Most profoundly, the rest of the world does not need the political and sectarian enmities of the Muslim world to spread. Indeed, since 1956, the “international system”—that difficult-to-define-but-nevertheless-real entity—has relied on the United States to keep the worst from happening in the Middle East.

The rest of the world is now waking up to the magnitude of the Obama retreat, panicked and wondering what to do. In November, Saudi prince Bandar met in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President François Hollande of France to discuss the effect of the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has enjoyed basking in the diplomatic spotlight in Syria and in dealing with Iran. And China has no experience and little capacity but both a desperate need and a driving ambition to reshape the international system to its liking. In sum, the world abhors the vacuum Obama is creating, and eventually will try to fill it in ways that are likely to exacerbate more than ameliorate the situation.

Finally, the war has become a moral disaster. Or, as Secretary of State John Kerry said of Syria, a “moral obscenity.” Obama’s turning from the Middle East war is not just a strategic mistake for America, but a stain on America. The legitimacy of representative government is not in self-evident principles but in principles made real, in the principled use of actual power. By pivoting away from the Middle East, the United States is saying through its actions that anything goes: There will be no consequences for murdering thousands of civilians, for the use of WMD, for imposing a vicious form of governance that no one but al Qaeda wants.

The next president will have an opportunity, though perhaps a rapidly shrinking one, to rebuild a Middle East that we and the rest of the world can more easily live with. To do so will demand, alas, the use of military force—it won’t be a job for diplomacy or “soft power” alone. That president will have to go to war with the force that he inherits, and it will be a smaller, less trained force.

But that president will only succeed if he begins with a “far-reaching act of judgment” to grasp the nature of the war, rightly understanding the al Qaeda network, solving the shifting puzzle of Middle Eastern states, and setting a course guided by American interests and principles. The entire region—states and nonstate actors, ethnic and sectarian groups, militants of all stripes, and the ordinary people on the street—is engaged in a two-fold contest for power: over who will control the future of the region and who will control the future of Islam. We can pretend that the contest does not affect us, but if the enemy wins, he has promised to bring the war home to us again. We may have lost interest in the Middle East, but the Middle East has not lost interest in us.

Thomas Donnelly is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mary Habeck is the author of
Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terrorand the forthcomingAttacking America: Al-Qa’ida’s Grand Strategy(Basic, 2014).

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