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Obama’s Way of War

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The Iraq war didn’t unleash a tidal wave of Arab holy warriors against the United States or Europe. Mesopotamia is one of the foundational lands of Islam—for Shiites it’s ground zero—yet the number of jihadists who went to fight the Americans in Iraq after 2003 was probably far less than the number who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, a land on the periphery of the Arab imagination. The Soviet-Afghan war produced bin Laden, the CEO of modern Islamic terrorism. More important, it created the legend that proud, death-defying holy warriors could take down a superpower. Contrary to the fears of the American left, the Iraq war produced no great jihadist thinker. No myth of indomitable zeal. The best it produced was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a ferocious beast who gave even bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, heartburn because his methods did the impossible, creating widespread Sunni sympathy for Iraq’s bombed and butchered Shiites. The Americans killed al Zarqawi, and no fundamentalist of note has immortalized him. 

Republicans ought to be embracing the struggles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and all that came in their wake, not dreading them. President Obama has consistently been behind the curve on the Arab Spring. He has handled the rebellion in Syria abominably—though it should have been the easiest strategic decision of his presidency. Syria’s long-suffering Sunni population finally revolted against a ruthless, terrorist-loving, Iran-supporting, heretical Shiite dictatorship—an amazing feat. Without the Alawite Arabs ruling in Damascus, the Islamic Republic of Iran has no reliable access to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the only faithful Arab offspring of Iran’s revolution. Since even the Obama administration perhaps now realizes that the only sure solution to the Iranian nuclear problem is regime change in Tehran, each step toward that goal is important. Iran’s losing Hezbollah to the Great Arab Revolt would be a significant blow to the mullahs, let alone a blessing to Lebanon’s internal politics. The president has declared that Bashar al-Assad must go, but he has offered no real support to the opposition. The CIA exists for a reason. 

Yet most Republicans are silent on Syria, or reinforce the president’s position by adding their concern to the administration’s calculated leaks about al Qaeda’s presence in the Syrian opposition. News flash to Republicans: Al Qaeda will always try to plant itself in movements opposing the anciens régimes of the region. If it does not do so, it’s finished among the Arabs. The rebellions against tyranny are enormously popular throughout the Middle East. Al Qaeda Central and its allied jihadist groups did not see the democratic wave coming. Bin Laden and al Zawahiri viewed democracy as a dismal, antireligious idea, but they weren’t blind to its seductive power among the faithful. Al Qaeda is trying to play catch up where it can, improvising as it goes along. The longer and bloodier the Syrian rebellion, the greater the opportunity for al Qaeda and other radical groups to gain ground.

To counter the president’s unfailingly self-indulgent take on the Middle East, Republicans ought to be at the forefront of thoughtfully critiquing Islamic militancy (admittedly a difficult task, given the Islamophobes within the party). They should not allow Obama to define the threat down to the latest victim of a CIA drone. 

No one knows what Mitt Romney would have done a year ago if he’d received the information about bin Laden’s possible presence in Abbottabad. In such situations, what-ifs are unanswerable, even for ex-presidents like Bill Clinton, who should know what it feels like to have made wrong decisions repeatedly about al Qaeda and the Taliban. President Obama deserves credit for breaking loose from the mindset common in Washington fearful of possibly rupturing U.S.-Pakistani relations.

But give establishmentarian opinion its due: The U.S.-Pakistan relationship still means something. A war is going on in Pakistan over national identity and what it means to be a Muslim in an artificial country. Indian officials sometimes remark that they have yet to see a single Indian Muslim outside of Kashmir join jihadist ranks. Hindu India has something that Pakistan lacks: a rich history and an optimistic future that native Muslims can peacefully claim for themselves. We don’t want the wrong side to win in nuclear Pakistan, with catastrophic consequences for the United States. Pakistan offers a large pool of well-educated Muslim militants who could go global in their hatreds. Al Qaeda itself should be viewed as a Pakistani-Arab hybrid. The raid on Abbottabad has likely helped the internal debate in Pakistan, which is another reason why President Obama was right to strike. 

Killing bin Laden was great; capturing and interrogating him would have been bolder and a much better decision given the irreplaceable intelligence-gathering opportunity. Declassifying and releasing all of the captured bin Laden files is a poor second choice, but it’s one Republicans and Democrats in Congress should insist on. The most important counterterrorist questions, however, are much larger than any one man. They are strategic. 

The Greater Middle East is in transition. We don’t know where it’s going. We need to pay close attention to the intellectual whirlpools that are developing throughout the region as democratic, Islamic, and other convulsive ideas collide. It’s way too soon to be as cocky as this administration has become about the decline of al Qaeda and lethal Islamic militancy. The president and his followers may try to depict Obama as counterterrorist warrior par excellence. Republicans would be wise to point out that Jimmy Carter is the commander in chief who really did risk all to save American lives and honor (Abbottabad pales in comparison with Desert One, which one of the officers involved likened to the Alamo, except the Americans were trying “to get in, not out”). 

After doing so, Republicans, and especially Mitt Romney, might consider whether they, too, want to lead from behind. The defense budget needs to be saved.  Everything starts with that. Then they need to realize that the Middle East will not be ignored while we pretend to transfer our concern and military muscle toward China. Across the region, which is in profound flux, the United States increasingly appears as a listless superpower.  President Obama may think that shows appropriate and overdue disengagement. We fear it shows troubling and provocative weakness.

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