The Magazine

The Obama Vacuum

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By LEE SMITH
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One thing Hillary Clinton got right in her testimony before Congress last week: “When America is absent,” she said, “there are consequences.” But the administration she served has chosen to be absent, and we are seeing the consequences play out, from North Africa to the Levant, where the unchecked flow of weapons, experienced jihadist fighters, and Salafist ideology is reshaping the regional balance of power​—​and tilting it against the United States.

Scene of the crime: the Algerian natural gas facility

Scene of the crime: the Algerian natural gas facility

There was no forceful response to the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operation in September that murdered four Americans at the Benghazi consulate. That may help explain why an AQIM splinter group was emboldened to take Western hostages, including seven Americans, at a natural gas facility in the Algerian desert earlier this month. After all, if the administration does not hold itself accountable​—​“what difference, at this point, does it make?” Clinton said, regarding whether or not the Benghazi attack was a terrorist operation​—​how can U.S. adversaries know they will pay a price when they kill Americans?

Obama’s desire to disengage from the Middle East was driven at first by his politically useful cartoon version of Bush’s Iraq, a “quagmire” that he wished to avoid at all costs. But now, at the beginning of his second term, Obama seems to fear U.S. intervention of any kind. Indeed, his administration’s reluctance to do any follow-up work in Libya after the initial bombing left a weak, democratically elected, non-Islamist Libyan government to fend for itself, which has produced a region-wide catastrophe.

Some of Qaddafi’s arsenal of NATO-quality small arms has made its way into Hamas’s hands in Gaza via Iranian-established smuggling routes. Some of those weapons are also winding up in Syria, as have hardened Libyan Islamists fighting alongside other foreign militants in the war to bring down Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It is certainly in the interests of the United States to see Iran’s key Arab ally toppled. But there is no reason to have provided the global jihad movement with another platform for its activity. It should not have been difficult for the White House to figure out that without American leadership, regional Sunni allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar would resort to their traditional fallback position​—​enlisting Islamist fighters, from the Muslim Brotherhood to al Qaeda, to defeat Assad.

In North Africa, post-Qaddafi Libya casts an even darker shadow. After Qaddafi’s downfall, his Tuareg legions took their weapons to Mali to make war on the central government and liberate “Azawad,” their homeland in northern Mali. The Tuareg nationalists have fought sometimes against and sometimes with various Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Din, whose advance into central Mali compelled France to land troops earlier this month. Other Islamist factions are also active, especially AQIM, which now controls parts of northern Mali, including Timbuktu.

It was an AQIM splinter group, Those Who Sign with Blood, that claimed responsibility for the operation in Algeria that left 23 hostages dead. Comprising mostly Tunisian, Libyan, and Egyptian fighters, the group was ostensibly retaliating for the Western incursion into Mali, but it entered Algeria from across the Libyan border.

“The Arab revolutions,” Clinton told the Senate committee, “shattered security forces across the region.” This point has so unnerved a White House that wants to keep its hands clean of the Middle East that it is looking for some way to turn back the clock and reempower those security forces. In Syria, for instance, administration officials call for the preservation of “state institutions,” including the notoriously brutal security services. However, the entire point of the uprising in Syria is to dismantle Assad’s security regime once and for all.

Indeed, two years into the Arab revolutions, it is perhaps most accurate to understand the uprisings across the region not as fights against corruption or struggles for dignity or democracy. Rather, the Arab Spring is a series of astonishingly successful battles against Arab security services. If the White House believes that the era of the all-powerful mukhabarat represents a golden age of regional stability, then it is worth looking a little more closely at the hostage-taking in Algeria earlier this month.

No one could have been surprised when Algerian security forces laid siege to the terrorists at the oil facility, apparently making little distinction between the terrorists and the foreign nationals held hostage. It was this typically hamfisted approach that, between the government and their Islamist rivals, was responsible for more than 100,000 dead during Algeria’s decade-long civil war in the 1990s. What both sides learned was that killing Algerian civilians alienates the general population. Thus, the first thing the terrorists did was release all the Algerian nationals, leaving only foreigners, whom neither the terrorists nor Algerian security forces cared much if they killed.

Oddly, the Algerian government, run by a cadre of generals, has earned mostly positive reviews from Western journalists and analysts for its performance​—​as if refusing to negotiate with terrorists were in itself a sufficient strategy. The White House, at least publicly, has muted any criticisms it might have, even though Algiers embarked on its “rescue” mission without consulting Washington or any other foreign capital whose citizens were taken.

Among other reasons for its silence, the Obama administration wants help from Algeria in Mali. It is unlikely to receive it, however, because the regime in Algiers cares only for its own stability, not regional stability. Algeria is little concerned that some of the Polisario fighters it supports in the Western Sahara have found their way into AQIM units fighting in Mali. The point is to keep their own realm secure regardless of the instability they create elsewhere. The vacuum that the Obama administration has left in the region, from Libya to Syria, is not going to be filled by Arab security services like Algeria’s. Instead, they are a large part of the problem.

So Hillary got that right: There are consequences, dangerous ones, when America is absent. The Obama administration has a lot to answer for.

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