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The Unmaking of the Middle East

Obama’s historic misunderstanding

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By MARY HABECK and THOMAS DONNELLY
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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.

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