President Obama, the Wall Street Journal reports, is preparing a speech that “will ask those in the Middle East and beyond to reject Islamic militancy in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and embrace a new era of relations” with the United States. Killing bin Laden is the pretext for part two of the president’s “reset” with the “Muslim world.” The planned address will be a follow-up to the president’s first such exercise, his June 2009 Cairo speech. The fundamental question back then, however, remains to be answered: To whom is the president speaking?
The concept of a “Muslim world” is much too vague, for the Muslims of the world are too varied to be addressed as a whole, much less as a single organism that is susceptible in its entirety to anti-American violence. Indeed, the reality of the region is that its sectarian, ethnic, national, and tribal divides often pit Muslims against each other in conflicts of varying intensity. There are Sunni and Shiites, Arabs and Persians, Turks and Kurds. Some of these nation-states, factions, and networks are allied with Washington. Others are American adversaries. Still others play a double game. The competent conduct of U.S. strategy requires that American policymakers distinguish between friends and enemies. Lumping them all together—as simply “Muslims”—makes that impossible.
Obama and his national security team merit all the credit coming their way for finding and killing the man who slaughtered close to 3,000 innocents almost a decade ago. They’ve closed a tragic chapter in our history with a triumphant note. But bin Laden was never the central issue. The central issue has always been bin Ladenism: the conviction that politics is a portfolio of identity-based grievances that are to be managed through violence, the more spectacular the bloodshed, the better.
Bin Ladenism is not simply a matter of transnational Sunni jihadist-Salafis like the movement’s namesake. Hamas, rooted in Palestinian nationalism, is also bin Ladenist, as is Lebanon’s Shiite militia, Hezbollah. The same is true for Hezbollah and Hamas’s state sponsors in Iran and Syria, both of whom have shed the blood not only of Americans and our allies in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and Iraq, but also now of their own people. So when Obama asks Muslims to reject violence, is he talking to Iran’s supreme leader, or to members of the Green movement that the Revolutionary Guard shot in the streets of Tehran? Is he speaking to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, or to the relatives of the peaceful protesters that the Assad regime has mowed down with tanks and artillery in Homs, Deraa, Banias, and other Syrian cities?
“Sheikh” Osama, as his admirers refer to him, was simply the emir of al Qaeda, an outfit that projected power thanks less to bin Laden’s famous charisma than his organization’s ties to Middle Eastern regimes. After all, bin Laden was not hiding in Kabul. He was being hidden in the city that is home to Pakistan’s military academy. He had at one time depended on Saudi largesse, and perhaps Iranian support, too. So who is President Obama speaking to when he asks Muslims to abandon militancy—the al Qaeda rank and file, or the security services without whose financial, logistical, and political support terrorist networks are incapable of staging operations?
Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda may or may not be weakened. But the larger jihadist-Salafi movement is flourishing, even in places where it was once stamped out. The Egyptian revolution seems to have empowered the Salafis, who recently burned two Coptic churches in Cairo, kicking off a bloodbath that left Muslims as well as Christians dead. Some of these same Salafis, newly released from prison, waged war against Egypt in the ’80s and ’90s alongside the man who may become al Qaeda’s next emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The president’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, is wrong when he says bin Laden’s death coincides with “a model emerging in the region of change that is completely the opposite of bin Laden’s model.” The rise of one does not preclude the strength of the other. Such models are always in competition. The White House’s record, moreover, shows that it tends to take the wrong side.
In Lebanon, for example, the pro-democracy March 14 movement offered a contrast to Hezbollah. But, when the Party of God engineered a coup against the elected government in January, the Obama administration was too busy trying to engage Hezbollah’s patron in Damascus to notice. The purpose of the administration’s efforts was to bring Syria back to the negotiating table with Israel, since Arab-Israeli peace, in Obama’s reckoning, will win Muslim hearts and minds.
Even now, after the regional uprising has shown that the problems of the Middle East have nothing to do with America or Israel but are the issue of a vicious political culture, the White House won’t let go of the peace process. Reports are that Obama plans to “revitalize” the peace process in the coming weeks. But that would mean, in light of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in the Palestinian territories, giving bin Ladenists a seat at the table.
Obama doesn’t need to reset relations with the “Muslim world.” He needs to pick sides. His administration laments that it has no leverage against Syria. But this is the White House’s way of refusing to acknowledge that its relative silence concerning Assad’s atrocities—its feeble insistence that a ruler firing on his own people make good on “reforms”—effectively protects the regime. In Iran, more silence. In Libya, announcing a stand against Qaddafi and then doing nothing to ensure his fall only taxes American prestige.
The idea that America somehow needs to prove its good faith to the entire Muslim world runs counter to the notion that Osama bin Laden’s worldview has no hold on the vast majority of Muslims. The message Obama is sending is rather the opposite—that all Muslims are potential supporters of bin Laden. The reality is different. The United States has friends and allies among all the sects, ethnicities, nations, and tribes that shape the lands of Islam, from the Arab states all the way through Africa and Asia. The job of a president is to explain and implement American policy in a manner that invigorates those allies, while pursuing and crushing our mutual adversaries.