The Magazine

The Audacity of Shallowness

What would the Democrats do?

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Among certain Arab elites, there is considerable interest in how a Democratic administration would differ from the eight years of George W. Bush. It's a good question. Most Democrats, at least those running for president or sitting in Congress, have spent more time attacking Bush than explaining what Democrats would do if they were making foreign policy. But the Middle East seriously wounded, if not disgraced, the last two Democratic presidents. The candidates' reticence on the subject is understandable. Yet sooner or later, Hillary Clinton and company have to tell us what they think about Islam, Sunni Islamic extremism, al Qaeda, the religious dynamics of Iraq, clerical Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, rendition (Bill Clinton, if we recall, established the practice), close intelligence liaison relationships with torture-fond foreign security services (again, President Clinton had no insurmountable problem with this), and the appropriateness of preemptive U.S. military strikes against terrorist targets.

To Barack Obama's credit, he, at least, has now told us what he thinks about many of these issues. His speech on August 1 at Washington's Wilson Center is a fairly serious attempt to tackle many of the daunting issues before us. And Obama deserves praise for stating openly that he would be prepared as president to strike al Qaeda training camps inside Pakistan. Saying isn't doing, but at least the Democratic senator from Illinois has put down a benchmark. After 9/11, Pakistan's generalissimo, Pervez Musharraf, had a chat with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and immediately decided that his government's pro-Taliban policies were unhealthy. Since then, America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began as demonstrations of indomitable will, have become distressing messes, and Washington has resumed aid to Islamabad, with the result that Pakistan's counterterrorist and anti-Taliban efforts have been executed with diminishing enthusiasm. Who knows whether Obama would have even mentioned this if it had not been for the recent National Intelligence Estimate on terrorist threats to the United States. Still, it is good that a left-wing Democrat has dared to voice support for preemptive military strikes. It takes us back to Rich Armitage's chat. It reminds foreigners that Democrats can start, as well as avoid, wars.

But its bellicosity aside, Obama's speech, if seen through Middle Eastern eyes, leaves one dumbstruck. Consider first its operational implications. For Obama, fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq is almost counterproductive, while fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is good. Al Qaeda in Iraq was born in sin because it "didn't exist before our invasion." Al Qaeda in Central Asia and the subcontinent has, for the senator, a cleaner pedigree, traceable directly to Osama bin Laden. But what in the world do the circumstances of birth have to do with counterterrorism?

Let us leave aside the controversy over whether al Qaeda had training camps in Iraq while Saddam Hussein ruled. Could it not have developed such camps since? Could they not develop even now in the Sunni zones of Iraq, especially if the United States withdraws and the Sunni-Shiite clash intensifies? Until recently--until the surge--the Sunnis of Anbar Province did not do particularly well at corralling, let alone killing and exiling, Iraqi and foreign members of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Sunnis of Iraq--the now vaunted anti-al Qaeda tribes of Anbar Province--are barely more unified than the Shiites. Al Qaeda has done rather well in Iraq precisely because many Iraqi Sunnis have been sympathetic to its methods and tactics, against both the Americans and the Arab Shiites.

The example of Pakistani tribes giving aid and comfort to al Qaeda and the Taliban has many similarities with the Iraqi Arab Sunni tribes' aid to al Qaeda. In both places, al Qaeda probably has sufficient support to sustain itself for years--especially if the Sunni-Shiite clash grows worse. Sen. Obama is desperately worried about the dozens of "groups affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda . . . worldwide"--but not about Al Qaeda in Iraq, which if you had to rank the al Qaeda offspring by their lethality to the continental United States, would rank no lower than third.

First prize should still go to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Europe, since radical Muslim Europeans can travel to the United States essentially unchecked under the visa-waiver program. What is frightening about al Qaeda in Pakistan is that so many Pakistanis have British citizenship and therefore can enter the United States much more easily than Pakistani passport holders. But after Europe and Pakistan, Al Qaeda in Iraq is the most terrifying. It draws perhaps the most bloodstained Arab recruits. Yet the best Obama can suggest is that we will attack Al Qaeda in Iraq from someplace besides Iraq. How exactly will we do this? Where will we find the intelligence, the stealth (ask Sen. Clinton's husband about America's success at striking bin Laden from afar), and the regional support to pull this off?

In any case, it's obvious to Obama that "there is no military solution to Iraq." The senator's commendable emphasis on fighting al Qaeda around the world is subordinate to what he really wants most: to get out of Iraq (the "first priority when I take office"), regardless of the consequences. Obama's thinking about Islamic extremism and the internal dynamics of Iraq is thus predetermined by the larger need to leave Mesopotamia. Obama is not alone in this priority. A growing number of Republicans share it, as do almost all Democrats--a possible exception being Sen. Clinton, the wife of a president who was intermittently at war with both Saddam and bin Laden through his two terms.

Obama says of Iraq that we are in "a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." But this is the case also with Afghanistan. Unless we plan on losing, we are probably going to be there for a long time. U.S. soldiers are going to die there for years. Afghanistan's politics, which are easily as complicated as Iraq's, are going to remain a corrupt mess no matter what America does on the battlefield. Does Obama really think that two brigades pulled from Iraq are going to make all the difference in Afghanistan, whose brutal topography swallows up manpower as effectively as the jungles of Vietnam? Does the senator doubt that the American occupation of Afghanistan angers millions of devout Sunni Muslims, especially those most likely to answer the call to holy war?

And Obama's contradictions don't end there. He seems upset by the ethics of President Bush's leadership since 9/11, which has allowed Americans to do unlawful and ugly things to Americans and foreigners. And yet, here is Obama recommending "A Shared Security Partnership Program to forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks from the remote islands of Indonesia, to the sprawling cities of Africa." But guess what lies in between Indonesia and Africa: Middle Eastern security and intelligence services, which reflexively torture and to which the Central Intelligence Agency is now wed. Middle Eastern countries historically have taken down terrorist networks by inflicting large amounts of pain. Is Obama going to fortify our relationships with these services? Obama wants to cut off military aid to Pakistan if Musharraf doesn't become more aggressive in his fight against Islamic extremism. Will he cut off intelligence cooperation too? How about with Saudi Arabia, which Obama rightly cites as the font of Islamic extremism? If Obama cuts off funding to Muslim Middle Eastern countries that torture and fuel extremism, he'll have no one left for his partnership.

The Clinton administration started rendition in part to avoid the problems we see at Guantánamo. The odds are high that every single person rendered by Bill Clinton was treated worse than anyone abused at Abu Ghraib. Neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton has told us clearly that such cooperation will end. Do Obama and Sen. Clinton think that President Clinton was an immoral man for allowing terrorist suspects to be tortured? As immoral as George Bush?

Senator Obama wants to spend big money battling radical madrassas "that have filled young minds with messages of hate." He wants to see secular schools in their place. But Obama also wants to tell the entire Muslim world that we are not fighting a war against Islam. So an American president will attempt to dictate school curricula to the Muslim world's poor and devout? In Turkey, secular schools are found in even the remotest, poorest village, and they have been losing ground to unofficial religious schools for at least two decades. Turkey's Muslims are making a voluntary choice--no one coerces them to embrace a greater Islamic identity. Will a President Obama stop them?

Obama wants to "open 'America Houses' in cities across the Islamic world, with Internet, libraries, English lessons, stories of America's Muslims and the strength they add to our country." Senator, go visit the many Internet houses of Peshawar in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, and you will find young men everywhere surfing porn. They are free to view other glories of Western civilization, but they choose to focus on young women. Many of these men are faithful Muslims, who think more highly of bin Laden than they do of the United States. They thought this way before the invasion of Iraq. They were surfing porn before Saddam went down. Open "America Houses" and we will surely increase the knowledge of such Hollywood entertainment more than we will of the Founding Fathers or the lifestyle of Muslim Americans. The "American Dream" is alive and well in the Middle East, but it is vastly more complicated than Obama seems to realize.

To the senator's credit, he sees that Iraq and al Qaeda do not define Muslims and Islam. What he does not seem to grasp--and the Bush administration is no better--is that America is the cutting edge of a modernity that has convulsed Islam as a faith and a civilization. This collision will likely become more violent, not less, as Muslims more completely enter the ethical free fall that comes as modernity pulverizes the world of our ancestors. Barack Obama's newly devised "Mobile Development Teams," which will bring together "personnel from the State Department, the Pentagon, and USAID . . . to turn the tide against extremism" are unlikely to make America more attractive to devout Muslims who know that America is the leading force in destroying the world that they love. The senator can leave Iraq, shut down Guantánamo, apologize for Abu Ghraib, and build "secular" schools all over Pakistan, and he will not change this fact. This is the deep well from which al Qaeda draws.

--Reuel Marc Gerecht, for the Editors