“To generalize is to be an idiot…” —William Blake
The President’s grin was especially wide when Seth Meyers joked that Osama bin Laden “hosts a show on CSPAN” at the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 30, 2011. Obama knew it was T minus 14 hours. On the other side of the planet, Navy Seals were clicking the safeties off their M-16s and clipping in their night-vision goggles, gearing up to whip across Waziristan’s badlands, blow the doors off bin Laden’s Obottobad compound, crack his skull open, then feed him to the sharks. They would also scoop up a mother lode of al Qaeda’s funniest home videos and do so with zero collateral damage.
Republicans are desperate to keep that image of Obama delivering the long awaited visceral justice from sticking in your mind. They are spinning the facts to turn national security, one of Obama’s chief executive successes, into a liability. Wednesday’s Republican distortion of reality came courtesy of William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Responding to Obama’s contention that he is winding down the war in Afghanistan, Kristol asks rhetorically,
“But what if the reality is that, from Pakistan in the east to Tunisia in the west, and most visibly now in places such as Iran and Yemen and Somalia — and not just in Afghanistan — we are at war with political Islamism, a movement whose ability to find state sponsors and enablers is not limited to just one country or two?”
But what if Kristol has no idea what he’s talking about? Lumping Iran in with the rest of the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa is particularly daft. A bloody schism tore Islam asunder 1300 years ago. Peace has generally reigned between Sunni and Shia since, much as relative comity followed the Reformation’s bloody schism between Catholic and Protestant. But Bush’s Iraq war ripped off this ancient scab and a bloodbath between Sunni and Shia militias followed. Behind the veil, this was a major proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran who were arming and funding their coreligionists. The horrific violence only began to subside when “The Surge” coincided with the Sunni Awakening. America finally greased enough palms to convince the Sunni guerrillas to blow the smoke off their gun barrels. This turned the Sunni militias into partners with the al-Maliki government, creating the political space for reform. Incidentally, this was the political arrangement that reigned under Saddam and the one that more cautious Administration officials had advised before the neocons dismissed the Ba’athists, paving the way for the utter chaos that followed.
The rest of “political Islamism” is rooted in local politics and in some cases, funded and armed by powerful backers for reasons of regional hegemony. Somalia is a failed state where warlordism has ruled for decades and Yemen teeters on the precipice of following suit. That rebels in these countries happen to be armed while Muslim is a product of highly localized conflict. Hezbollah is an unusual mix of political party and armed militia, a symptom of Lebanon’s complex social contract. It is supported by Iran and Syria, but with minority seats in government, it is obviously not anxious to make itself a US target. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has mellowed with age, and is on the verge of a major democratic victory. Though it produced bin Laden’s lieutenant al-Zawahiri, there is a reason he lives in exile. Hamas is a fundamentalist governing body in the Gaza Strip. Following its 2006 civil war with Fatah, the two have devoted their energy to negotiating a joint government deal. That’s not exactly exporting global terrorism.
The Taliban may always be there, sowing strife in South Asia. But the deal Obama just signed with Afghanistan guarantees that the West won’t abandon the country as it did following the Soviet withdrawal two decades ago. Though hopelessly corrupt, America’s ally in Kabul should hold the Taliban at bay for the long term.
Al Qaeda has been spectacularly neutered. Each top al Qaeda leader is being hunted 24/7 by a drone in the sky sporting a couple hellfire missiles. US and allied intelligence services cracked al Qaeda leadership wide open with the bin Laden raid. The scariest aspect of al Qaeda was that it combined broad organization with a ghostly invisibility. Obama has crushed both of those elements. They are on the run and increasingly unable to communicate as the White House sees a great deal of the who, what, when, where, why and how of their top leaders. The days when bin Laden attracted PhD students bent on flying a plane into a building are long gone. The nihilism of personal suicide for global ends is less a philosophy and more a perverted tactic. They now only attract losers unable to wire a bomb or who roast their own crotch on their way to life in prison. The deeper reason for this is because al Qaeda is morally bankrupt in the eyes of the average Muslim just as the KKK has no influence over the average Christian. Americans really ought to understand that.
The Middle East is realigning around a Saudi-backed/Iranian-backed Sunni/Shia cold war. The last two US presidents have busied themselves tipping the balance in the Sunni direction since 2005. Armed Islamic fundamentalists on the peripheries of the Muslim world are products of local conflicts and regional politics. Either Kristol knows this and is fibbing or he has no business editing a news magazine.
He goes on to compare what Bush referred to as “The Global War on Terror” to the Cold War.
“After Korea and Vietnam, we conducted the rest of the Cold War without major combat operations. But that “time of war” didn’t end after the armistice in Korea or the retreat from Vietnam. Unfortunately, the war in which we are engaged won’t end with peace in, or withdrawal from, Afghanistan.”
This comparison is nonsense. The Bush Administration wanted this comparison to stick in order to reclaim the mantle of global leadership. But bearded fanatics hugging their Kalashnikovs in caves who sent 19 kids to hijack planes with knives didn’t animate the world the same way that the largest military machine in history occupying a third of the world’s landmass and holding a quiver of nuclear missiles over Europe did. Bush’s insistence on accepting this paradigm with “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric squandered a great deal of the global goodwill that poured in on September 11th. The world moved on from this comparison quickly, and now, so too have most Americans. Bin Laden’s demise proved once and for all that Obama’s strategy of investing in intelligence, building alliances, pursuing aggressive law enforcement and deploying highly targeted tactical missions is vastly superior to Bush’s approach of bloating the Pentagon, bogging down America’s defense apparatus in myopic landwars and lumping all of Islamism together and calling it a global war.
But pretend for a moment that this comparison had validity. Even if Bush’s GWOT were just like the Cold War, it still undermines Kristol’s point. China and the Soviet Union nearly fought what would have been a truly massive war over a border dispute in 1969. Following this rupture in global communism, Nixon and Kissinger created a diplomatic opening to China, severely weakening the Soviet position in Eurasia. Kristol’s comparison of Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan is equally bizarre. Following America’s retreat from Vietnam, Cambodia repeatedly assaulted Vietnam’s border towns. Communist Vietnam attacked communist Cambodia, liberating the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge’s horrific rule. Worried about the rise of Vietnam’s influence in Southeast Asia, communist China then attacked communist Vietnam and was repulsed. As Western analysts tried to understand why the dominoes were attacking each other it became clear that communism was not a monolith at all, but a loose string of nationalist movements subject to realpolitik like any other political movement. Islamism is equally subject to division which can be used to advantage by the West.
The American people understand that Obama’s approach is working. They understand that America does not need to be paralyzed by fear of two-bit rebels half a world away. Islamism is a serious issue and 9/11 was a serious tragedy. But by understanding the Islamic world in detail, the US and its allies can use meaningful diplomatic maneuvers and tactical operations to empower our allies and weaken our rivals. Where we can’t influence outcomes we can sleep safely at night knowing that bearded boogeymen don’t remotely have the capacity to bring our country to its knees. To wish to go back to the senseless fearmongering and warmongering of the 2000s is to be an idiot.