The Middle East looms large for Barack Obama, and in Washington it’s clear that the seething arc of crises from Gaza and Lebanon through Iraq and Iran into Afghanistan and Pakistan won’t let Obama ignore the region from Day One. Starting today, and continuing for the rest of this week, I’m presenting a series of pieces about Obama’s Middle East. Today, we start with the so-called War on Terror. Tomorrow, I’ll deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Thursday, Iraq. On Friday, Gaza, Israel, and Lebanon. And on Monday, Iran.
Perhaps the area where Barack Obama can make the quickest, and most effective, pivot from the administration of George W. Bush is with the so-called War on Terror.
For seven years and four months, the United States has been engaged in a monumentally flawed and destructive campaign that President Bush described as an all-out effort against terrorism and terrorist groups of “global reach.” It includes two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, a lethal counterterrorism effort waged by the CIA and the Pentagon’s Special Forces units, and a global effort to expand US military and intelligence ties to countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Unfortunately, from the start the United States conflated its lone real enemy, Al Qaeda, with a panoply of unrelated states and organizations, some Islamist and some secular, creating a mythical bloc of evil-doers under the heading of what John McCain called, redundantly, “radical Islamic extremism.” In the mix, Bush rolled up Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, various Pakistani Islamist groups, and others into one big terrorist ball of wax. Predictably, and aided by the anti-Muslim prejudices of the Christian right, it became a Crusade against Islam, at least in as seen through the lens of people living in the Middle East and South Asia. No wonder that anti-American sentiment throughout the region reached all-time highs.
There are three things that Obama can do in this regard.
First, Obama can declare victory against Al Qaeda. For the most part, Al Qaeda is dead and buried. Despite the hysterical warnings that continue to emanate from members of the US terrorism-industrial complex — from people like Frances Townsend, who formerly advised Bush on terrorism, and from members of the hardy band of terrorism specialists who have an interest in sustaining an inordinate fear of Al Qaeda — the organization is toothless. For the past three years, Al Qaeda has not launched a single attack against any Western target, including the United States and Europe.