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.
Last week, no less an authority than Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said: “We see Al Qaeda, in a centralized role, (as being) totally controlled. Bin Laden can’t get an operational effort off the ground without it being detected ahead of time and being thwarted. Their ability to reach is nonexistent.” Predictably, Dailey’s comments didn’t get much attention, in part because the US media doesn’t like to headline reports that don’t set off fire alarms. But Dailey’s right. Al Qaeda is pretty much finished, although vigilance and continued mopping up operations, especially in Waziristan, are required. It’s been crushed in Afghanistan, it has been utterly destroyed in Iraq, it has been obliterated in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and its operations base in North Africa, which was mostly locally focused anyway, is under siege.
So Obama can declare victory over Al Qaeda. Using his supremely confident aura of cool, he can de-escalate the rhetoric. He can tell Americans that they have nothing to fear but fear itself. He can tell them that the threat of terrorism, for Americans, has been reduced to the level of a nuisance. He can assure Americans that they are safe and secure. He can emphasize that the chance that terrorists might get ahold of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons of mass destruction is close to zero. And he can explain that, in the unlikely event of another attack — say, a Mumbai-style explosion of guerrilla war or an Oklahoma City-style truck bombing — the United States will undertake a patient and ruthless effort to track down the perpetrators.
Second, Obama can make it clear that the United States is, from now on, playing by the rules. No more torture. No more rendition to torture-prone nations. No more Guantanamo. No more Abu Ghraibs. Respect for the rule of law. In all of this, the United States will use its intelligence and law enforcement apparatus with utmost professionalism to protect Americans, preventing terrorist acts when we can and tracking down the terrorists when we can’t.
And third, Obama should deliver a major speech, aimed at Americans, explaining the many and subtle differences among the opponents and adversaries of the United States in the Muslim world. On the one hand, he should say, there can be no reconciliation or truce with Al Qaeda. On the other hand, with nearly all of the other components of the Bush-McCain Terrorist Ball of Wax — Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban, especially — we will talk, we will listen, we will negotiate, we will seek at least a truce, and we will try to establish a permanent, working accord.
In declaring an end to the War on Terror, Obama will have no choice but to provide Americans with a detailed, and rational, explanation of who the enemy is — and who it is not. This cannot be a one-speech effort. Rather, it will require a sustained communications effort by Obama and his entire team. Seven years of mind-numbing propaganda from the Bush White House has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the threat of terrorism is both imminent and vast. Those tens of millions are convinced that an enormous, global terrorist movement that extends far beyond Al Qaeda is out to get us. It is Obama’s urgent task to explain, calmly, that it isn’t so. For seven years, Bush used the trauma of 9/11 to stoke Americans’ fears, and in so doing he created an enemy that doesn’t exist in the real world. Like the mythical Iraqi WMD, the worldwide terrorist threat isn’t there. Obama can say so.
Will he do this? It’s not impossible. During several interviews, John Brennan, one of Obama’s top intelligence advisers who will lead the White House’s counterterrorism policy efforts, told me that he is flatly opposed to the very notion of a “War on Terror.” And, he told me, he favors the idea of a dialogue with organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. And he suggested that Obama feels the same way.
Though Obama is inexperienced in international affairs, putting an end to the War on Terror once and for all is a step that will appeal to his instincts. He’s pledged to deliver a major address on US relations with the Islamic world, and he’s said that he would do so in an Arab or Muslim capital, perhaps Cairo. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow: Obama and Afghanistan.