Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dispatches From The War That Nobody Wants

 Walter Russell Mead

As everybody knows, there is no such thing as a global war on terror anymore. Instead we live in a harmonious world of interfaith comity with only the occasional criminal act that is quickly and competently handled by law enforcement officials. As a result we can cut our defense budgets and get on with the real business of life, which is to say watching TV, going to the mall and voting to re-elect the strategic geniuses whose wise decisions and firm but thoughtful leadership gave us this tranquil world order.

As we celebrate this new age of peace, understanding and joy, here are a few stories that might matter if we didn’t have such a wise and level-headed government in Washington that was bent on soothing and quieting what might otherwise be an aroused and worried public opinion.

The office of the Director of National Intelligence is both confirming that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was deliberately planned in advance and excusing the White House for getting the story wrong. Officials are trying to determine if a mysterious, little known organization called “Al-Qaeda” had something to do with the attack. This doesn’t seem likely, as Al-Qaeda was reported dead or at least in what former Vice President Cheney would have called its “death throes” in Pakistan last spring, but you never know.
In a completely unrelated development in Somalia, African Union troops have driven an armed group of mysterious criminals from the city of Kismayo. The criminals have also been linked to Al-Qaeda, but it is obvious to a child that their organization and motives are entirely due to local grievances and their claims to represent a wing of some sort of global movement are delusional and not worth thinking about.  Widespread reports that Al Shabab, as these fighters call themselves, merged with the little-known Al-Qaeda last February are understood by all seasoned observers of international politics to be meaningless and not worth discussing. In any case, Al-Shabab is reported to be retreating, so who cares?
Meanwhile from Nigeria comes word that Boko Haram, the fanatical terror group (sorry, organized criminal conspiracy) that is trying to launch a widespread religious (sorry, socio-economic) war (sorry again, state of continuing and kinetic tension) in Nigeria by bombing churches during worship services, murdering Christians and attacking moderate Muslims, has penetrated the Nigerian government. As the BBC reports, an immigration official has confessed to participation in the movement and has provided information that led to a number of other arrests. Reports that this chimerical Al-Qaeda group sent operatives to work with Boko Haram and enabled it to operate at a higher level of effectiveness should be ignored by all serious people.
The President of Yemen, meanwhile, is thanking the United States for its support for his efforts in his country’s ongoing anti-crime effort against randomly motivated groups of violent criminals in developments that have nothing in common with superficially similar movements anywhere in the world. In what was obviously a slip of the tongue he linked the criminals with “Al-Qaeda” and implied that some sort of international network was engaged in the violence in his country but such crazy talk by a man under a great deal of stress is best ignored. Only rampant paranoia with perhaps a touch of Islamophobia could link events in Yemen to anything warlike or global.
In another completely unrelated and random development, the governments of the United Kingdom and Australia are advising their citizens to avoid travel to certain parts of the Philippines. Apparently there are “clashes” between the armed forces and certain mysterious criminal elements whose motives cannot be discerned but which appear to be entirely related to local grievances of some sort. Land tenure issues? Revenue sharing, perhaps?
In yet another inexplicable event that does not, repeat not point to anything so unthinkable as some sort of global war on terror, the New York Times reported this week that a Turk and an Iraqi were killed by a United States drone strike in Waziristan, one of many unsettled regions in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Again, the Turk and the Iraqi were said to be linked to this mysterious Al-Qaeda group, obviously a criminal conspiracy of some sort like the Mafia or the Libor rate-setting committee and one which can be countered by alert police actions here and there.
And of course there is northern Mali, where Al-Qaeda linked criminals have mysteriously seized power and begun to turn the area into an armed training and supply came for their confederates across the region. Both the EU and the African Union are mulling ways to drive them from power, and the United States is also considering ways of defeating them. The EU has almost 30 member states and the AU has 50; that international organizations with a membership of 80 countries are contemplating coordinated military action against something isn’t anything for anybody to worry about. Bin Laden is dead, what few remnant grouplets survive are on the run, and the unlamented “global war on terror” is as dead as the Bush administration.
There are other interesting dispatches from this non-global, non-war. “Hundreds” of Al-Qaeda operatives have escaped from a prison in Iraq. A somewhat doubtful report from the crack Onion-citing Iranian news agency FARS says that Al-Qaeda is recruiting criminals (which it foolishly calls “terrorists”) for activities in Syria. For those who don’t find FARS a reliable source, CNN also carries a story on the rising profile of Al-Qaeda in the war against Assad.
An Associated Press story filed in Peshawar noted that Al-Qaeda continues to globalize, with non-Arabs now significantly outnumbering Arabs in the organization’s ranks. Citing retired Pakistani general Mahmoud Shah as a source, the AP tells us that:
While there are no exact numbers, Shah said intelligence sources in the tribal regions put the number of Arab and African jihadists at about 1,500, compared with 3,500 to 4,000 ranging from Chinese Uighurs and Uzbeks to recruits from Turkey, the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan as well as native and immigrant Germans.
We may be tired of the war on terror, but the terrorists aren’t tired of waging war on us. Far from it. They are just warming up.
No doubt all the respectable and enlightened people who are working so hard in the government and the media to prevent public opinion from connecting these dots and drawing the conclusion that the war on terror is still real, still global and still going on have good reasons for doing so. They fear that talking too much about the threat would hand propaganda victories to those we would call our enemies if we were calling spades spades. They also fear that whether they speak of a global war on terror, a global war on radical Islamist terror, or even a global war against fanatical religious terror groups without specifying the religion they will polarize the world and make the whatever-it-is that much worse. Islamophobia would sweep the west, and westophobia (misdusism? hatred of the west) would sweep the Muslim world, and the clash of civilizations that our enemies want and that we hope to avoid would become that much more likely.
These are not bad motives, and even the slightly less noble motive of hoping to gain some partisan advantage by claiming to have dealt more decisively with the terror threat than is in fact the case is hardly an unprecedented violation of the norms of American political discourse in an election year.
But roads paved with good intentions don’t always take you where you want to go, and denial does not look like an effective or sustainable strategy in the current state of what is and remains a multi-theater war against a set of armed religious fanatics and bigoted zealots with a crazed world view and the capacity to make a lot of trouble in a lot of places at the same time.
When, after months and years of denial, events suddenly pop up (like a pre-planned 9/11 attack on an American diplomatic outpost) that look very much as if the war on terror was still happening, millions of Americans begin to ask whether their leaders are just stupid or if something else is going on. If you want to stoke McCarthyism, deny that domestic Communism is a problem after domestic spies have sold our nuclear secrets to Stalin. If you want to stoke Islamophobia, don’t level with the people about the nature of the problems we face.
The Obama administration has pursued a complex and not wholly misguided strategy in the war it claims not to be fighting. It has bombed the bejeezus out of people it doesn’t like, and a very serious and focused set of multinational counter terrorism operations are, thank goodness, constantly going on. These operations include vigorous domestic operations as well as international ones, and the Obama administration has pretty consistently worried more about cracking down on potential threats than on pleasing the ACLU. The White House has also sought, mostly unsuccessfully, to win over public opinion in the Islamic world by bombarding the region not only with drones but also with kind words about Islam and it has offered intermittent and inconsistent support for political change.  And, though it may not like to admit this to itself, it is exploiting the sectarian divide in the Islamic world to keep the Sunni and Shiite crazies focused on killing each other rather than being free to devote all their energy to the more difficult task of killing us. Meanwhile, it is hoping that moderate Islamism as we see it in places like Turkey and Egypt can tame Islam into a political force with which we can coexist.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats will admit this in the heat of an election campaign, but there aren’t many substantive differences between this general approach and the policy of the Bush administration in its second term. The biggest difference, and perhaps the only remaining substantial one, is the effort to downplay the existence of a violent global struggle against the terrorists and their perverted ideas. It may be that one reason the administration clings so hard to this approach is the need of its officials even at the most senior levels to avoid recognizing the degree to which they are following in the despicable footsteps of the man they so deeply loathe—and to do what they can to disguise that reality from their supporters. Many Democrats deeply want their party to be anti-war; we have an ‘ain’t-no-war’ President instead of an anti-war one and with that the left of the Democratic Party must make do.
But sometimes truth needs to be told. We are killing people in acts of war across Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa and expect to kill quite a few more. We are fighting a battle first to contain and then to defeat a vicious ideology of murder and hate that masks itself as religious zeal. We are fighting this war both at home and abroad, and there is not an inhabited continent anywhere on Planet Earth where this threat is not a serious concern.   All Muslims are not our enemies — far from it, and many of our most important allies and associates are decent, pious, enlightened Muslims who loathe the hate-spewing murderers as much as anybody else — but all of our enemies claim to be fighting in the name of Islam.
Basing war policy on the denial of facts is never smart, and the blow back can be severe. It’s quite possible that President Obama will be more frank about this conflict in his second term; whatever happens in November the threat will be too real and our efforts to deal with it will be too far-reaching for the United States government to pretend that we don’t face a global security challenge as serious as a war.

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