Wednesday, January 6, 2010

“Outsmarting” the Terrorists by Being Incredibly Stupid?

By Barry Rubin

Here’s my usual disclaimer: I would love to be able to stop criticizing the Obama Administration but it keeps saying and doing things that shock and surprise me or—if you want to put it this way—live up to my worst expectations.

I’m sitting on a U.S. army base briefing officers along with a high-ranking State Department official who works on the Middle East. At one point, he gets a quaver in his voice and starts talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict making quite clear which side he’s on. Sounding scared he says: “While a lot of problems in the world can bring trouble only the Arab-Israeli conflict can get you and your families killed.”

The officers look disgusted. He is fitting precisely their stereotype of a cowardly diplomat. Abandon Israel and save your life and that of your children, is his message. Oh, and this is after September 11 which makes the statement even more ridiculous.

This kind of blatant cowardice is usually better concealed. It more often occurs in regard to intellectuals facing challenges like the “Danish cartoons.” But it is glimpsed at times in a sort of strategic fearfulness, a refusal to do what’s in one’s interest lest someone might get mad about it.

John Brennan is the president’s advisor on counter-terrorism and may be the dumbest of all Obama’s foreign policy appointments. Brennan is apparently ex-CIA and he has yet to persuade me that he has any understanding whatsoever about terrorism. He’s the guy who said that Hizballah wasn’t a terrorist group because it ran candidates for parliament and had lawyers among its members.

Now in a television interview, he stated that the Guantanamo prison should be closed because al-Qaida has used its existence in order to make propaganda.

A few hours later, President Barack Obama repeated this talking point in the course of discussing reinforced controls on airplane passengers:

"We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaida," Obama said. "In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."

What? Is his understanding really so minimal that he thinks the formation of a revolutionary movement to seize power in Iraq and overthrow the Saudi government took place because the United States maintained a prison in Cuba? Is this man who proclaims himself the great understander of other cultures so ethnocentric that he thinks, so to speak, that “everything is about us?”

Does Obama have any sense at all of what al-Qaida uses as recruiting tools, of their ideology and goals? And would closing Guantanamo deprive al-Qaida of a recruiting tool, would it hurt that group? Isn’t it obvious that, if anything, al-Qaida would proclaim this as a victory: Out of fear of us, the camp was closed! We have prevented the oppression of Muslims! We can make the great Satan tremble and give in! Now, that’s a recruiting tool!

I actually find Michael Scheuer, another former CIA guy, more congenial than Brennan though he also has some terrible ideas. Scheuer views anti-American terrorism as solely caused by U.S. support for Middle Eastern regimes.

The reality is that there are three causes: U.S. policies; hatred of the American culture and society not because they care what goes on inside the United States but because they believe it will ultimately transform their own societies through both power and seductive example; and a desire to prove their strength and increase their support base by humiliating the world’s leading power.

Scheuer’s main credential is that he headed the Usama bin Ladin task force at the CIA which, one would think, would mark him as a failure whose ideas didn’t work at all. On the positive side, he doesn’t just focus on hating Israel but also blames U.S. support for all the Arab regimes as well. Of course, if the United States stopped this support, these regimes would more likely be overthrown by radical Islamists (not necessarily al-Qaida) and then we could see if the Islamists stopped hating and attacking America. (I’d bet they’d step up attacks.)

But Scheuer can’t help revealing his special hatred of Israel, even when this contradicts his own thesis. In a C-Span interview he said that Americans must decide whether they want their sons to die in Iraq and Yemen in order to defend Israel. Funny, I thought they were there to protect the Iraqi and Yemeni governments—which are not even friendly toward Israel—and American interests. I guess I'm the onlyone who remembers how much this sounds like Nazi propaganda in World War Two: Americans! This is just the Jews' war and not yours!

And then he makes an even more amazing statement when asked how America can stop terrorist attacks on itself:

“Ultimately we have to find a way to dissuade them from focusing their anger on us and persuade them to focus their anger at what they themselves believe to be the real enemy the governments that govern them and oppress them and Israel.”

Of course, U.S. support for Great Britain made Nazi Germany look at America as an enemy, and the same goes for U.S. support for China and imperial Japan, and U.S. support for dozens of countries and the USSR. But the United States backed these other states because it wanted to block victory for a hostile force which would use these other places, if taken over, as a base to destroy U.S. interests and to hit America more effectively.

How would someone have been treated if they advocated betraying these allies so as to plead more effectively from aggressive tyrannical movements: Please leave us alone. We promise not to inconvenience you in your march to world conquest!

But Scheuer gives us just this imaginative proposal. Urge al-Qaida and other terrorists to attack U.S. allies—which they can hit a lot harder and damage a lot more—rather than America. (Ironically, this is the reverse of what the Saudis and other Arab regimes try to do.) Of course these groups will do both!

Moreover, what happens after al-Qaida or other Islamists seize power from these abandoned regimes? No doubt they will fondly remember that the United States stopped opposing them and be good buddies of America, right? (Warning: previous sentence is sarcastic.)

Actually, though, this is what was going on during the pre-bin Ladin era. Radical Islamist groups did focus on attacking regimes in the region—especially Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia—but were soundly defeated by the governments, except in Lebanon. Facing this stalemate, bin Ladin proposed attacking America directly. This is what led to September 11.

The basic problem is that Scheuer, and Brennan and Obama, too, basically think that the Islamist assault is something that can be made to go away by some clever stratagem: flatter Muslims; move away from Israel, abandon Israel, show more sensitivity; try captured terrorists in a U.S. court; or something else. Yet the beginning of wisdom is to understand that this is a challenge parallel to that from Communism and fascism.

The idea that al-Qaida and other terrorists can be bought off by selling out all the more moderate Arab states and Israel or they can be confounded by closing Guantanamo illustrates ignorance on a stupendous scale. The point of U.S. strategy should not be to “deny” al-Qaida talking points—it will never lack for them no matter how U.S. policy changes—but defeating it, making it impossible for the group to operate, blocking its attacks by effectively targeted defensive measures.

Have all the most basic lessons from centuries of statecraft been so thoroughly forgotten by those who govern in the West?

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