by Ivan Eland
A true cynic would question the timing of Middle East-wide U.S. embassy closings and a barrage of drone attacks in Yemen when the Obama administration is defending its intrusive spying on Americans after exposure by an intelligence agency contractor. Although in May, President Obama told us that he would wind down the war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, perhaps his newly “outed” unconstitutional domestic spying programs required a threat refresher to justify them. Yet one doesn’t even have to be that cynical to question Obama’s recently reinvigorated war on terrorism.
To Obama’s credit, he seems to at least have come up with a theoretical answer to the question that Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, asked but was afraid to answer: “Are we creating more enemies than we are killing?” Obama’s initial decision to constrain the use of drone attacks was motivated partially by a backlash against them and the United States in Pakistan, Yemen, and throughout the Islamic world, including attempts by Pakistani- and Yemeni-based Islamist groups to attack targets in the U.S. homeland.
So at the intellectual level, the president seems to realize that U.S. counterterrorism attacks can adversely affect public opinion in Islamic countries and that this bad impression of the United States can create potentially lethal blowback. Yet in the real world, when a threat—real or exaggerated—is afoot, Obama quickly authorized flailing away with a fusillade of drone strikes. Although the administration keeps telling us how many senior Al Qaeda figures they have killed using drones, senior intelligence officials admit that the recent flurry of attacks in Yemen has killed only three dozen minor actors, such as vehicle drivers for the group.
The administration also keeps telling us that drone attacks’ collateral damage—the military’s bureaucratic euphemism for killing civilians accidentally—is low, which might be correct if compared to the hundreds of thousands or even millions of Vietnamese that Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon killed by carpet bombing. The problem, however, is the same with civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The U.S. government doesn’t understand why Afghans are just as likely to side with the brutal Islamist Taliban as with the United States and its corrupt Afghan client government, even though the Taliban is responsible for 70 percent of the civilian casualties in that war. The reason is simple: the Taliban are locals, U.S. forces are foreign occupiers, and the Afghan government is perceived as being their stooges. Foreign occupiers are held to a different standard than local people—local people get the benefit of the doubt and foreigners don’t. In other words, in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan, even a few civilian casualties can generate a lot of anti-U.S. hatred. And if even if you do kill high-level Al Qaeda operatives, war is an evolutionary hothouse in which their replacements may be even more ruthless and effective; in war, the strong survive.
The two major problems with the American war on terror under both Bush and Obama remain 1) that the American people, especially in the wake of the painful 9/11 episode, were never honest with themselves about the causes of Islamist terrorism, and 2) that the American mentality of policing the world didn’t allow the government to distinguish between those Islamist groups that attacked the United States and those that didn’t, thus focusing any military action on only those in the former category.
Osama bin Laden and the main trunk of Al Qaeda have always been clear about why they attacked the United States—profligate U.S. intervention in Muslim world, especially the Middle East. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of the massive scale of such unneeded post-World War II meddling in that region. Somehow admitting this clear fact is usually framed as blaming innocent civilians for Al Qaeda’s monstrous attacks on civilians, including on 9/11. However, recognizing this important reality could lead to Americans being safer if more U.S. restraint was exercised in the Muslim world.
To demonstrate, a new Al Qaeda affiliate is emerging out of the Syrian civil war—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—but its head, Abu Omar, didn’t list the United States as a target of the group. Instead, he listed Iran and Russia. Why? Because Iran and Russia have provided significant military assistance to the Assad regime in Syria and the United States, to date, hasn’t. Obama’s so far wise policy of limiting U.S. interference in Syria has made one less new enemy.
Another example of U.S. military restraint—for the world’s policeman, it doesn’t happen very often—paying off was Lebanon in the 1980s. After the Islamist group Hezbollah (now fighting with the Assad regime in Syria) blew up the U.S. Marine barracks there in 1983, killing hundreds of Marines, President Ronald Reagan wisely decided to end what had been an unwise meddling-through-“peacekeeping” mission. Predictably, Hezbollah’s attacks on U.S. targets around the world eventually attenuated.
In contrast, unrestrained U.S. interventions have helped terrorists directly and indirectly. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda in Iraq was born to resist the U.S. occupation, and terrorist incidents spiked worldwide.
According to the New York Times, John McLaughlin, a former director of the CIA, noted that terrorists now have the largest areas for safe haven and operational training that they’ve had in 10 years. Not coincidentally, one of these massive sanctuaries is in southern Libya, a country that the United States and NATO recently destabilized by “liberating” it, through military force, into the hands of a weak government that cannot control its own territory.
In conclusion, most Al Qaeda regional affiliates are much less lethal than the original main group, have primarily local interests, and are best left alone if the United States wants to avoid making new enemies or to attenuate existing plotting against U.S. targets. Instead, even in Obama’s new allegedly restrained conception of the war on terror, the United States continues to form “partnerships” with often—questionable governments to fight terrorism, so that the U.S. doesn’t have to send troops. This policy might attenuate some blowback, but Russia, for example, is in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s sites because of its mere provision of military assistance to Assad in Syria.
Unfortunately, until the United States realizes that its informal overseas empire, and the military interventions needed to maintain it, is the primary cause of anti-U.S. terrorism and that a policy of military restraint—as a last resort, isolating and discreetly neutralizing only groups that primarily target Americans—will create fewer new enemies, the excessively grandiose and counterproductive war on terror is likely to continue endlessly.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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