Al-Qaeda's Idea of Hope and Change

In support of his thesis Ignatius quotes a fatwa in support of McCain issued by the radical Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradhawi -- albeit one that wasn't very charitable about Obama. Qaradhawi said: "Personally, I would prefer for the Republican candidate, McCain, to be elected. This is because I prefer the obvious enemy who does not hypocritically [conceal] his hostility toward you … to the enemy who wears a mask [of friendliness]."

Qaradhawi is clearly a fan of the McCain "straight talk," but he also appears to have followed the Democratic primaries closely. The Clintons and their supporters will attest to Obama's ability to conceal his hostility behind a "mask of friendliness." Qaradhawi started to lose the plot, however, when he claimed that "The Democrats kill you slowly without you noticing it. ... They are like a snake whose touch is not felt until its poison enters your body." It's not clear what he meant by that; perhaps he was thinking of the effect their policies tend to have on the U.S. economy.

Other "endorsements" of McCain appeared on various Islamist websites. But did Qaradhawi, Zawahiri, bin Laden (if he's even alive), and the rest of the jihadist leadership really want McCain to win? They may indeed have been rooting for the "never-ending war" candidate, but apparently the liberal commentariat, trusting fellows that they are, aren't familiar with a concept popularly known as "reverse psychology."

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of these sages that perhaps al-Qaeda wanted Obama to win all along, and that when the pundits of the North West Frontier Province came out for McCain they were in fact calculating that their endorsement would persuade wavering Americans to vote for Obama -- thinking that in doing so they were both defying attempts to intimidate them, and electing the candidate the jihadists secretly feared.

Of course it's also possible that al-Qaeda really did want McCain to win, and that their endorsement was a double-bluff that backfired: they predicted that the American public would see a terrorist endorsement of McCain as a crude attempt to get them to vote for Obama, and would instead vote for McCain. If that's the case they apparently credited a lot of voters, along with Ignatius and his colleagues, with way too much intelligence.

But if al-Qaeda hoped to get out the McCain vote they could have done more than issue a couple of sparsely-reported statements over the Internet. Days before the 2004 election Osama bin Laden issued a video in which he didn't endorse either candidate, but instead issued threats against the U.S. in general terms. It's hard to know what effect the video had on the result, but it's likely many undecided voters decided to go with George Bush as the better option for keeping American safe.

So while it's possible that Zawahiri and his colleagues were angered by the media's treatment of Sarah Palin, it's also possible that they're perfectly happy with Obama's victory, and that his attack on Obama is merely boilerplate to fire-up the faithful. There's no way of knowing what the Islamists really hoped to gain from the election -- at least not until the New York Times serializes bin Laden's memoirs. But we can consider which outcome would best serve their interests.

Would al-Qaeda have preferred the candidate who got the biggest strategic decision in the war on terror right when he called for a "surge" of American forces in Iraq? Or would they want the candidate who got it utterly wrong by opposing the surge and claimed it would make matters worse, and who for months refused to deny its success in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

Would they prefer the candidate who has been unshakable in his support for America's men and women in uniform, or the candidate who accused U.S. forces in Afghanistan of doing nothing but "air-raiding villages and killing civilians"; who joined his Democrat colleagues in undermining the Bush administration's attempts to fight the war at home and abroad at every turn, until he secured his party's nomination and it became expedient for him to appear more hawkish; and who talks about "ending" wars but never about winning them?

Would they prefer the candidate with decades of military and political experience, or the community organizer with movie-star appeal who, in an effort to prop up his national security credentials, chose a running mate who proposed splitting Iraq along sectarian lines, and who claimed in the vice-presidential debate that the United States (with the help of France) had “kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon”?

The Islamists may be prepared to fight the West for a hundred years, but they also want to win. Such has been the progress in Iraq that it would take a blunder of colossal proportions by Obama to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory there, but the future of Afghanistan is still in the balance. And on the available evidence al-Qaeda may have decided that for all his rhetoric about invading Pakistan, Obama isn’t really up for the fight.

We’ll find out next year. Will Obama keep up the attacks on the al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership, or will he indulge Pakistan's politicians when they ask for a suspension of hostilities while they engage in another round of "peace talks" with the militants? Which of his contradictory policies will Obama pursue towards Iran, and towards Israel and the Palestinians? Will he defer to the UN, or make life-or-death decisions with an eye on public opinion both at home and overseas?

While the demands of office may convert Obama into a pragmatist, there’s much in his past -- including his morally equivocating response to 9/11 -- to suggest he shares the leftist view that America needs to change its ways, and engage with its enemies rather than fighting them. It’s largely for that reason that the world is celebrating his election, and despite Zawahiri’s outburst, it’s likely that his victory was as popular in Waziristan as it was in London, Paris, and Berlin.