The refusal to see the terror war plain, which blinded the Bush Administration for seven years, continues to bamboozle our strategists. It looms over the “new” strategy for defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Afpak). Listening to the president’s vision for the war–three dead letters his secretary of state proudly and mistakenly consigned to the garbage pail of history a few days ago–reminds me of the story of Mark Twain’s wife and his penchant for blaspheming. One evening she tried to shock him by unleashing a torrent of four-letter words. He chuckled, and said, “you’ve got the lyrics, dear, but the music’s all wrong.”
So it is with Obama. The words are there, from “we will defeat you” to the counterinsurgency terms of art. He reminds us that Iraqi terrorists abandoned al Qaeda and insists that we have to give Afghan terrorists the same chance. He reminds us that Iraqi forces have now taken over most of the fighting in their country, and says that we must do the same in Afghanistan. He calls for engineers, doctors, teachers and construction experts to help create social and political institutions capable of winning the allegiance of most Afghans. He says that Pakistan and Afghanistan are parts of a broader problem, and he is right.
But the music is all wrong. Read the speech, and you’ll see that it doesn’t really parse. All the pieces are there but they don’t fit together. Everything is jumbled. There is no sense of sequence, no recognition that the part he likes–from weaning the terrorists from al Qaeda and/or the Taliban, to building roads and schools and hospitals–can only work once the part he doesn’t like–killing enough bad guys and providing credible security–has succeeded. He doesn’t seem to understand the essential part of the war, which is that the people on the ground will only commit to one side or another if they conclude that one side is going to win. Otherwise they will avoid commitment, and seek to curry favor from everyone.
The Anbar Awakening only got going when the locals reached two conclusions: the Marines could not be beaten, and the Marines were not going to leave. That took a while; the people had to see it and they had to have sufficient security to justify the enormous risk they took when they joined the battle against the terrorists. The president seems to think we can and should do everything at once:
In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target al Qaeda in Iraq. We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan, while understanding that it is a very different country.
There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. And that’s why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province.
I’d be delighted to sign on to this if he just added a clause at the end: “as our enemies are defeated there.” First you defeat them (creating a decent army and police forces in the process), then you reconcile, and then you build the roads, schools and hospitals. If you send in the school teachers before you’ve established adequate security, you’ll just provide the terrorists with fodder and hostages.
All too often, the president shows that he thinks negotiations are simply the result of good intentions, and that peace can be accomplished by the right sort of people. But peace invariably is the result of war, and peace conferences don’t change the world by themselves; they provide a snapshot of a world that has already been changed by war. A few days before his Afpak speech, the president celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Israel/Egypt peace agreement. “As we commemorate this historic event, we recall that peace is always possible even in the face of seemingly intractable conflicts,” he said. And then, referring to his own intentions, he continued:
The success…demonstrated that progress results from sustained efforts at communication and cooperation…we honor the courage and foresight of these leaders…as we seek to expand the circle of peace among Arabs and Israelis, we take inspiration from what Israel and Egypt achieved three decades ago, knowing that the destination is worthy of the struggle.
But that’s not how it happened. Not at all.
First, Egypt was decisively defeated by Israel on the battlefield, convincing Anwar Sadat that there was no possibility of wiping out Israel, and that any attempt to do it would be disastrous for his country. Second, both the United States and the Soviet Union started designing a “peace” deal, and Sadat didn’t like the prospect of a renewed Soviet role in the region. He was even prepared to talk directly to the Israelis. So he went to Jerusalem.
Thus, contrary to Obama’s reconstruction of events in the 1970s, the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was the result of an Israeli victory on the battlefield. Just as the reconciliation process in Iraq was the result of an American military victory. But the president and his advisers, special envoys and czars, can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that we defeated the terrorists in Iraq. And that little political stratagem contributes to their blindness to the full dimensions of the terror war.
The terror war, like the destiny of the Middle East, revolves around Tehran, the engine of the terror network, the inspiration and paymaster of many jihadis, and the most likely candidate for nuclear status in the near future. Alas, just as the Bush Administration never adopted an effective Iran policy, so the Obama Administration is marching in lockstep to the Bush music. Despite all the talk about a “new strategy,” Iran policy hasn’t changed at all, with the exception of all the bragging about “finally talking” to them. Obama’s Iran strategy is the same as Bush’s, combining sanctions, defensive measures such as arresting and sometimes even killing Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces operating against our men and women on the battlefield, and other financial measures designed to “increase the pressure” on the mullahs.
These measures have not worked in the past, nor have the negotiations that every president since Jimmy Carter has conducted with Iran. There is no reason to think they will succeed today.
Indeed, the Iranians have every reason to believe they can get most anything they want from America, and from America’s closest European ally, Great Britain. Little noticed by Iran watchers, a week ago an Iranian-sponsored terror group in Iraq announced that a deal had been struck that would result in the staged releases of five British hostages in exchange for several terrorists held by American forces. Not only that, but the Guardian reported that “Efforts to finalize the deal were a factor in Britain’s move to re-engage publicly with Hezbollah’s political wing in Lebanon this month.”
In simple English, we and the Brits appeased the Iranians on two levels: we released their killers and the Brits legitimized Hezbollah.
Iran now holds three American hostages: Robert Levinson, Roxana Saberi, and Esha Momeni. Levinson is an ex-F.B.I. agent who disappeared a year ago while in Iran. Saberi is a freelance journalist arrested in Iran at the end of January, and is now reportedly on a hunger strike in Evin Prison in Tehran. Momeni, a graduate student from Cal State University, was conducting research on the Iranian women’s movement (a particularly sensitive theme for the regime), and was rounded up last October.
The Iranians have successfully manipulated Western policy for decades, and not only, as is often claimed, because they are clever tacticians. Brutality is more characteristic of this regime, and hostage taking is one of their trademarks. It works, in part because nobody has any doubt about their willingness to torture and kill Western hostages, whose bodies would unfortunately fill a good-sized morgue. No wonder that Secretary of State Clinton gave the Iranians a letter about these unfortunate Americans.
It may not be entirely coincidental that Iran’s key Asian ally, North Korea, has just taken two American hostages. They’re female journalists who work for Al Gore’s “Current TV.” Do you think the president will refuse to listen to Gore when he begs for help for his people in that awful place?
Quite aside from the nuances of counterinsurgency warfare, nothing would so advance the cause of peace as the fall of the regime in Tehran, and its replacement by a government designed and elected by the Iranian people. I have long believed that can be accomplished peacefully, by supporting a non-violent democratic revolution in Iran. No American president in the last thirty years has attempted it, and most of them have acted as if they were actually afraid of supporting freedom for Iranians. A young Iranian blogger, upon hearing Obama’s love video to the mullahs, reacted with an elegant mixture of sadness and pride:
…people have been tortured on the charges of having connections with the United States. Some have been silent thinking you will come to their rescue. At least Bush had the honesty to separate this regime from the people. How easy you play with the people card. Please do not talk about our people anymore. Engage the regime and leave us alone. We will free Iran, even when you are helping this occupying regime…
That’s the key issue. It should come naturally to any American president, but it doesn’t. I fear we’re going to pay a terrible price for this deliberate refusal to see evil right in front of our noses. Negotiations are a very long shot, and sanctions have never compelled an enemy to change its policy. If we do not support revolution, we will most likely get war, a war far greater and far more lethal than the one the mullahs have been waging against us since 1979.