The Washington Post describes the guiding philosophy of Barack Obama’s War on Terror or whatever it is now called. It consists of supporting “allies” with large amounts of money, technology and expert advice and drones to carry out low-key operations. The Post writes in an article entitled “U.S. deeply involved in secret Yemeni strikes” that Obama:
has embraced the notion that the most effective way to kill or capture members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates is to work closely with foreign partners, including those that have feeble democracies, shoddy human rights records and weak accountability over the vast sums of money Washington is giving them to win their continued participation in these efforts.
There is considerable potential downside to this strategy. The most obvious is that it involves the US on the side of rulers who may be hated by their populations. Lee Smith in his book The Strong Horse, argues that the “war on terror” — or whatever it is now called — was in many ways an externalization of the Arab/Muslim struggle to resolve their political future. Religious vs secular, democratic vs authoritarian, modern vs traditional. The Bush “freedom agenda” was an attempt to take one side of this debate in an effort to resolve the underlying differences.
The Obama administration has removed America from involvement in those issues and returns it to the traditional approach of dealing with regimes. In an interview with Michael Totten, Lee Smith argued the problem with this approach was that the regimes themselves were the source of terror. They provoked it, supported its currents and rode its waves. Smith said:
Arab anti-Americanism, as I point out in the book, did not begin with the Bush administration, but goes back to the very beginning of our presence in the region and becomes the pre-eminent channel for anti-colonial sentiment after the Suez Crisis of 1956. … Al Qaeda, Islamist terrorism, is a function of states. Yes, it is an ideological movement with its own history and sources and political ambitions that run counter to the current nation-state system of the Arabic-speaking Middle East; but it is a movement that is sustained by Middle Eastern regimes and their intelligence services who use terror organizations to advance their own strategic interests and deter other states from using terror organizations against them.
I can’t repeat this enough because the President needs to understand this. All of us need to understand it. The Bush administration understood it but the lesson seems to have evaporated into thin air with all the confusion and miscommunication that left some Americans with the belief that the White House was claiming Saddam was directly responsible for 9/11. But this is not what the administration said, and we know for a fact that Saddam did work with Al Qaeda and with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman Zawahiri’s outfit that constitutes the core of the Bin Laden group. But we’re moving away from this understanding and it spells real danger for core American interests and citizens.
If you want to fight Islamist terror you have to go to the heart of the matter and that is Middle Eastern regimes, but this is not what we’re doing now. In fact, we are doing the opposite, counterinsurgency is the opposite of going to the source of the problem. COIN is a losing hand for us. No matter how good the US military gets at counterinsurgency it is never going to have the same sort of success as Arab regimes do. The Arabs can’t win wars, but Arab regimes have never lost to an insurgency, ever.
Just as Pakistani employed the Taliban to do its dirty work, there is the temptation to employ local regimes to do otherwise unpalatable things. What Middle Eastern regimes can inflict that America cannot is unlimited brutality. Smith continues. “Thank God that the Americans will never emulate the tactics of these regimes—the collective punishment, rape, torture and murder that Arab states typically employ to put down insurgencies, but if you don’t do it you will not defeat an Arab insurgency.” But it may be acceptable to let the allied regimes do it. That way the press won’t notice.
Washington still occasionally expresses its displeasure in ways that diplomats understand, but which Middle Eastern regime and populations, always ready to follow the “Strong Horse” do not. Smith says:
Ask people in the Obama administration about Syrian involvement in the Baghdad attacks and they tell you this is why we haven’t sent an ambassador back to Damascus yet. That’s how we punish states that kill our men and women in uniform and target the Arab civilians whose lives are under our protection as an occupying force—we withhold diplomats. Pretty stern stuff, no? Bashar al-Assad must be shaking in his boots.
Analysts can argue back and forth over whether any other course except COIN is possible. But it is fairly certain that the dual of Obama’s new “clean” policy will be a secret war conducted by foreign governments. Since America can no longer take custody of prisoners rendition is back on the menu. Since America no longer sends soldiers to fight al-Qaeda directly that task has been outsourced to Yemen, Pakistan and others. The result will inevitably be a two-track, split-level war on terror — or whatever you want to call it — with a possible political downside.
The democracy agenda is dead for the moment and perhaps worst of all, defunct in an incomprehensible way. The message in the Washington’s return to dealing with governments instead of pursuing an ideological agenda in the region might be intended to convey a desire to leave things to the indigenes. But it may unfortunately be perceived as a betrayal of everyone who dared to take a modernizing, secular and democratic outlook. What America does is often misunderstood and this last twist may be no exception. It remains to be seen whether the democracy agenda will ever be revived. It might, if the current strategy fails. And then maybe everyone, including Washington will remember exactly why they are doing it.