Contrary to Obama, the Terror War Has Barely Begun

The collapse of Middle Eastern states from Libya to Afghanistan vastly increases the terrorist recruitment pool, while severely restricting the ability of American intelligence services to monitor and interdict the terrorists. In addition, it intensifies the despair that motivates Muslims like the Tsarnaev brothers or Michael Adebolajo to perpetrate acts of terrorism. That makes President Obama's declaration that America is winding down the "war on terror"--a misnomer to begin with--the worst decision by an American commander-in-chief since the Buchanan administration, perhaps ever.

Last week I took part in a Tablet magazine roundtable on the crack-up of Middle Eastern states and its strategic implications, along with Edward Luttwak, the New York Times' Robert Worth, Amos Harel of Ha'aretz, Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard, and Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group. Our group effort was one of several essays to appear in the past two weeks commenting on the disintegration of the system of states created after World War I by colonial cartographers. I argued:

 In their wisdom, the colonial powers characteristically created multiethnic and multisectarian entities based on the principle of minority rule. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty’s assumption of power in 1971. If you create artificial states with substantial minorities, as British and French cartographers did after the First World War, the only possible stable government is a minority government. That is why the Alawites ran Syria and the minority Sunnis ran Iraq. The minority regime may be brutal, even horribly brutal, but this arrangement sets up a crude system of checks and balances. A government drawn from a minority of the population cannot attempt to exterminate the majority, so it must try to find a modus vivendi. The majority can in fact exterminate a minority. That is why a majority government represents an existential threat to the minority, and that is why minorities fight to the death. This meta-equilibrium is broken and cannot be restored.

Syria's crack-up is at the top of the agenda, but the breakdown of putative nation-states extends across nearly all of the Muslim world. As Amos Harel reported in the Tablet symposium, the prime minister of Libya "has to cross checkpoints manned by five different militias, on his way home from office."  In place of regular armies controlled by dictators, Libya is crisscrossed by ethnic and sectarian militias (including the one that murdered our ambassador last September). Egypt is on the brink of economic collapse and state failure; Iraq is in the midst of a low-intensity sectarian war; Syria's civil war already is being fought out in Lebanon; and Turkey's border has become unstable.

A vast number of young men have been drawn into irregular combat. Syria has become the cockpit of a Sunni-Shi'ite war, with Turkey and the Gulf states funneling money and jihadists into Syria while Iran sends Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah irregulars to the aid of the Assad regime. The young men of Libya already are mobilized into militias; Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood cells and Salafists and football mobs are not yet armed, but are organized. Iraq's sectarians are armed to the teeth, in part thanks to American funding of the "Sunni Awakening" during the 2007-2008 surge. Very large numbers of young men are ready to fight to the death, while the breakup of the fragile civilian society of these countries draws more and more of them into the maelstrom. Terrorism has become a way of life in Syria, where both sides instigate atrocities, in part to intimidate their opponents and in part to bind their own fighters to the cause by making them complicit in such crimes.