The PJ Tatler

Foreign Policy Elite MEME OF THE WEEK: Accept 'Moderate' Al-Qaeda

As I’ve said here at PJ Media repeatedly, there are some ideas so profoundly stupid that they can only be taken seriously inside the political-media-academic bubble that stretches along the Washington, D.C.-New York-Boston corridor. These typically populate my annual year-end “National Security ‘Not Top 10’” review.

Such is the case with this week’s foreign policy “smart set” MEME OF THE WEEK: we need to accept “moderate” al-Qaeda in order to defeat “hardline” ISIS.

Understand, this is a continuation of a popular theme amongst the foreign policy “smart set.” See the “moderate Muslim Brotherhood,” which just a month ago declared all-out jihad on the Egyptian government. Or the New York Times, pitching “moderate” elements of the Iranian regime. Or current CIA director “Jihad” John Brennan calling for the U.S. to build up Hezbollah “moderates.” Or hapless academics proclaiming the “mellowing” of Hamas. Or the so-called “vetted moderate” Syrian rebel groups that, as I have reported here, regularly fight alongside ISIS and al-Qaeda and have even defected to those terror groups.

So why are the foreign policy elites now having to talk about engaging “moderate” al-Qaeda, of all things?

Because all of those previous “moderate” engagement efforts have ended in disaster. But rather than abandon the whole “moderate” theme, the foreign policy community seems intent to double-down on failure by continuing to move the “moderate” line.

First out of the gate this week was an article in Foreign Affairs by Harvard’s Barak Mendelsohn, “Accepting Al-Qaeda: The Enemy of the United States’ Enemy,” that argues:

Since 9/11, Washington has considered al-Qaeda the greatest threat to the United States, one that must be eliminated regardless of cost or time. After Washington killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, it made Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new leader, its next number one target. But the instability in the Middle East following the Arab revolutions and the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) require that Washington rethink its policy toward al-Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri. Destabilizing al-Qaeda at this time may in fact work against U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS.

Here’s how Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, billed this conventional wisdom:

There are several problems with Mendelsohn’s thesis. One problem that he barely acknowledges is that al-Qaeda is still a declared enemy and an active threat to the United States. They have said repeatedly that they intend to kill U.S. citizens and have continued to plot to do so. The enemy of my enemy can still also be my enemy.

A second pragmatic problem with trying to use Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, as a tool against ISIS is that the relationship between the two groups is constantly evolving. Not long ago, ISIS and Nusra were comrades-in-arms. Despite their present falling-out, within recent months they still occasionally worked together: in August they joined forces to attack Lebanese border checkpoints; in September they were engaged in joint operations around Qalamoun. And Nusra appears more interested in wiping out the U.S.-backed “vetted moderate” groups and fighting the Assad regime than going head-to-head with ISIS.

Thus, it is considerably more likely that ISIS and al-Qaeda will engage in some form of reconciliation than al-Qaeda falling into the U.S. foreign policy orbit and serving as an anti-ISIS proxy in Syria.

So what drives the folly of the foreign policy “smart set”? Mostly it is the hubris that only they comprehend the vast and constantly changing complexity of international affairs, but also it is their added belief that their pals in the administration can harness this “smart set” omniscience to manipulate global events to a predicted end.

That rarely, if ever, happens. Just witness the Obama administration’s foreign policy disaster in Syria.

Mendelsohn has not been alone this week in calling for greater “acceptance” of al-Qaeda. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published Yaroslav Trofimov’s “Al-Qaeda a lesser evil? Syria war pulls U.S., Israel apart,” where he makes the following case:

MOUNT BENTAL, Golan Heights — This mountaintop on the edge of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights offers a unique vantage point into how the complexities of the Syrian war raging in the plains below are increasingly straining Israel’s ties with the U.S.

To the south of this overlook, from which United Nations and Israeli officers observe the fighting, are the positions of the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda that the U.S. has targeted with airstrikes.

Nusra Front, however, hasn’t bothered Israel since seizing the border area last summer — and some of its severely wounded fighters are regularly taken across the frontier fence to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals.

To the north of Mount Bental are the positions of the Syrian government forces and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias such as Hezbollah, along with Iranian advisers. Iran and these militias are indirectly allied with Washington in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq. But here in the Golan, they have been the target of a recent Israeli airstrike. Israel in recent months also shot down a Syrian warplane and attacked weapons convoys heading through Syria to Hezbollah.

It would be a stretch to say that the U.S. and Israel are backing different sides in this war. But there is clearly a growing divergence in U.S. and Israeli approaches over who represents the biggest danger — and who should be seen, if not as an ally, at least as a lesser evil in the regional crisis sparked by the dual implosion of Syria and Iraq.

Trofimov’s argument boils down to: “Accept al-Qaeda! See, the Israelis are doing it!!!”

Needless to say, Trofimov’s article quickly received praise from the foreign policy “smart set,” including the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl and The Century Foundation’s Michael Hanna:

A couple thoughts on this. First, some have treated the report of Israelis helping injured Nusra fighters in the Golan as some breaking game-changing news, but in fact Vice News reported on this back in December.

Secondly, I reported from the Golan here at PJ Media back in September 2013, and I even stood on Mount Bental and looked over the ruins of Quneitra while fighting raged across the border. And yet, that perspective didn’t help me magically see al-Qaeda as some lesser evil that we needed to engage or accept.

Thirdly, and I know this will strike some as heresy, the Israelis are not infallible and have seen this approach literally blow up on them. Take, for instance, the January 2009 Wall Street Journal article, “How Israel helped spawn Hamas“:

Surveying the wreckage of a neighbor’s bungalow hit by a Palestinian rocket, retired Israeli official Avner Cohen traces the missile’s trajectory back to an “enormous, stupid mistake” made 30 years ago.

“Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” says Mr. Cohen, a Tunisian-born Jew who worked in Gaza for more than two decades. Responsible for religious affairs in the region until 1994, Mr. Cohen watched the Islamist movement take shape, muscle aside secular Palestinian rivals and then morph into what is today Hamas, a militant group that is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Instead of trying to curb Gaza’s Islamists from the outset, says Mr. Cohen, Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Israel cooperated with a crippled, half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas. Sheikh Yassin continues to inspire militants today; during the recent war in Gaza, Hamas fighters confronted Israeli troops with “Yassins,” primitive rocket-propelled grenades named in honor of the cleric. […]

When Israel first encountered Islamists in Gaza in the 1970s and ’80s, they seemed focused on studying the Quran, not on confrontation with Israel. The Israeli government officially recognized a precursor to Hamas called Mujama Al-Islamiya, registering the group as a charity. It allowed Mujama members to set up an Islamic university and build mosques, clubs and schools. Crucially, Israel often stood aside when the Islamists and their secular left-wing Palestinian rivals battled, sometimes violently, for influence in both Gaza and the West Bank.

“When I look back at the chain of events I think we made a mistake,” says David Hacham, who worked in Gaza in the late 1980s and early ’90s as an Arab-affairs expert in the Israeli military. “But at the time nobody thought about the possible results.”

“Nobody thought about the possible results.” Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.

I should note that this is not the first time that the foreign policy “smart set” has taken a run at the “engaging moderate al-Qaeda” meme. In January 2014, Foreign Affairs published an article titled “The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham” which contended that the U.S. needed to “befriend” the Syrian jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham as some kind of counter to more extreme jihadist groups, like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The precedent they cited was the U.S. failure to designate the Taliban (!!!) after 9/11.

Mind you, at the time they wrote this one of Ahrar al-Sham’s top leaders was a lieutenant for al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri who openly declared himself a member of al-Qaeda. After most of their leadership was wiped out in a bombing in September, they gravitated closer to the jihadist groups they were supposed to counter and their positions have been bombed by the U.S. — much to the consternation of other “vetted moderate” rebel groups.

The article was originally subtitled “An al-Qaeda affiliate worth befriending”:

Ahrar al-Sham1But after the article authors took some flack on Twitter for their much-too-obvious “an al Qaeda affiliate,” the subtitle was quickly changed to “an al Qaeda-linked group worth befriending” on the Foreign Affairs website:

Ahrar al-Sham2This seems to give evidence that the foreign policy elite know exactly what they’re doing when making these arguments. For fear of the unwashed masses catching on to the dangerous game they’re playing, they’ll quickly try to walk things back to keep the appearance of being nuanced, smart, and sensible as they talk amongst themselves about befriending terrorist organizations.

Another telling sign is that when this article appeared there was ZERO blowback from the foreign policy “smart set.” Much like the articles from Mendelsohn and Trofimov this week, they received widespread praise and acclaim from their peers.

I mentioned earlier the hubris that drives much of this thinking. But an added element of this phenomenon is the obliteration in our political, media, and academic elite of any distinction between good and evil.

Such distinctions are perceived as archaic and naive, while suggesting “befriending” terrorists is nuanced and realist. And yet the 20th century is littered with examples of these two factors (elite hubris, no distinction between good and evil) working in concert to horrific effect.

Recent history has examples as well, such as when the Obama administration decided to engage “moderate” al-Qaeda leaders in Libya, including LIFG head Abdelhakim Belhadj (whom the CIA had renditioned back to Libya in 2004) to overthrow Gaddafi at the behest of the warhawk trio of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power. How well has that worked out and how many lives has it cost?

We see it again now in the administration’s support of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq fighting to push back ISIS, who are regularly engaged in war crimes and religious cleansing no different than ISIS itself. Will there be any good coming from the the U.S. acting as Iran’s air force in their ongoing takeover of Iraq?

Probably no more than what will come from following the foreign policy elite’s MEME OF THE WEEK, accepting “moderate” al-Qaeda.

UPDATE: FBI Director James Comey told Congress this week that Al-Qaeda, which we are supposed to now “accept” according to the foreign policy elite, is still a threat to the U.S.:

Al Qaeda and its affiliates—especially al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—continue to represent a top terrorist threat to the nation and our interests overseas. AQAP’s online English magazine advocates for lone wolves to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland and Western targets. The magazine regularly encourages homegrown violent extremists to carry out small arms attacks and provides detailed “how-to” instructions for constructing and deploying a successful improvised explosive device.