The Middle East looms large for Barack Obama, and in Washington it's
clear that the seething arc of crises from Gaza and Lebanon through
Iraq and Iran into Afghanistan and Pakistan won't let Obama ignore the
region from Day One. Starting today, and continuing for the rest of
this week, I'm presenting a series of pieces about Obama's Middle East.
Today, we start with the so-called War on Terror. Tomorrow, I'll deal
with Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Thursday, Iraq. On Friday, Gaza,
Israel, and Lebanon. And over the weekend, Iran.
Perhaps the area where Barack Obama can make the quickest, and most
effective, pivot from the administration of George W. Bush is with the
so-called War on Terror.
For seven years and four months, the United States has been engaged in
a monumentally flawed and destructive campaign that President Bush
described as an all-out effort against terrorism and terrorist groups
of "global reach." It includes two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, a
lethal counterterrorism effort waged by the CIA and the Pentagon's
Special Forces units, and a global effort to expand US military and
intelligence ties to countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and
Unfortunately, from the start the United States conflated its lone real
enemy, Al Qaeda, with a panoply of unrelated states and organizations,
some Islamist and some secular, creating a mythical bloc of evil-doers
under the heading of what John McCain called, redundantly, "radical
Islamic extremism." In the mix, Bush rolled up Iran, Saddam's Iraq,
Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis, the Muslim
Brotherhood, the Taliban, various Pakistani Islamist groups, and others
into one big terrorist ball of wax. Predictably, and aided by the
anti-Muslim prejudices of the Christian right, it became a Crusade
against Islam, at least in as seen through the lens of people living in
the Middle East and South Asia. No wonder that anti-American sentiment
throughout the region reached all-time highs.
There are three things that Obama can do in this regard.
First, Obama can declare victory against Al Qaeda. For the most
part, Al Qaeda is dead and buried. Despite the hysterical warnings that
continue to emanate from members of the US terrorism-industrial complex
-- from people like Frances Townsend, who formerly advised Bush on
terrorism, and from members of the hardy band of terrorism specialists
who have an interest in sustaining an inordinate fear of Al Qaeda --
the organization is toothless. For the past three years, Al Qaeda has
not launched a single attack against any Western target, including the
United States and Europe.
Last week, no less an authority than Dell Dailey, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said:
"We see Al Qaeda, in a centralized role, (as being) totally controlled.
Bin Laden can't get an operational effort off the ground without it
being detected ahead of time and being thwarted. Their ability to reach
is nonexistent." Predictably, Dailey's comments didn't get much
attention, in part because the US media doesn't like to headline
reports that don't set off fire alarms. But Dailey's right. Al Qaeda is
pretty much finished, although vigilance and continued mopping up
operations, especially in Waziristan, are required. It's been crushed
in Afghanistan, it has been utterly destroyed in Iraq, it has been
obliterated in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and its operations base in
North Africa, which was mostly locally focused anyway, is under siege.
So Obama can declare victory over Al Qaeda. Using his supremely
confident aura of cool, he can de-escalate the rhetoric. He can tell
Americans that they have nothing to fear but fear itself. He can tell
them that the threat of terrorism, for Americans, has been reduced to
the level of a nuisance. He can assure Americans that they are safe and
secure. He can emphasize that the chance that terrorists might get
ahold of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons of mass destruction
is close to zero. And he can explain that, in the unlikely event of
another attack -- say, a Mumbai-style explosion of guerrilla war or an
Oklahoma City-style truck bombing -- the United States will undertake a
patient and ruthless effort to track down the perpetrators.
Second, Obama can make it clear that the United States is, from now on,
playing by the rules. No more torture. No more rendition to
torture-prone nations. No more Guantanamo. No more Abu Ghraibs. Respect
for the rule of law. In all of this, the United States will use its
intelligence and law enforcement apparatus with utmost professionalism
to protect Americans, preventing terrorist acts when we can and
tracking down the terrorists when we can't.
And third, Obama should deliver a major speech, aimed at Americans,
explaining the many and subtle differences among the opponents and
adversaries of the United States in the Muslim world. On the one hand,
he should say, there can be no reconciliation or truce with Al Qaeda.
On the other hand, with nearly all of the other components of the
Bush-McCain Terrorist Ball of Wax -- Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the
Taliban, especially -- we will talk, we will listen, we will negotiate,
we will seek at least a truce, and we will try to establish a
permanent, working accord.
In declaring an end to the War on Terror, Obama will have no choice
but to provide Americans with a detailed, and rational, explanation of
who the enemy is -- and who it is not. This cannot be a one-speech
effort. Rather, it will require a sustained communications effort by
Obama and his entire team. Seven years of mind-numbing propaganda from
the Bush White House has convinced tens of millions of Americans that
the threat of terrorism is both imminent and vast. Those tens of
millions are convinced that an enormous, global terrorist movement that
extends far beyond Al Qaeda is out to get us. It is Obama's urgent task
to explain, calmly, that it isn't so. For seven years, Bush used the
trauma of 9/11 to stoke Americans' fears, and in so doing he created an
enemy that doesn't exist in the real world. Like the mythical Iraqi
WMD, the worldwide terrorist threat isn't there. Obama can say so.
Will he do this? It's not impossible. During several interviews,
John Brennan, one of Obama's top intelligence advisers who will lead
the White House's counterterrorism policy efforts, told me that he is
flatly opposed to the very notion of a "War on Terror." And, he told
me, he favors the idea of a dialogue with organizations such as Hamas,
Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. And he suggested that Obama
feels the same way.
Though Obama is inexperienced in international affairs, putting an end
to the War on Terror once and for all is a step that will appeal to his
instincts. He's pledged to deliver a major address on US relations with
the Islamic world, and he's said that he would do so in an Arab or
Muslim capital, perhaps Cairo. Stay tuned.