President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University, “The Future of Our Fight against Terrorism”, is a remarkable exercise in wishful thinking and denial.
Essentially, his theme: the only strategic threat to the United States is posed by terrorists carrying out terrorist attacks. In the 6400 words used by Obama, Islam only constituted three of them, and most interestingly, in all three instances the word was used to deny that the United States is at war with Islam. In fact, this is what President George Bush said precisely almost a dozen years ago, after September 11.
So: why have not hundreds of such denials had the least bit of effect on the course of that war?
To prove that the United States is not at war with Islam, the Obama administration has sided with political Islam throughout the Middle East to the extent that some Muslims think Obama is doing damage to Islam — their kind of Islam.
Along the way, the fight against al-Qaeda resulted in a policy that has — however inadvertently — armed al-Qaeda in Libya and Syria.
Once again, I will try to explain the essence of Obama’s strategy, a simple point that many seem unable to grasp:
Obama views al-Qaeda as a threat because it wants to attack America directly with terrorism. But all other Islamist groups are not seen as a threat by Obama. In fact, Obama believes they can be used to stop al-Qaeda.
This is an abandonment of a strategic perspective. “Islamism” or “political Islam” or any other version of that does not appear even once. Yet this is the foremost revolutionary movement of this era, the main threat in the world to U.S. interests, and even to Western civilization.
Yet, according to Obama:
If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Egypt, that is not a strategic threat but a positive advantage because it is the best organization able to curb al-Qaeda. And that policy proves that the United States is not at war with Islam.
If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Tunisia, that is not a strategic threat but a positive advantage because it is the best organization able to curb al-Qaeda. And that policy proves that the United States is not at war with Islam.
If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Syria, that is not a strategic threat but a positive advantage because it is the best organization able to curb al-Qaeda. And that policy proves that the United States is not at war with Islam.
If a regime whose viewpoint is basically equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood — albeit far more subtle — dominates Turkey, that is not a strategic threat but a positive advantage because it is the best organization able to curb al-Qaeda. And that policy proves that the United States is not at war with Islam.
These and other strategic defeats do not matter, says Obama:
After I took office, we stepped up the war against al-Qaeda, but also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted al-Qaeda’s leadership. We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home. We pursued a new strategy in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces. We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.
And yet: the Taliban is arguably close to taking over Afghanistan, and has spread to Pakistan. The rule of law in Afghanistan is a joke.
And soldiers there know that the Afghan government still uses torture.
Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants. There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure. Fewer of our troops are in harm’s way, and over the next 19 months they will continue to come home. Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world. In sum, we are safer because of our efforts.
Well, it is quite true that security measures within the United States have been largely successful at stopping attacks. But the frequency of attempted attacks has been high. Some of them were foiled by luck, some by the expenditure of one trillion dollars.
Elsewhere, country after country has been taken over by radical Islamists who can be expected to fight against American interests in the future.
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.
But he never actually defines it, except to suggest that: a) al-Qaeda has spread to other countries (which does not sound like a victory); and b) its affiliates and imitators are more amateurish.
Indeed, rather than describing a movement and ideology like Communism and fascism, Obama sounds like a comic book superhero describing life in Gotham City:
Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.
Yet –his advisor on this issue, CIA director John Brennan, has said that the United States cannot be at war with terror because terror is merely a tactic. Which is it? Is the problem just “the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings,” as if the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas are equivalent to the Newtown, Connecticut shooting?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)