Taking Our Eye Off the Jihadist Ball

Let’s not forget that a committed, intelligent, patient enemy seeks to destroy us.

Given our economic doldrums and the still metastasizing debt, the legislation raising the debt ceiling won’t keep the economy from dominating the nation’s attention until next year’s election. This means foreign affairs will continue to be an afterthought, at a time when dangerous developments in the Middle East and the war against jihad are happening every day.

Start with Iraq and Afghanistan. The progress made in those conflicts over the last decade remains fragile. Terrorist violence continues in both states: the most recent attacks include seven Taliban suicide bombers killing 21 civilians in relatively stable Kabul, a day after the assassination of the mayor of Kandahar, itself merely the latest in a series of murders of government officials and tribal leaders. In Iraq on the same day, explosions killed 12 soldiers in Tikrit, the site of 3 earlier assaults that left over 150 dead. This June was the deadliest month for American soldiers in two years, some of the attacks perpetrated by Shia militias trained by Iran, whose influence in Iraq is increasing. Though much reduced from previous years, this level of violence––created in part by still unresolved sectarian, tribal, and ethnic conflicts, as well as governmental dysfunction and corruption–– bodes ill for the stability of both countries once U.S. forces leave, their departure creating space within the disorder for the rebuilding of jihadist organizational infrastructure. This “pull-out fever” afflicting American citizens and politicians alike runs the risk of repeating the debacle of Vietnam, when a costly victory won on the battlefield was squandered by domestic politics and a collective failure of nerve.

Speaking of al Qaeda, the death of bin Laden and the degradation of its leadership by drone attacks in Pakistan have not put that lodestar of jihadist terror “on the run,” nor do they mean we can anytime soon “cripple al Qaeda as a threat to this country,” as newly minted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has asserted. According to Michael Leiter, who recently stepped down as head of the National Counterterrorism Center, “the core organization is still there and could launch some attacks,” and “Pakistan remains a huge problem.” Pakistan is still a duplicitous and unreliable partner in destroying al Qaeda sanctuaries and rooting out jihadist networks, something that cannot be achieved just by drone attacks, which are hostage to Pakistani political disorder, sympathy for the jihadists, and factional interests. Moreover, the center of al Qaeda gravity has shifted to Yemen, which is disintegrating from a civil war pitting the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh against various tribal militias and jihadist militants, including al Qaeda fighters who are gaining experience and weapons in this war. Yemen is also the hideout of one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous leaders, the American-born, tech-savvy Anwar al-Awlaki, the inspiration and mentor for the Fort Hood murderer Nadal Malik Hasan, the Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Times Square bomber Faisal Shazad. Though the latter two attacks failed, we should not rely on the incompetence of al Qaeda’s recruits to keep us safe forever, particularly if Yemen becomes for al Qaeda what Afghanistan was in the 1990s.

Then there is the so-called “Arab Spring,” a wish-fulfilling false analogy with 1989 that blinds many to the dangers of the ongoing revolts against various despotic regimes in the Middle East. In Egypt, the tweeting and telegenic Westernized youth––who convinced many in the West that democracy was on the march in the Arab world––have been shoved aside by the more numerous Islamists, including the Muslim Brothers we keep hearing are pragmatic reformers. A few days ago Islamist demonstrators filled Tahrir Square in Cairo, chanting “Islamic, Islamic, neither secular nor liberal,” while a few dozen secular activists cowered in a tent until they were driven away. One Islamist student made a simple point lost on many Western idealizers of democracy: “If democracy is the voice of the majority and we as Islamists are the majority, why do they want to impose on us the views of minorities––the liberals and the secularists?” Why indeed. Without the foundational ideals of individual human rights, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, and the primacy of law over religious or tribal loyalties, democracy is just machinery that can be used for all sorts of ends, including illiberal ones.

Another object of much democracy happy talk is Libya, where NATO is bogged down in a stalemate with a tin-pot dictator and his mercenaries. The identity of the side we have rushed to back in this civil war is still uncertain, but we do know that the rebellion’s epicenter, Benghazi, has supplied proportionately more fighters for Iraq and Afghanistan than any other country. A few days ago the top rebel military leader was assassinated in murky circumstances. Most likely tribal rivalries were at work within the rebel forces, calling into question their pretext of fighting for “freedom and democracy” rather than tribal supremacy. Meanwhile, arms depots have been looted and weapons stolen, including several hundred SA-7s, a shoulder-fired missile that can take down an airliner. No one knows where these weapons are, but it’s a safe bet that many are heading for black markets where they can be sold to terrorist outfits. And let’s not forget the damage to the prestige of Western military deterrence that comes from being stymied by the ragtag militia of a psychotic despot. Given that failure, we shouldn’t be surprised that in Syria Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his own citizens with impunity as we bluster and impose sanctions. How incoherent is Obama’s foreign policy, which abandoned Egypt’s Mubarak, who served our interests, but hesitates and stumbles over how to deal with Assad, who for years has aligned Syria with Iran and supported the Hezbollah terrorists, even as he was being wooed by Obama? Is there any evidence that Assad will be replaced by a liberal regime rather than descending into the sort of sectarian and tribal chaos that typically nurtures jihadists?

In the midst of this Arab ferment, Turkey, the Muslim nation that has been trying for nearly a century to rule itself with a Western-style consensual government, is steadily reverting back to Islamist ideology. Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan has waged a steady war against the military, traditionally the guardian of Turkish secularism. Forty generals remain in jail on trumped-up conspiracy charges, and after 22 more warrants were issued, the top military commanders resigned en masse. Journalists and academics have also been jailed. Emboldened by his June electoral victory that gave his Islamist Justice and Development Party 60% of Parliamentary seats, Erdogan is set to accelerate the stealth Islamization of Turkey. As Barry Rubin writes, “The Turkey of secularism and Western orientation is finished. The Turkey that belongs to an alliance of radical Islamists abroad and of Islamism at home has been launched.” One manifestation of this shift is Turkey’s increasingly closer ties to Iran, which of course continues to pursue nuclear weapons with impunity, and to arm and train the jihadists murdering our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, there is the increasingly perilous position of Israel, our one reliable, truly democratic and liberal ally in the Middle East. An Egypt run by Islamists threatens the cold peace that has avoided war for nearly 40 years, and by relaxing its border controls opens a conduit for weapons and fighters to attack Israel from Gaza and the Sinai, where a natural gas pipeline has already been bombed 4 times. An increasingly desperate Assad in Syria may be tempted again to deflect discontent onto Israel, as he did not long ago when he encouraged Palestinians to storm the Israeli border in the Golan. Jordan, half of whose population is Palestinian, is simmering with a Salafist protest movement demanding Sharia law as well as political reform, the usual Islamist stalking horse. The Palestinian Arabs, exploiting “Arab Spring” rhetoric and Obama’s pressure on Israel to make even more unreciprocated concessions, are planning a U.N. vote to legitimize a unilateral declaration of statehood that will give Israel’s enemies more cover for assaulting and marginalizing our closest ally in a strategically critical region. And no one should forget the dangerous, chaotic consequences of an Islamist regime like Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

All these developments point to further chaos and disorder favorable to the jihadist enemy, as well as the possibility of another Islamist state in Egypt hostile to American interests and security. Getting control of government spending is of course critical, and protecting the defense budget is necessary for ensuring our national security and defending our interests. But let’s not forget that a committed, intelligent, patient enemy still wants to destroy us.