by Robert E. Hunter
The recent Islamist terror attacks in Paris, plus thwarted plots in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, have thrust the Middle East and its travails back to the top of the policymaking agenda in dramatic fashion. The intensity of reaction, popular and governmental, has not come primarily from the United States, however. This was symbolized by the failure of the Obama administration to send any stateside official to the largest mass rally in Paris since Victor Hugo’s funeral in 1885.
In the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket, the French government has rushed to outlaw some forms of hate speech, actions well outside what US First Amendment purists would find acceptable. Britain is upping its own controls. And some other European countries are considering what to do to limit the capacity of Islamist terrorists to work their evil will. That may even lead to limits on the so-called Schengen Agreement that permits the free circulation of people across borders in most of continental Europe.
This is all part of the cry of “do something,” and the more reasoned “what is to be done?”
Let’s try a few ideas.
First, the magnitude of the recent attacks was miniscule, only a small fraction of the casualties of 9/11, which was itself minor in comparison to casualties in most open warfare (including that involving the US and virtually all European states in the past). But the psychological impact has been enormous, and the terrorists, whether al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS or IS), or others, intend it to be so. Technically, this is “asymmetrical warfare,” which has a long history, including a major role in the US defeat in Vietnam. Weak enemies follow Clausewitz by striking at the center of gravity, which in the case of Western societies is public opinion.
There is nothing to be done about this phenomenon, at least not directly, in a world drenched 24/7 in media coverage and Internet commentary. “Doing something” can help, and several “somethings” are being done, though primarily for psychological purposes, since the practitioners of asymmetrical warfare have an inherent advantage and welcome every step taken by Western governments to weaken domestic civil liberties and thus damage their own societies. How much freedom are we prepared to sacrifice and how much government intrusion into our lives are we prepared to tolerate in order to reduce though not eliminate the “risk” of “terrorism”? Of course we don’t want any risk. But societies without virtually any such risk have historically been totalitarian or authoritarian. If we move in that direction, the Salafists and others will “laugh all the way to the bank.”
But let’s say that Western countries get the balance right by degrading the capacity of terrorists to practice asymmetrical warfare without giving up so many freedoms that the terrorists win and our societies lose. What else is to be done?
The First Three Steps
In Europe, recent events have dramatized what many thoughtful observers have said for years: if a Europe of falling birth rates must depend on immigrant labor, it must do a better job of integrating these immigrants, from wherever they come, into European societies. Many of these people come from Central Europe, which at least has a background of Western culture. But many come from North Africa and the Middle East.
However they ultimately define “integrate,” European countries must pay greater attention to their immigrants: their status, their livelihood, their education and chance for jobs, their place in societies, and their ability to be accepted as real people rather than just as “guest workers” who might stay for generations without being accepted as legitimate citizens. Equally daunting, immigrants also have to be prepared to acclimate to the countries and cultures that have received them. This is an enormous set of tasks, especially for societies that have far less of a history of making adjustments than has the United States.
Step two is already being taken, though it will need to be turned into proper action. Put bluntly, it has now been made clear that “sorting out” the Middle East is no longer primarily “America’s business.” All the NATO allies sent troops and other security personnel to Afghanistan. They did so not out of fear of terrorism at home, but to help out the United States, so that we would remain committed to Europe and to dealing with the continuing problem of post-Soviet Russia (where the “dealing with” has not recently been going well at all). Some European countries did take the lead in Libya while the US “led from behind.” Europe must now take that involvement one step further so that the United States is no longer taking primary responsibility for dealing with the ills of the region from North Africa to Pakistan.
Strategies for implementing this new sense of a common interest across the Atlantic will need to be developed. It’s a work in its infancy, but at least there is now some impetus for doing so and some institutions in place–the European Union, maybe NATO, and non-governmental activities–to help out.
This leads to a third requirement. If President Obama and the nation are to have any chance of succeeding in the region that runs from North Africa through the Middle East to Southwest Asia, he must see this region as all of a piece, which his administration has so far failed to do. The same applies to the US Congress and the variety of interest groups that want to pull US policy in one direction or another, while convincing themselves that their particular narrow perspectives are of necessity best for the nation as a whole.
Transforming US Foreign Policy
To begin with, the Obama administration should stop supporting the effort by Sunni states to redress the balance with the Shia in the region that the US upset when it invaded Iraq in 2003. This effort currently focuses largely on getting rid of the loathsome Assad regime in Syria. Without a clear path to helping create a post-Assad government that will not also produce an Alawite bloodbath, however, this policy has for more than three years been a recipe for intensified killing and even more chaos. In fact, the US has no interest in taking sides in the intra-regional geopolitical competitions for power, a point that we fail to understand, much less act upon.
Washington must also tell the Saudis immediately to stop all support by any of their people, in money, arms, and inspiration, for Islamist terrorists. Because of our dependence (and that of our allies) on Saudi oil—now being significantly reduced—we were prepared to ignore this support, even though this deal with the devil led indirectly to American soldiers dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is past time to exorcise this devil. Of course, this is precisely why the Saudis and some other Persian Gulf oil producers are driving down the oil price: to make our search for energy alternatives less economically attractive to the private sector, to sustain our dependence on Sunni-state oil, and thus to limit our capability to be politically independent of their regional interests.
The United States should work with Europeans and international aid institutions in understanding—and acting on the understanding—that economic and social development in the Middle East is the only lasting answer to what truly ails the region. We outsiders will not play the key role in transformations that peoples and societies need or in the responsibilities that they have to assume. But we can at least not let our predilection for military responses to current challenges—beyond what is needed to counter IS—deflect us from recognizing the deeper problems and the non-military actions and major resources that are needed.
A reasonable agreement with Iran over its nuclear program is essential to this overall transformation of U.S. policy. Fortunately, President Obama is trying to stand up to domestic political interests trying to block an agreement that would secure the US interest of a nuclear-weapons-free Iran. Such an agreement might also provide a potential opening for Iranian engagement in the region—to counter IS or the Taliban, for instance—that would be compatible with US interests.
Also part of a region-wide, integrated US approach is understanding that the continued stasis in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking comes at a steep price. It provides grist to the anti-Western, anti-US mill in the Muslim world that is a godsend to the Islamists. Obama and company probably can’t or won’t do much about this matter in the next two years. But Washington should at least recognize that indulging everything that Israel does, especially West Bank settlement building, is a potent argument for the Islamists’ recruiters.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Obama administration should conduct an honest review that focuses on the future of US and allied interests, not on the sunk costs of the past. That review will very likely reveal that we have never had much of a strategic interest in Afghanistan, that regional competitions need not be at our longer-term expense, and that there is no reason to throw good money after bad or sacrifice further lives.
Finally, none of this will work unless President Obama does something he should have done six years ago: recruit personnel with a deep understanding of the Middle East. Even more important, the president needs to recruit people who are able to relate “apples to oranges,” who can think across regional and organizational and bureaucratic boundaries—people, in effect, who can think strategically, of which there is such a short supply on his team. He may have decided that he does not need such people because he can do the job himself. Worse, he may not even know what he needs or who the people are who can make up for the intellectual and policy deficit that has marked this administration, at least in the Middle East, since its beginning. This is where the president must begin if he is to “get right” critical foreign policy aspects of his responsibilities as commander-in-chief.