By Walter Russel Mead
It was “mission accomplished” and “death throes” in the Bush-Cheney years. It has been “on the run”, “decimated,” and “September 10″ under the current leadership. The real truth, as many in the press are starting to see, is that President Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy has run into the ground. With the latest intercepted chatter indicating that a major attack is being planned, and with the corresponding shuttering of US embassies across the world, it’s clear that al-Qaeda has adjusted to American tactics and taken advantage of the widespread chaos and crisis across the Middle East. To make things even more troubling, there’s now talk of al-Qaeda’s having gotten its mitts on a new kind of undetectable liquid explosive.
The “Arab democracy” approach to the problem of terrorism that dominated both the Bush and Obama presidencies was a classic example of American “quick fix” thinking. Get democracy going, or so the thinking went, and we marginalize al-Qaeda, make people happy, and the war on terror comes to an end. What defeated both Bush and Obama was really the same thing: the deep resistance of the Middle East to American quick fixes. The political, religious, cultural, and social issues that keep that part of the world under stress and set the conditions for al-Qaeda-type movements to arise are deeply rooted. Worse, we really don’t have the answers to them.
From Pakistan to Morocco there are countries and societies wrestling with demons we can’t control and casting desperately about for answers we can’t supply. That’s a reality that is hard for Americans to accept, but accept it we must. If there are any answers for what’s troubling the Middle East, we don’t have them-yet our interests continue to demand that we be entangled in its politics.
Presidents Bush and Obama both thought they saw the evolution of a peaceful, democratic Middle East hovering just on the horizon. Both were deceived by a mirage. Instead of putting the finishing touches to beautiful castles of democracy and riding unicorns from one tranquil, prosperous Middle Eastern country to the next, we face a long slog of uncertain duration and changing risk against people who really, really hate us, and really, really believe that killing as many of us as possible is the shortest road to a better life for them and their people.
This number never has been a majority in the Middle East; nor is not now. The overwhelming majority wishes the crazies would shut up and stop stirring things up. So this is not a clash of civilizations, and it is not a “war against Islam.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous or that we will be permitted to ignore it. The US media and the public could not be more bored with this threat, but our best efforts to ignore it into insignificance are unlikely to succeed.
The forces of order and stability are weak across much of the region, economies are in trouble, and the wars in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq are ensuring adequate funding, weapons, training, and mobility for the bad guys. There is no reason to think that the trend toward a stronger and more capable al-Qaeda won’t continue for some time.