On America’s horizon — A far larger war with the Muslim world

While Americans have been focused on the pending failure of the “Super Committee” to reduce the federal debt; the slow-motion, world-economy wrecking implosion of the European Union’s “Euro Zone”; and the theater of confusion, bickering, and few new ideas generated by the endless debates among Republican presidential candidates, the United States also has been inching ever closer to a world war with Islam. Just as U.S. leaders in both parties are proving themselves impotent and/or unwilling to stop the destruction of the U.S. economy they have engineered through their policies, they are likewise unable and/or unwilling — with the exception of Dr. Paul and a few others — to see that another set of failed policies, those in the foreign-policy realm, are leading to a greatly expanded war with Islam that will accelerate the collapse of the U.S. economy.

Recently, I gave the talk below to a group of men and women who play a variety of roles in the conduct U.S. national defense. While I certainly do not claim the talk reflected that group’s views, I can say that it generated a very interesting 45 minutes of questions and answers and perhaps began to focus some listeners on the common- sense realization that the U.S. government’s interventionist policies and actions in the Islamic world certainly do elicit reactions, many of which are intensely negative. If nothing else, the notion that we are on the threshold of a much larger religious war with Muslims caused some to see the truly make-believe nature of Washington’s bipartisan intention to cut defense spending. In the context of a Muslim world that is girding for a larger war against America, its allies, and Israel, the idea that Washington can cut defense spending is as much a fantasy as the idea that the Super Committee will solve America’s debt problem. In both economic and foreign policy, the U.S. bipartisan governing elite is mindlessly traveling the high road to calamity.

Heading for a far larger war with Islam

When I was a youngster, my Grandma always reacted to unexpected and troublesome events of all kinds with the old adage that: “God never shuts a door without opening a window.” How this adage would translate into Arabic is I beyond my ken, but I can say that it appears that Allah had the window wide open — in the form of the Arab Spring — even before he shut the door on the earthly existence of Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden’s death, of course, occurred in the midst of what foolish Westerners — from presidents and prime ministers to journalists and citizens — believed to be the rise and inevitable contagion of secular democracy across the states of the Arab World.

  • Even before the CIA and U.S. Navy Seals combined to kill bin Laden, Western leaders had chalked him up as a has-been because the Arab revolts, they said, made stern religiosity and the concept of defensive jihad things of the past. The West concluded that al-Qaeda henceforward would be irrelevant.
  • Bin Laden’s death was a significant tactical defeat for al-Qaeda as there is no one with even roughly similar talents and credentials to take his place. Succeeded by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda is less newsworthy than it was under bin Laden — do a Google search and see how the media and much of the academy have walked away from the issue — but it is no less lethal, and it is larger, younger, better educated, and much more geographically dispersed than ever before.
  • We in the West have missed — or deliberately ignored — the reality that bin Laden was neither a madman nor simply a vacuous celebrity, but rather was a hands-on, inspirational leader and an organization-builder in the modern sense of that term. A simple comparison of two maps — one for 2001 and one for 2011 — shows the organization he left behind poses much greater potential military and ideological threats than that America went to war against in 2001.
  • The 2001 map shows that al-Qaeda’s main base for training, planning, concentrating manpower, storing of arms and ordnance, etc. was in Afghanistan. It had, of course, a presence in dozens of countries around the world, but its only large and secure operational base was Afghanistan.
  • The 2011 map, on the other hand, shows al-Qaeda still operating in parts of Afghanistan in support of the Taliban; that it has a solid presence in broad portions of Pakistan and Yemen; that it has recouped into an again formidable fighting force in Iraq; that its influence is on the rise in Somalia; that its branch in the Mahgreb is growing in numbers and geographical reach at a startling pace; and that it now has affiliates in Palestine and Lebanon. If this substantial expansion is to U.S. and Western leaders a sure sign of al-Qaeda’s irrelevance, I would suggest they take recourse to the dictionary to acquaint themselves with the definition of “irrelevancy.”

Beyond these organizational and geographical realities, three other comments are worth making.

First, bin Laden always regarded al-Qaeda as a small organization that could not by itself conduct and win the defensive jihad for which it called. He therefore decided that he and al-Qaeda were to be the inciters-in-chief of Muslims to wage jihad against the United States, its allies, Israel, and their own tyrannical rulers. When bin Laden died last May, he died — in regard to his self-assigned task of inciting Muslims — a complete success, and left behind a written, oral, and visual legacy that will incite Muslims for decades to come. He also left an Islamist movement that has been self-perpetuating since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq provided the legitimate and irrefutable Koranic predicate for a defensive jihad.

Second, he established the basis for inciting the jihad on sound substantive grounds. He based it on what the U.S. government and the regimes of its Western allies have intervened to do in the Muslim world, and not on how Americans and Europeans live, think, and behave within the borders of their own countries. We in the West have yet to accept this clear reality, and so we have done virtually nothing to sap the motivation of our current Islamist enemies or to reduce the motivation that is promoting the production of jihadis in the coming generation of Muslim youth, including young Muslims in North America and Europe.

Third, bin Laden left behind a simple metric for Muslims to use in evaluating how the Islamist movement is doing in its jihad against the United States and its allies, particularly against the former. Al-Qaeda’s war aims toward the United States have been consistent since the mid-1990s: first, to exploit international economic conditions to help push the United States toward bankruptcy; second, to spread out U.S. military and intelligence forces to exhaust their reserves and flexibility; and, third, to create political dissent in the United States and strip away U.S. allies. I will leave it to the audience to determine, given these measurable goals, whether there is much cause for disappointment or despair in Islamist ranks. And I would suggest that such a determination be made in the context of the coming self-imposed but still abject defeat of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan by Islamists armed with Korean War-era weapons, men who have long deemed themselves and their predecessors as the vanquishers of the Soviet superpower.

Thus, in the wake of bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda remains a formidable foe to the United States and its allies, and one that is now being empowered by the events and repercussions of the Arab Spring. Let us first look at what the Arab Spring means for al-Qaeda’s strategic goals, which are three in number: first, to drive the United States as far as possible out of the Muslim world; second, to destroy the Arab tyrannies and Israel; and, third, to settle the Sunni community’s scores with the Shia.

  • U.S. and Western strategy in the Arab world has for 40 years depended on the maintenance of tyranny. This strategy was successful and has for most of the period yielded easy access to oil, usually at below-market prices; a means of defending Israel; and, in recent decades, the suppression and persecution of Islamist leaders and forces.
  • With the Arab Spring’s revolts, however, U.S. leaders and their allies jettisoned this half-century strategy of betting on eternal tyranny in the Arab world and in doing so destroyed the West’s traditional strategic position in the Middle East in the name of the chimera of budding secular democracy across the region. In doing so, Western leaders greatly advanced al-Qaeda’s first two strategic goals: to curtail U.S. influence in the region and to eliminate the Arab tyrannies.
  • Whatever regimes replace those of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi, they will be less friendly toward the United States. The media seems to forget that part of the reason those regimes were loathed was because they cooperated with the United States and suppressed Islam. The successor regimes — to survive — will steer clear of business-as-usual relationships and certainly keep their ties to the West just this side of frosty.

In addition, the Arab Spring’s substantive yield approaches the status of a death warrant for Israel.

First, the U.S. and NATO reaction to the Arab Spring effectively destroyed the West’s pro-tyranny strategy which had been an effective component of Israel’s security.

Second, whether Islamists, secular democrats, or men of some other political persuasion takeover for the fallen regimes, it will be bad news for Israel. Islamist regimes will be doctrinally more anti-Israeli than their predecessors, and even in the wildly unlikely event that secular democratic regimes succeed to power in each Arab country, they would have to reflect public opinion, which is virtually 100-percent anti-Israeli.

Third, the Arab Spring has begun the crumbling of the tyrannies that are essential to the inner ring of Israel’s defense. Israel’s border security depends not only on its own policies, actions, and resolve, but on the willingness of the Arab tyrannies on its borders to control their own borders with Israel. As noted, al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups have established a presence in non-tyrannical Lebanon. And since early 2011, Mubarak’s demise has cut Egypt’s willingness to control the Gaza and Sinai borders; the West is working to destroy Asad’s government in Syria, a regime whose collapse would present Israel with still greater border problems; and the shoe of the Arab Spring has yet to fall in Jordan — the border country with the strongest militant Islamist presence — but when it does it will cause a nightmare for Israeli security. Israel’s massive and unaccounted-for WMD arsenal may intimidate Iran and other nation-states, but such weapons are of little use as tools of border control.

In terms of the Arab Spring’s negative impact on U.S. security beyond those just mentioned, I would note the following three realities:

  • In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the popular revolts were accompanied by the opening of prisons in each country. Arab prisons, of course, hold every-day felons but they are also usually packed with Islamist militants that the regimes incarcerated for their own interests and, to an extent, at the West’s request. The release of these prisoners amounts to a significant reinforcement of veteran, hardened, and embittered fighters, thinkers, bomb-makers, financiers, and logisticians to Islamist movements across North Africa and beyond.
  • In each of these countries — as well as in Yemen — there have been repeated instances of police and military arsenals being opened and looted by demonstrators, protestors, and Islamists. In Egypt and Libya especially, this weaponry was massive in quantity, modern in its vintage, and familiar to many of the Islamists who will be its end users. The media already is reporting, for example, that weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenals are turning up in the Sahel, Somalia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. (NB: The freed Islamists and the flow of weaponry must be of special concern to the U.S. Africa Command as each will strengthen anti-American Islamist groups — al-Qaeda and others — throughout much of Africa. And Africa, unlike Iraq, is rife with genuine U.S. national interests — such as the reliable flow of crude oil from the Niger Delta, access to uranium and other strategic minerals, and freedom of the seas off the continent’s east and west coasts — that are increasingly at risk.)
  • The revolts in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia — together with that in Yemen and the mindless estrangement of Pakistan — have created an intelligence disaster for the United States and its main Western allies. With the fall or alienation of these tyrants, the police, security, and intelligence services of each regime have been disbanded, emasculated, or rendered impotent, especially in intelligence-related operations beyond their borders. The West’s U.S.-led stabbing of each regime in the back also has alienated many senior intelligence officers in each country who were disposed to assist our counterterrorism efforts. Thus, nearly a year into the Arab Spring, U.S. and Western intelligence networks are being forced to spread their financial resources and manpower ever thinner to replace lost, neutered, or alienated liaison partners and the language capabilities, agent networks, and early warning capabilities they possessed and often used in cooperation with us.

A final product of the Arab Spring, and one not generally categorized as a national-security concern, is the clear delineation of the fecklessness of the U.S. educational system — particularly our most prestigious universities — and the reality-resistant nature of the leaders it produces in all walks of American public life.

  • The revolt in Egypt perhaps provides the finest example of America’s educational disaster. For 18 days we in America and the West watched the activities of 200,000 Egyptians in Tahrir Square. Over the course of those days, CNN, ABC, NPR, and FOX reporters interviewed a few score young, educated, well-groomed, English-speaking, middle-class, and professional Egyptians who spoke the lingo of democracy. The journalists then read the pro-democracy emanations of these young people on FACEBOOK and TWITTER and decided, in their always superior wisdom, that this small sample proved that the nearly 90 million Islamically devout, Arabic-only-speaking, and mostly illiterate Egyptians — living under a pervasive faith that brooks no separation between church and state — were thirsting for and capable of secular democracy. The reporters, in short, exchanged their journalistic credentials for those of cheerleaders in Egypt, and then they did the same in Libya where they portrayed the birth of secular democracy via the activities of a resistance movement whose military power depended exclusively on the combat skills of former mujahideen and U.S. and NATO air forces directed by their political leaders to intervene and bomb yet another Muslim population whose country possesses impressive oil reserves.
  • Now, no one can ever lose money by betting on the jejune, superficial, and arrogant reporting of Western journalists, or on their willingness to report as hard fact the views of people who say what they want to hear, and their performance and commentary in Egypt and Libya were more or less par for the course. The shock comes, however, when we hear Barack Obama, John McCain, Nicholas Sarkozy, Lindsey Graham, David Cameron, Steven Harper, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton all jump on the journalists’ ass-backward, democracy-mongering band wagon and predict in certain and glowing terms the beginning of secular democracies across the Arab world. Products of Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Annapolis, in other words, attested to the ludicrous and genuinely demented idea that the Egyptians in Tahrir Square accomplished in 18 days what America, Britain, and Canada have been working on since the events the culminated in Magna Charta in June, 1215, nearly 800 years ago.
  • When one hoped that the words of these political leaders amounted to the usual soothing but insincere tripe meant to please a set of naïve and badly educated electorates, Barack Obama delivered on 19 May 2011 a speech detailing U.S. intentions in the Arab world, outlining a set of goals that included calls for regime change in no less than five countries; the installation of democracy from Morocco to Pakistan — apparently with the exception of the West’s oil-rich pet tyrannies on the Arabian Peninsula; the resolution of what the speech tended to portray as minor spats between Sunnis and Shias and Muslims and Christians; and the endorsement of imposing the crazed and near-fanatical feminism of Ms. Susan Rice and Mrs. Clinton on the Muslim world. In the wake of that speech and the West’s subsequent destruction of Libya and perhaps Syria, it seems that Professor Huntington was all too prescient in predicting a clash of civilizations. I doubt, however, that he imagined that the authors and instigators of such a blood-soaked clash would hail — as he did — from the Ivy League, and not the Islamic universities located in Mecca and Medina.

By way of summary, let me make four quick points:

  • Bin Laden’s death was a tactical not a strategic defeat for al-Qaeda. He left behind a large and increasingly geographically dispersed organization; a powerful propaganda machine armed with an appealing, historically evocative, and largely true narrative; a personal story and corpus of work that will incite jihad for the foreseeable future; and a U.S. government and a bipartisan governing elite that, after 15-plus years of war, have no conception of what motivates the enemy, or that they and their policies are the Islamists’ so-far-unassailed center of gravity.
  • The U.S. and Western reaction to the Arab Spring — which has been the adolescent habit of getting off one horse with no other to mount — destroyed the West’s strategic position in the Arab world; lessened Western influence in the region; facilitated a less threatening operational environment for the Islamists, as well as close-in access for their attacks on Israel; and provided new and dangerous intelligence blind spots which Western services will be hard pressed to rectify.
  • Islamist military forces across North Africa and the Levant have been reinforced with experienced fighters and modern weaponry. These fighters and weapons are likely to bleed into other areas, especially into the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, and, when they do, the threat to significant U.S. and Western national interests in that region — especially vis-à-vis energy and strategic minerals — will substantially increase.
  • Finally, we must confront the reality of our educational system’s utter failure to teach young Americans about their own country or about the world. This failure, in turn, produces leaders in all walks of American life — political, economic, military, and academic — who see the world as the lovely, secular, and democratic place they want it to be, and not the harsh, often ugly world that is on offer. An education system that produces graduates who spout the words “multicultural” and “diversity” at the drop of a hat but who know the meaning of neither, in either the domestic or overseas context, endangers U.S. security as much or more than any other single factor, and, at least in the Islamic world, virtually guarantees a growing and endless religious war with Muslims.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.