Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

2009’s Most Valuable Player

Posted in Syria by Dan on December 31, 2009

Assad is my pick for the 2009 MVP

As the decade comes to a close- and as people worldwide celebrate the New Year with friends, family, and a whole lot of Champagne- I have decided to unleash my MVP of 2009.  Drum-roll please…….and the winner is….Mr. Bashar al-Assad.

The winner might come as a surprise to some, but when dissecting all of his accomplishments over the past year, there is no other statesman in the world that deserves the credit and recognition of doing so much with so little .

Bashar al-Assad has not only transformed his country overnight, but he has done so in such a way that only a skilled politician could match. The Syrian economy is finally starting to improve, thanks to some innovation that was previously overlooked by the elder Assad when he was in power. Declining oil productivity has forced- and is continuing to force- the Syrian Government to address the natural-resource dependency that so many Arab regimes in the region take for granted. With the price of oil fluctuating, you would think Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would follow the Syrian model.

Without a doubt, the greatest accomplishment of President Assad has been his political talent. Despite his government’s horrible human-rights record, he has the United States and Saudi Arabia- two countries that have been historically ambivalent to Damascus- crawling to his doorstep. Regardless of which country we are talking about, Syria is more important than ever. The West is trying to convince Assad to limit his strategic alliance with Iran, and the Islamic Republic is countering this demand with incentives for the Syrian regime. The question for the future, of course, is whether Assad is talented enough to make the right decision.

And what about his popularity among Arabs as a whole?  Well, thanks to Israel’s debacle in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Assad has been credited as one of the main players that brought about Israel’s “defeat.” For all of their ideological and religious differences, many Sunnis and Shias portray Assad as a primary defender of Arab rights. In fact, a recent poll within the Arab World concluded that Mr. Assad is currently the most popular politician in the Middle East…an amazing development considering the globe’s persistent outcry over human rights abuses and his financial support for terrorist groups.

There is one more thing that could have contributed to Assad’s current standing; internal security. Domestically, Assad’s regime has been able to boast unity and security in an area that is frequently held hostage to violence and radicalism (a.k.a. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and to some extent, Iran). Obviously, security comes at a price; Syria’s intelligence service is known for its ruthless espionage, and crack-downs on political activists are routine. But it is security nonetheless.

Do not be surprised if Assad gains even more stature in the coming year. With the Iranian nuclear program only increasing in significance and attention, Syria’s position will be all the more crucial. My prediction is that the Syrian regime will probably remain silent, especially if a military-strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is in the works. But either way, I do not see how Syria could lose.

To everyone out there, HAVE A SAFE AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!

-Daniel R. DePetris

Monday Morning Quarterbacking the Failed Christmas Attack

Posted in United States by Dan on December 30, 2009

Everyone on this side of the planet is doing some “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” over the Christmas Day terror incident.  So, naturally, here is my assessment of the entire situation.

Point number one…the U.S. needs to completely overhaul its national security system.  There is absolutely no excuse that a young man with alleged ties to Al’Qaeda (on the Arabian Peninsula) is allowed to purchase an airline boarding pass.

First of all, the fact that we have three separate lists for terrorist suspects demonstrates how inefficient the U.S. Government is.  Has our government learned nothing from the administrative mishaps of the September 11 attacks, when bureaucracy caused an immense amount of confusion?  Just as officials in Washington were clouded on that horrible Tuesday morning, U.S. agencies continue to operate as if better coordination is something to be frowned upon.

The Department of Homeland Security needs to conduct an overhaul of its counterterrorism watch list.  Here is a simple solution…cut out the middle man.  Instead of relying on three databases, why not automatically transport all the names on the “Consolidated Terrorist Watch List” to the “no-fly list?”  Chances are that the 400,000 people listed on the CTWL are suspicious enough to limit their transportation.

Heck, it may be even smart to eliminate thousands of names from TIDE in order to create a less-muddled picture of terrorist threats facing the United States.  The Irish Republican Army simply has no relevance anymore.  In fact, I do not even believe that the IRA is listed as a designated terrorist group anymore; yet we continue to look at the IRA as a group threatening to blow up cafes in Great Britain.

Time for an overhaul!

Oh and one more thing…if there is anyone in this world that U.S. Authorities should be listening to in the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah case, it is the man’s father.  Not only does Mr., Alhaji Mutallab have the credibility of a former official inside the Nigerian Government (not exactly a squeaky-clean government, I admit), but he is a precautionary man that approached the U.S. Embassy with concerns about his son.  There is no excuse why the U.S. Government did not place Abdulmutallah on the “serious” terrorist watch-list, where he would have been physically searched and possibly denied an air ticket.  Common sense should help dictate U.S. counterterrorism policy.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Nigerian Man With AQ Affiliation Attempts to Blow Up Passenger Airliner: Some Raw Analysis

Posted in United States by Dan on December 28, 2009

Nigerian with ties to Al'Qaeda detained by authorities

As Americans across the country were enjoying time with family and friends on Christmas Day, other Americans were experiencing a frightening journey.  Upon descending to Detroit, Michigan on the Christmas Holiday, passengers aboard Northwest Airlines Flight #253 were forced to fight-back a terrorist who was attempting to detonate explosives and blow-up the plane.

The White House has already called this incident an apparent terrorist attack, and Director Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security has already declared her order to boost preventive security measures in airports across the nation- measures that will include additional physical screening on passengers- in order to deter anymore slip-ups.

Besides the fact that Farouk Abdulmuttallab- the Nigerian charged with the attack- managed to fool security personnel in Amsterdam despite having explosives in his possession, this preliminary story shows us that terrorism against the United States is still alive and well.

While it is certainly true that U.S. Military Forces have made tremendous strides against Al’Qaeda’s leadership (our soldiers should be commended for their brave efforts in keeping the United States safe), U.S. counterterrorism officials are still acting in a passive fashion against groups and individuals sympathetic to AQ’s ideology.  While Al’Qaeda may be virtually out of the picture in Afghanistan, its core leadership base is surviving quite comfortably in neighboring Pakistan; thanks to Pakistan’s reluctance in expanding their fight against Islamic militants into North Waziristan.

And of course, we cannot discount Yemen and Somalia’s increasingly pervasive role in international terrorism.  Al Qaeda may be absent in Afghanistan, but the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa are quickly becoming staging-grounds for further AQ activity.  These unfortunate developments do not even address the other numerous groups in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe that wish to curtail American power in a violent and indiscriminate fashion.

Obviously tracking down a few individuals is an extremely arduous task for any country, let alone a country that is fighting two wars on Muslim soil.  Yet, good old-fashioned homeland security measures must continue to be a priority.  This case demonstrates that a strong defensive capability is just as important as taking the fight to the enemy.

At the same time the President is revamping the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he needs to revamp the preventive abilities of the Department of Homeland Security.

-Daniel R. DePetris

The Greatest Holiday Gift of Them All

Posted in Iran by Dan on December 26, 2009

To: the U.S. and the Ayatollahs; From: the Shah of Iran

Tis’ the season for warm embraces, good company, and yes… presents, presents, and more presents (on a side note, I hope Santa was good to everyone this year).  So in the name of the Christmas spirit, I have conjured up the ultimate holiday gift that some IR enthusiasts may take to heart.  This gift is not exactly your typical holiday trinket- nor a state of the art HD television with surround sound- but it is a gift that resonated across all cultures and societies.  In fact, this gift changed the course of history in ways that the world is still experiencing thirty years later.

The monarchial-dynasty of Reza Pahlavi (a.k.a. the Shah of Iran) is the gift I am so feverishly unwrapping.

For the United States and Western Europe, the Shah transformed Iran into a country that was exclusively devoted to containing the spread of communism in its surrounding neighborhood. A pro-American regime in the Middle East- albeit an authoritarian one with brutal tendencies- was just what the doctor ordered for the United States. In fact, the Shah’s rule could not have come at a better time for the White House.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s, populism was becoming one of the most widespread and legitimate political ideologies of the day. Egypt and Syria- two of the day’s most powerful countries in the Muslim world- were highly sympathetic to the Soviet regime, challenging and delegitimizing the very tenants of free-market individualism.  The U.S. image, though misunderstood by Arabs, was in shambles.  Who knows…if it was not for the Shah and his skeptical outlook towards communism as a whole, the Cold War may have turned out differently for the U.S. and for the very notion of democracy?

Of course, the Shah of Iran was also a gift for those Islamic fundamentalists that were so desperately trying to publicize their movement. Before Reza Pahlavi’s dynasty, the Shia community was at a standstill, unable to foment the type of support from the Iranian population that would transform their campaign into a viable force. But as the Shah’s heavy-handed ways were exposed in further depth (and as the international media picked-up on the story), the position of the Islamists changed practically overnight.

In fact, thanks to the monarchy’s harsh crack-down on political dissidents, its extreme marginalization of the religious establishment, and its habit of countering popular discontent with brute force, Islamic revolutionaries were finally given the opportunity to increase their membership. Ordinary Iranians, regardless of ethnicity, were quick to jump on board. Millions of citizens finally unleashed their voices through coordinated marches and demonstrations. Their objective was designed to severely curtail the Shah’s authority, but what happened was much more significant; they drove the Shah’s inner-circle into exile.

All of a sudden, the Islamic Revolution became much more than a simple religious outcry. It built itself into a symbolic representation of anyone seeking a change in Iranian society.

With all of this in mind, it is pretty amazing how the forefathers of the Islamic Revolution have failed to prevent a return to history. The same opposition that overthrew the Iranian Monarchy now threatens to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

This is the greatest gift of them all.

P.S.:  Speaking of gifts, I have to thank Dr. Stephen Walt of Harvard University, from which this posting  was inspired.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Happy Holidays to You and Yours

Posted in Uncategorized by Dan on December 23, 2009

To the readers and contributors of this blog- as to everyone else out there- happy holidays from the Political Docket.  Best wishes, and I hope you and your families have a safe, relaxing, and enjoyable holiday in the coming week.  Thank you so much for your contributions over the first few months of this forum!  I sincerely hope that the next year will be even better than the last.


Daniel R. DePetris

Iran, Democracy, and Nuclear Weapons

Posted in Iran by Dan on December 21, 2009

Democracy may not make much of a difference in Iran

With all of the talk about Iranian defiance over its nuclear program- and inspired by a Stephen Walt post at ForeignPolicy.com- I began to wonder if a democratic Iran would act any differently on the nuclear issue than it is today.  Is authoritarianism really that big of a factor in Iran’s nuclear policy?  And if it is, then it would seem logical to conclude that regime change could be the best long-term solution for the international community.

A neoconservative argument, I have to admit (absent the debacle in Iraq, ushering in a democratic movement in Iran by force may still be a credible idea in the U.S. Government).  But if the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved through a democratic transformation, such an argument could be quite useful.

After assessing the pros and cons of democracy- and whether it would create an enlightened leadership in Tehran with fresh ideas and moderate thinking- I came to a simple conclusion.  A democratic Iran, while it would be beneficial for the Middle East as a whole, would not alter Tehran’s stance on the nuclear issue in any conceivable way.

In fact, it is downright laughable that some in the U.S. Government (and those in the west generally) firmly believe that a democratic Iran would magically solve most of the outstanding issues in the Middle East.  The desire for a nuclear program within Iran has cut across partisan and ideological lines; both moderates and hardline Islamists in Tehran wholeheartedly support Iran’s quest for a nuclear capability (whether this is civilian or not). Over the past three years, the nuclear option has transformed into something much more significant than a few uranium enrichment plants. The program is now a symbolic part of Iranian nationalism, thus making it even marker to persuade the Iranian leadership to forgo the nuclear path.

Let’s say that Iran were to become a democratic state in the next decade. Would that actually ensure more compliance and cooperation with the United States? On some issues, such as human rights and economic growth, perhaps. But on issues the U.S. really cares about- like national security and oil prices- the answer is much bleaker. After all, democratic governments in Europe and Latin America have not necessarily caved-in to American pressure.

Regardless of whether a regime is democratic or not, all states have their own interests to promote.  Considering the strategic importance- and obsession- of a nuclear capability inside the Islamic Republic, all the democracy in the world may not persuade the country to abandon its most prized-possession.

-Daniel R. DePetris

A Light at the End of the Tunnel, Somalia Edition

Posted in Somalia by Dan on December 19, 2009

Over the last couple of decades, Somalia has frequently been categorized as the most fragmented, decentralized, and chaotic state the world has to offer.  With three out of eight million Somalis needing emergency aid, and with 1.5 million Somalis displaced by clan, tribal and religious infighting, it is quite difficult to refute this claim.  Add a pathetic excuse for a national government to the mix and Somalia certainly seems like a country that is beyond help.

Heck, even if the international community were willing to help, there is absolutely no guarantee that the assistance would reach the people who need it the most.  Coupled with warlords to the north and Islamic insurgents to the south (Al’Shabab) and the prospects for improvement are slim…if not nonexistent.

But despite all of the violence and governmental ineptitude that has pervaded Somali culture since the early 1990’s, there is a silver-lining that could gradually lift the country out of the abyss.  Coincidentally, this silver-lining could stem from a terrorist blast at a graduation ceremony that killed 22 people.

Sound strange?  It shouldn’t, given the indiscriminate and gruesome nature of the attack.  The incident has resulted in such rage from the population that ordinary Somali citizens have protested with unified demonstrations on the streets of Mogadishu.  This is not exactly the type of response the terrorists were hoping for.

While this latest atrocity was certainly a blow to Somalia’s Transitional Authority- a government already weak and ineffectual compared to Al’Shabab- this bombing could have the effect of rallying segments of the population against Somali jihadists. I understand that this article is quite skeptical of this prediction, but it should at least be considered…and possibly exploited. After all, three years ago, many in the United States would have laughed at the proposition of Sunni tribes turning against Al’Qaeda in Anbar Province; a geopolitical move that quickly spread across the country. Cultural differences aside, how is Somalia any different?

Like Iraq, Somalia is a society that is heavily decentralized according to tribal and clan affiliations. Similar to the Iraqi Government only three years ago, Somalia’s TFA is unable to cement firm control over the capital city. Perhaps the biggest parallel between Iraq and Somalia is historical experience; the citizens of both countries have been forced to deal with extensive political violence for decades. With all of these similarities, a Somali-version of the Awakening Movement may not be that far off. Sure, the situation is depressing now- it has been for the past two decades- but bombings like these tend to create fissures between the mass of moderate Muslims and the most extreme fringe of Islam.

Cross your fingers.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Newsweek’s Declassified: Top Al’Qaeda Leader Killed in Pakistan

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on December 16, 2009

In the battle for hearts and minds, perception is just as important for the United States as drones and missiles

Here is a new blurb from Newsweek’s Declassified:

“U.S. authorities are increasingly confident that a Somalia-born jihadist whom they describe as a senior Al Qaeda operations planner was killed in the Pakistani border region by a missile fired from a U.S.-operated unmanned Predator drone, according to U.S. and Pakistani counterterrorism officials. The dead terrorist operative was identified as Saleh al-Somali.  According to the official, the dead man “was responsible for Al Qaeda’s operations outside the Afghan-Pakistan region. He was engaged in plotting throughout the world. Given his central role, this probably included plotting attacks against the United States and Europe.”

Killing high-profile Al’Qaeda figures- wherever they may reside- is certainly a worthwhile objective.  But as long as the United States neglects to concentrate on the conditions that actually make Muslims prone for jihad- such as economic deprivation, government corruption, and radicalization at a very young age- Al’Qaeda Central and its proxies around the world will continue to operate with relative ease.  A country can kill or arrest any terrorist they would like, but if the political, social, and economic situation on the ground remains unchanged, the overarching goal of U.S. counterterrorism is virtually worthless and ineffective.  What is the point of killing a single mouse when an entire rat hole remains untouched?

Coupled with drone-strikes and covert operations within Pakistan’s tribal frontier, Washington needs to do a better job at providing Muslim youth with a correct perception of the United States; both as a country and as a society. More often than not, an Arab teenager becomes radicalized into the faith because he is only exposed to a limited and nihilistic worldview.  A public-relations campaign is just as important- if not more so- to the U.S. in the War on Terrorism as guns, bullets, and missiles.

Iraq’s Anbar Province is a perfect example; frightened by Al’Qaeda’s campaign of indiscriminate violence, the same Sunni insurgents that were once supportive of Islamic extremism succumbed to the side of the United States.

Of course, the Anbar Awakening was the result of a combination of factors.  Part of the transformation had to do with the senseless killing of innocent Muslim men, women, and children.  Sick of living in an area tainted by blood and bullet-ridden bodies, Sunnis quickly realized that it was in their best interest to renounce Al’Qaeda’s stranglehold of the population.

While significant, it is important to remember that this is not the only piece of the puzzle.  The other piece, which I firmly believe was more influential to the Sunni transformation, was the strict mindset that Al’Qaeda brought to Western Iraq at the height of the insurgency.  After being exposed to the corrosive nature of Islamic fundamentalism, the citizens of Anbar began to question whether this was the correct path for their children.

Perhaps it is time for counterterrorism officials to multiply this experience in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and yes… Afghanistan.

Just as education ushered in a new and enlightened era for Europeans after the Dark Ages, perhaps education can pave the way for Enlightenment in the Islamic World.  Obviously this is easier said than done, but such a movement is possible given the right amount of resources, perseverance, and patience.  Wars are fought- and won- with different means.  Why end this precedent now?  Using force is fine against an innovative enemy, but the power of America’s war-machine must be accompanied by a sustainable P.R effort.

Like it or not, the War on Terrorism is an ideological fight.  Tactically speaking, the United States may be winning on the conventional battlefield.  But there is no doubt that the country is losing at a humanistic level.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Obsession With Iran Has Reached a Boiling Point

Posted in Iran by Dan on December 15, 2009

At this point, everyone and anyone that follows developments in the Middle East pretty much understands that the Iranians are willing to do anything for a nuclear capability.  As I have written many times in the past, Tehran has provided the world with a unified message; possessing nuclear weapons is a far more useful tool than forging a positive relationship with the world at large.  In fact, for all of the differences between Iranian moderates and revolutionaries, both camps have come together to protect what they deem as their “god-given” right to nuclear technology.

In December of 2009, the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear ambition is perhaps at its lowest point since 2006.  Despite three rounds of economic sanctions- and a fourth round inevitably coming up in the next month- the Islamic Republic continues to operate with virtual impunity.  Economic sanctions have hurt the Iranian population as a whole, evident in the rise of gasoline prices across the country.  Relying on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has proved to be a complete failure, and a targeted strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities has the potential of destabilizing an already tumultuous region.  With all of these complications, how is a country supposed to respond?

Well if you are the Israelis, the response has been- and continues to be- a combination of intelligence work and preemptive action.  Mossad in particular- Israel’s elite intelligence unit- has been working especially hard on this effort, pouring tens of millions into its Iranian task force in the hopes of deterring Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Plans for a quick and decisive Israeli air-victory over the skies of Iran are becoming ever more prevalent throughout the Israeli Government.  P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu and other hawkish politicians have promised to do whatever they can to prevent a nuclear bomb from falling into Tehran’s hands.  And with an Iranian refusal to the latest U.N.-backed negotiation, the possibility of a preemptive strike is only bolstering in significance.

Of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran has traditionally been enemy number one for the Israelis.  A majority of Israelis view Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government as the greatest threat to peace in the world, much as President George W. Bush viewed Saddam Hussein in the same light.  The fact that the Iranians continue to enrich uranium and improve their nuclear program on a day-to-day basis only gives the Israelis more cause for concern.

Israeli worries aside, a couple of questions need to be asked.  With all of the external threats that Israel faces in the 21st century, is Iran really the country that is the “be all and end all” of Tel Aviv?  Will a successful operation against the Islamic Republic really make Israel all that safer in the long run?  More importantly, is there any evidence that Iran would actually use nuclear weapons against Israel?

First and foremost, for all of Iran’s anti-Semitic remarks in the past, we have to remember that the ayatollahs are not exactly credible in what they say.  Sure, these remarks and press releases are disturbing- and I am sure tons of people around the world cringed when Ahmadinejad uttered his famous “wipe Israel of the map” phrase- but these declarations are anything from realistic.  Ahmadinejad’s extreme rants against Israel, as well as his denial of the Holocaust, are two illustrations of how illegitimate his government has become in the developed world.

Currently, Iran cannot compete with the Israelis in any way, shape or form.  The Israeli Army is second to none in the Middle East, its air-force is powered by the latest American technology, and Tel Aviv receives approximately $5 billion a year from the United States in military assistance.  What conventional arms does Iran have besides a small stockpile of medium-range ballistic missiles and a few anti-aircraft installations?

Interestingly enough, it may be accurate to conclude that a combined resistance from the Syrians, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al’Qaeda, and Islamic Jihad would have much more of an effect on the Israeli psyche than a conventional Iranian attack.  Constantly obsessing over Iran and engaging in a one-tract security policy does nothing to mitigate these other external (and internal) threats, some of which have terrorized the Israeli population far longer than the Islamic Republic and in a much more direct fashion.

Secondly, there is no reason to believe that an Iran deprived of a nuclear capability will make Israel safer in the long-term.  Iran’s program may be destroyed by a few air-strikes, but this would hardly solve the problem.  As a response, the clerical regime could simply withdraw from the NPT and resume their nuclear work from scratch, both as a sign of protest against an attack and as a graphic demonstration of Persian nationalism.  This time, Iranian scientists would have the knowledge and determination to rebuild their program from the ground-up, without looking over their shoulders and absent the fear of doing something illegal under global law.  The technical difficulties that have often plagued the Iranian program since 2002 would most likely be eliminated as well, given the eight years of nuclear experience Iranian technicians have already acquired.  With all of this said, even a 100 percent destruction rate by Israeli aircraft would not accomplish the goal of completely disarming Tehran for good.

Last but certainly not least, it is quite hard to believe that the Islamic Republic would actually use a nuclear device against Israel in the event Tehran was able to produce a bomb.  The ramifications to such an attack- both in physical and psychological costs- would be enormous for the Iranian regime, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could kiss his political survival (and perhaps his life) goodbye.  A single nuclear explosion in an Israeli city would mean the absolute destruction of Iran as both a country and a society; a consequence that Ahmadinejad certainly wants to do without.

If the Islamic Government in Iran has demonstrated anything to the international community in the past thirty years, it is their innate passion for self-preservation and legitimacy.  Self-preservation is precisely why Ayatollah Khamenei decided to crack-down so hard on Iranian protesters this past summer; he wants to remain in firm control over both government policy and Iranian society.  A nuclear attack on Israel would do nothing to help the Ayatollah succeed in his main objective.  To the contrary, such an act would not only generate more heated protest from Iranian citizens- most of whom are educated, moderate, and tolerant- but would also signify the beginning of the end for the Islamic Revolution.

With the logic of the Iranian nuclear dilemma exposed in short order, one would think that the Israelis would devote as much time and energy to other security challenges.  Here is a note to Israel; Iran is not the only danger that you face in the 21st century.  Remember the Syrians?  Remember the war you just fought with Hamas in the Gaza Strip?  Remember the quagmire against Hezbollah in 2006?  These are the challenges that should warrant the attention of Israel’s best and brightest, not just a state with a nuclear motive.

-Daniel R. DePetris

The Evolution of the Global War on Terrorism, Part I

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on December 14, 2009

More Al'Qaeda hijacking, but this time it involves America's view of the Muslim World

Ever since the United States was attacked by 19 Al’Qaeda hijackers on that clear and bright September 11 morning, U.S. foreign-policy has been rewritten in the context of the Muslim world.  Just days after the country lost 3,000 Americans, President George W. Bush stood in front of Congress and in front of the nation to declare a new generation of warfare; one concentrated primarily in the Islamic world.  We were told that this was a battle for good against evil, and only when the United States destroyed this existential threat will peace-loving people across the globe be able to live their lives without violence and harassment.

The next eight years resulted in two wars- both of which we are still fighting to this day- a couple of war-related scandals that alienated ordinary Muslims from Lebanon to Indonesia, and a pledge to do whatever it takes to bring the perpetrators of September 11 to justice.  More significantly for the United States in the long-term, eight years of war and occupation has had the effect of strengthening the Islamic extremist movement.

Al’Qaeda Central, while weakened, remains functional in the Pakistani border regions.  Like-minded groups inspired and armed by AQC have gained momentum throughout the Middle East.  Al’Shabab in Somalia, Al’Qaeda in Iraq, and Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are continuing to wreak havoc on their respective societies.  The Saudi, Yemeni, Pakistani, and Iraqi Governments have been forced to endure setbacks and swaths of violence that continues to plague their legitimacy.  Even Shia organizations that hold a drastically different interpretation of Islam are now able to recruit more young Muslim men as a result of AQ’s “kill-the-infidel” message.  Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi Separatist Group in Yemen are two such examples.

The reason I am rehashing the last eight years of history is not to simply remind Americans of Islamic terrorism.  Rather, I am trying to lay the groundwork for a reality that continues to pervade the thinking of the U.S. Government:  through a genuine fear of terrorism, the Bush White House allowed the most extreme fringe of the Islamic faith to hijack American policy towards the greater Muslim world.

Promoting democracy, economic reforms, women’s rights, and more accountability from Arab regimes took a back seat to the dangers of suicide-bombings and martyrdom.  Giving ordinary Muslims on the street hope for the future was quickly eliminated from U.S. Middle East Policy.  Instead of handshakes and discussion, the United States was all too quick to use bombs, guns, and tanks to further its security back home.  And more often than not, most of the bombs, guns, and tanks that were fired resulted in more anti-American sentiment from Arabs, Persians, Christians, and Muslims.

All of this occurred on Bush’s watch.  Now, with a new American President in office, the United States is attempting to change the Manichaeism of the Bush years.  President Barack Obama, with the world’s support on his shoulders, traveled to Cairo and spoke directly to the Muslim people.  America would no longer solve problems in the region through violence and intimidation, he argued, and the United States would reorient its strategy for the benefit of all involved…not simply for the United States.

For the first few months, the President’s allegiance to the many worshipers of Islam was especially revealing.  Polls from Egypt to Syria and from Sudan to Saudi Arabia gave Obama a tremendous rating of approval, even as American soldiers were still active in Iraq and Afghanistan.  At home, it seemed that the United States was entering a new era.  Once again, hope broke from the shackles of terror and retained its rightful position.

Then, in a flash, this sentiment was eliminated for a majority of Muslims.  Eyes glued on the television, governments and peoples from across the globe witnessed the President of the United States unveil his decision to send in another 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan.  The Al’Qaeda terrorist network was once again used as a justification to escalate the American presence.  Reminders of September 11 were prevalent throughout Obama’s nationally-televised address; much the same way President Bush invoked the term in order to justify his surge in Iraq two years earlier.

To Americans, the decision to escalate makes perfect sense.  But to the Islamic people who have received the brunt of U.S. force for the past decade, Obama’s speech was nothing more than a 2009-version of George Bush.

Institution building, democratization, and human rights- three terms that characterized President Obama’s vision towards the Middle East only six months ago- are no longer part of the American vocabulary.  Could we be seeing a return of history?   Is terrorism and political violence taking “mutual interest and mutual respect” hostage, much the same way that America’s relationship with Muslims changed for the worse after September 11, 2001?

For America’s sake, I hope to God not.  Constantly focusing U.S. Middle East Policy on Al’Qaeda does nothing but marginalize hundreds of millions of Islamic peoples striving for a better coexistence with the United States.  Certainly, propping up an Afghan Government that is deemed as corrupt and illegitimate by the people does not help America’s P.R. campaign.   Pouring billions of dollars into the coffers of autocratic Arab regimes fails to improve the American image in the minds of oppressed citizens.  Unfortunately, this is precisely what we are doing.  Do not be surprised if these policies strengthen anti-western beliefs among Arabs in particular, thus making Al’Qaeda and Al’Shabab look like heroes rather than the indiscriminate murderers they really are.

More on this narrative a little bit later.

-Daniel R. DePetris