The Evolution of the Global War on Terrorism, Part I
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