by James L. Abrahamson
The following commentary by a seasoned observer of the international scene raises a fundamental question that calls for consideration by all interested parties, whether or not they find much merit in Osama bin Laden’s thesis that Americans are pampered and degenerate.—Ed.
In a 16 May 2007 Wall Street Journal opinion essay, Bernard Lewis, the West’s leading interpreter of the Middle East asked: “Was Osama Right?” Will defeating the “pampered and degenerate Americans,” as bin Laden predicted, prove easier than driving the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan? In the same place two days earlier, the Journal’s Mary O’Grady posed a similar question about the West and Islamist terrorists: “Does the West have the fortitude to go the distance against this determined and lethal enemy?”
There are sound historical and current reasons for doubting the willingness of the United States and the West to stand up to the challenge posed by violent Islamism, whether of the al Qaeda (Sunni) or Iranian (Shia) variety: Though not facing an Islamist enemy, the Nixon administration contributed to bin Laden’s thinking by withdrawing U. S. ground combat units from Vietnam by 1972, and three years later the U. S. Congress confirmed a lack of commitment to an ally when it denied to President Gerald Ford authority to provide air and logistical support to the Republic of Vietnam when subjected to a second conventional assault from North Vietnam. Following the 1979 attacks on U. S. embassies in Tehran and Islamabad, the Carter administration made only feeble diplomatic and military attempts to free the hostages held in Iran. In response to Hezbollah’s 1983 bombings of U. S. Marine and French barracks in Beirut, President Ronald Reagan withdrew U. S. forces. The Clinton administration responded to the 1993 attempt to bring down the World Trade Center towers with a trial and the same year withdrew American forces from Somalia following a minor tactical defeat there. President Clinton launched angry words and the occasional missile in response to later attacks on U. S. military facilities in Saudi Arabia (1995), American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998), and the U.S.S. Cole (2000).
The administration of President George W. Bush seemingly broke the pattern after 11 September 2001 when it helped overthrow the Islamist (Taliban) government of Afghanistan, destroyed the al Qaeda camps there, and two years later invaded Iraq. Even so, bin Laden held to the notion that after suffering some casualties, the United States would soon withdraw as it had done before under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Nor did America’s allies inspire bin Laden to change his estimate. Many openly criticized the U. S. invasion of Iraq, and even those offering support typically limited their contribution of troops, the missions their soldiers might accept, and the length of their commitment.
Nor do the current domestic situations of the West’s principal powers offer bin Laden anything but confirmation of his prediction. The war in Iraq is intensely unpopular in most parts of Europe, and NATO has given limited military support for the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Several European nations have already withdrawn their troops from Iraq, Britain has begun to do so, and the Canadian House of Commons recently came within a few votes of approving a resolution calling for removal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan by May 2009.
Closer to home, the U. S. Congress delayed funding the Bush administration’s revised strategy calling for a military surge in Iraq and attempted to add to the legislation amendments that would require the withdrawal of U. S. forces by early 2009—or much earlier. Bin Laden must be confident that victory is at hand, and news reports now reveal that Iran may have ordered its Hezbollah subsidiary in Lebanon to begin planning attacks within the United States.
Despite the deadly 9/11 air assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the 3/11 bombing of trains in Madrid, last year’s subway and bus bombings in London, attacks across the globe from Argentina to Indonesia, and many disrupted attempts to kill Westerners wherever they may be found, the United States and the West have yet to mount a unified assault on Islamist movements that is proportionate to the existential threat they pose.
One of those movements is based in Iran, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars, weapons, and training to Hezbollah, which until 9/11 had killed more Americans than al Qaeda. Iran’s president regards the United States as the “Great Satan” and calls upon his followers to “imagine a world without America.” In support of its struggle to dominate the Middle East, Iran not only finances Hezbollah and Hamas and undermines American efforts in Iraq, it seeks to build nuclear tipped missiles that can reach Israel, the “little Satan” that must be “wiped off the map,” Europe, and eventually the United States.
Al Qaeda has given its goals more detailed exposition. In his The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis points out that bin Laden sees the United States as the leader of the “Lands of the Unbelievers,” those who can only save themselves by abandoning their degenerate ways and adopting his version of the true Islamic faith. The United States must also end its support for the apostate Muslims presently governing the nations of the Middle East and North Africa, making way for al Qaeda’s creation of a regional caliphate. Nor may the United States assist any government anywhere that presently resists domestic Islamist terrorist movements. Lewis, whose expertise in Middle East history has won him international recognition, describes Islamists such as bin Laden as having resumed the long-standing Islamic “struggle for religious dominance of the world that began in the seventh century.” Counting the Ottoman assault on Europe that began in the fifteenth century, others describe the present Islamist assault as the Third Jihad.
Facing a theocratic imperialism seeking nothing less than global political and religious domination whose ruthless use of violence respects no international norms, no nation can long hope to avoid becoming a target by remaining on the sidelines of the struggle, especially European powers made vulnerable by their large and poorly assimilated Muslim populations. Nor should anyone expect to negotiate a lasting compromise with an enemy of unlimited ambitions.
Responding to 9/11, President George W. Bush recognized Islamism as a “mortal threat” and in his second inaugural laid out a strategy he described as a “concentrated work of generations.” Americans had become vulnerable to attack, he stated, because “whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny—prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder.” Recognizing that many Muslims lived in violence-inspiring “tyranny and hopelessness,” he pledged that the United States will not “ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.” The United States, he claimed, can best defeat Islamist terror by alleviating conditions that enable organizations such as al Qaeda to recruit new members and prompt others to promote its ideology financially. ”The survival of liberty in our land,” the president proclaimed, “increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”
Often misnamed as the democratic strategy, the president’s program aimed at more than elections and representative government, though they were a part. His strategy included support for: the establishment of human rights, a free press, rule of law, equality before the law, an independent judiciary, and political parties; the provision of essential services; economic development; prosperity; and governments that responded to the needs of their citizens. Military action might create opportunities to achieve those goals but only the “force of human freedom” can “break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant.”
Bringing such freedom to Afghanistan and Iraq faces many great obstacles: Pakistan provides a sanctuary wherein the Taliban can recover, recruit, train, and distress an Afghan government struggling to deal with its many warlords and those who enrich themselves through growing opium poppies. If sectarian and tribal differences were not enough to trouble Iraq’s government, Syria and Iran quite freely send weapons and Islamist recruits into Iraq, where some ally with the remnants of the old Baathist regime and all murder indiscriminately, promote sectarian violence, and impede reconstruction efforts that would bring prosperity to Iraqis. In addition to spreading Wahhabism in South Asia via financing madrassas and mosques, Saudi money assists Iraq’s Sunni terrorists just as Iran supports its violent Shia. In light of the threat, for neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have American allies done nearly enough in terms of sending troops, assistance, or money.
Clearly in neither country has the struggle to establish free governments gone well and without great cost to the United States in lives and treasure, and criticism of the Bush administration’s strategy grows louder in both the United States and Europe. The war’s critics want to cut both those costs by withdrawing large numbers of American troops.
What do the Iraq war’s critics offer, however, in lieu of the Bush strategy? A recent book review published in American Diplomacy implied that the United States should stand aside while the Islamists—or some unnamed force—created a Middle East caliphate that would absorb all the region’s existing nations, which would in effect facilitate the achievement of bin Laden’s intermediate goal and materially and psychologically strengthen al Qaeda for its direct assault on Europe and then the United States.
Some in the U. S. Congress recommend a militarily unsound partial withdrawal from Iraq, recklessly arguing that American forces can escape most of the present violence by keeping there only enough troops to fight al Qaeda and train the Iraqi army. A few other congressional voices have recommended moving American forces to some nearby, often unnamed, area from which they could quickly reinvade Iraq in the face of some calamity, such as a genocidal attack on Iraq’s Sunni by its largely Shia army. Maybe the advocates of that approach realize that no such reinvasion would likely ever occur because the resulting casualties and violence would surely greatly exceed those of the past four years. In sum, the war’s American critics seem to have no sound strategy either for securing Iraq or combating the threat of Islamist terror beyond preparing to resist attacks within the United States.
Other critics of the administration’s strategy simply want the troops out—and the sooner the better. The advocates of that “strategy” of American withdrawal from the struggle against Islamism seem heedless of the dreadful humanitarian and political consequences for Iraq, the Middle East, and the world economy, though they often claim that the Iraqi government, left to its own devices and unable to depend upon the United States, would quickly restore order and pacify all its present opponents. Upon such assumptions, they would base the fate of American interests in the Middle East and South Asia and its ability to defeat international terrorists at home and abroad. Surely we have a right to expect from the war’s critics a more coherent and likely successful grand strategy.
This writer wonders if the Western publics and their leaders truly understand what is at stake. Facing a ruthless enemy with unlimited ambitions, is it sound strategy to minimize the threat, hope for the best, and assume that some compromises can be achieved by withdrawal from Iraq and negotiating with Syria, Iran, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda—assuming of course that any of them wishes to talk about anything but the extent of American surrender? Surely a strategy of de facto surrender means only that the United States and the West will have to face their enemies when they have become vastly stronger.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has wisely rejected withdrawal from global responsibilities: “When America is willing to lead the way, when we meet our commitments and stand with our allies even in troubling times, when we prepare for threats that are on the horizon and beyond the horizon, and when we make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary risks to defend our values and our interests, then great things are possible, and even probable, for our country and the world.” Would that Americans and others sharing Western culture make such a commitment.
Col. Abrahamson, a graduate of West Point and the holder of a doctorate from Stanford University, is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers and a contributing editor of American Diplomacy.