mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Al-Qaeda Back Again


The image above is the cover story of the latest issue of the Economist. The topic is the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the call-it-anything-but-the-Global-War-on-Terror. A key passage from the leader:

How much should Western complacency be blamed for this stunning revival? Quite a bit. Mr Obama was too eager to cut and run from Iraq. He is at risk of repeating the mistake in Afghanistan. America has been over-reliant on drone strikes to “decapitate” al-Qaeda groups: the previous defence secretary, Leon Panetta, even foolishly talked of defeating the network by killing just 10-20 leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The general perception of America’s waning appetite for engagement in the Middle East, underlined by Mr Obama’s reluctance to support the moderate Syrian opposition in any useful way has been damaging as well.

A second question is how much of a threat a resurgent al-Qaeda now poses to the West. The recently popular notion that, give or take the odd home-grown “lone wolf”, today’s violent jihadists are really interested only in fighting local battles now looks mistaken. Some of the foreign fighters in Syria will be killed. Others will be happy to return to a quieter life in Europe or America. But a significant proportion will take their training, experience and contacts home, keen to use all three when the call comes, as it surely will. There is little doubt too that Westerners working or living in regions where jihadism is strong will be doing so at greater risk than ever.

The Economist catches on to a point we’ve been making here. Obama administration policies to contain terror have failed, and the bad guys are on the march. We can’t know for sure, but attacks like the ones in Mumbai and in Kenya could set a pattern for attacks in Europe and the US.

We in the West really, really don’t want this war, with all the violence, intelligence gathering, and the rest that it entails. And we don’t want to face up to the ugly truth that this appalling and perplexing struggle could be with us for a long time to come. But the world doesn’t give you what you want all the time.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Lyle7

    It’s not a perfect analogy, but this reminds me of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction in America.

    Americans didn’t want to keep doing the dirty work to actually make America free for all. So what happens is Reconstruction fails and Jim Crow arises. Gentlemen like Nathan Bedford Forrest were free to travel around the North and politic on behalf of the Democrats not too long after the Civil War was over.

    Desperate for reconciliation or peace between the North and South had some serious long-term consequences.

    • Corlyss

      “Americans didn’t want to keep doing the dirty work to actually make America free for all.”
      Actually, scarcely any of them were doing that. You look into the history of the period, and you find that the end of slavery did NOT mean freedom and equality for all in law or practice. It only meant an end to nominal slavery. And very few were embarrassed about it like many today wish they had been.

      • Lyle7

        That’s my point man. Reconstruction was kind of weak and then they gave up on it.

        Reconciliation was more important to more people than Reconstruction was.

  • lukelea

    I would compare it more to piracy in the early modern world: a thorn in our flesh, not a mortal danger.

    • Lyle7

      Christopher Hitchens liked to compare it to piracy, and it is an apt comparison. But Islamists have the ability to control certain countries or parts of certain countries, which makes it something greater than early modern piracy… more like pre-modern piracy where some city-states were piracy states.

      Then there is the problem of technology. It’s only going to get easier for terrorists to kill people.

      And of course Iran will have nuclear weapons soon. How long will it be then until Saudi Arabia has nuclear weapons?

      So the idea that these people aren’t mortal threat to us it not entirely true. And it’s especially not true for Americans who have to live in work in these parts of the world. My friend had a conference cancelled in Amman, Jordan because of the Syrian civil war. And even if they had the conference they were not to leave their damn hotel.

      This is the world we live in man.

    • Corlyss

      I couldn’t disagree with you more. What makes the difference? The democratization of technology. The reach of terrorists and their capacity to do large scale damage is an open and direct threat to stability of western nations around the world. The fact that most western nations are governed now by post-cold war delusional liberal democrats who fail to see any civilizational threat smaller than Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia is the west’s principal weakness, along with a certain ennui that comes from detesting ones own history and culture. The culturally suicidal nature of the elites that govern in the west is going to get a lot of us who don’t share their contemptible self-doubt killed.

      • bpuharic

        Oh brother. Conservatives FAILED in their nation building DELUSIONS and now try to blame liberals for the collapse of their myths.

        Notice there’s NO consistent policy here? NOthing to tell us how occupying Iraq was SUPPOSED to work. What ‘success’ was.

        All get get is blather from the right that we need MORE dead, MORE deficit spending and more decades of all out war.


    • bpuharic

      Exactly. If we had stayed in Iraq for 20 years, what would have changed besides more US dead and a bigger hole in our budget?

  • rheddles

    We in the West really, really don’t want any war. They are a waste of money and lives. But while you may not be interested in war, war is interested in you.

    Unfortunately Western modernity is destroying the culture of much of Islam, especially the Arab culture. They will resist this. Our current and future retreats will only embolden them to greater acts of terrorism until we react so harshly that their culture ceases to exist. Unless they modernize first. Unlikely that.

    • Pete

      You have it right. The Arabs and/or Muslims will go one outrage too far, and then their pitiful culture will be extinguished and their religion neutered.

    • Alexander Scipio

      You are correct, and the unfortunate part is the Western leaders fail to see the struggle for what it really is: A struggle of modernity v. pre-modernity that can have only one winner:Modernity. Islam must be dragged into modernity – forcibly if necessary – for this to end.

  • bpuharic

    You know, I hate to impugn an obviously carefully thought out analysis, but fortunately I don’t have to do so here. WRM is just intellectually lazy.

    How does one ‘contain’ terrorism? And we ‘cut and run’ from Iraq

    Are you insane? Truly? Conservatives invaded that country in 2003. 6 years later we were still there with NOTHING to show.

    The right has a fascination for US troops in body bags.Sorry, WRM. You’re getting more arrogant with your profligate advocacy of US dead. There’s no way to soft peddle this.

    How FREAKING LONG were we supposed to stay there? Objectives? We spent TWO TRILLION and STILL he says it’s not enough.

    This isn’t analysis. It’s sloth.

    • Nick Bidler

      Well, how long has it been since we ‘occupied’ Japan? Or South Korea?

      • bpuharic

        The right pretends this argument makes sense.


    • BrianFrankie

      I, too, hate to impugn your analysis, but you obviously have no acquaintance with history or facts.

      Let’s see:

      >> And we ‘cut and run’ from Iraq <> Conservatives invaded that country in 2003. 6 years later we were still there with NOTHING to show.<> The right has a fascination for US troops in body bags.<<
      So not only are you ignorant and lazy, but you're also arrogant and insulting as well. Nobody, neither right nor left (and BTW, Via Meadia is a center-left publication, in case you haven't noticed) wants a single US citizen, or for that matter Iraqi, in a body bag. Yet adults recognise that war cannot be always, everywhere, and indefinitely avoided. 4500 Americans died in Iraq, and more than 30,000 have suffered grave and debilitating injuries. More than 100,000 Iraqis also died. many of whom were innocent of the crimes, and Lord knows how many have been injured. This is a tragedy, and I honor the sacrifices of the US military on behalf of America. But it does not follow from the fact that a terrible price was paid, that the results were a failure. In fact, I would suggest that the best way to honor the fallen is try as best we can to ensure their sacrifice was for a successful outcome. In 2010 and 2011, the US had influence and ability to try to engineer that successful outcome. That influence has been degraded by decisions taken by President Obama. As a result, Iraq in 2013 is a more violent and more dangerous place.

      • Fred

        Center left? I’ve always thought of it as center right, but center we agree on. At any rate, you’re analysis is insightful and accurate; however, you’re wasting your time responding to b. As much as he claims to hate religion, he’s as close-minded, dogmatic, and bigoted–and has as faith-based a view of life, the universe, and everything–as any fundamentalist I’ve ever known (and I live in the Bible belt).

      • bpuharic

        It’s hard to argue for remaining in a place we never should have been in in the first place. We should never have gone to Iraq. It was a complete waste.We were there for 8 years.How long should we have stayed? How many dead US troops? How many more trillions?

        Again you make the conservative argument for perpetual war as a value in and of itself. That has NO basis in American tradition OR foreign policy.

        You distort history by saying the American people supported it. What they supported was a threat dreamed up and imagined, Disney style, by a president who overruled his own CIA and put forth an argument later disavouwed

        by his own Secretary of State.

        Conservatives never put forth an argument FOR the war in Iraq, which makes an argument about why we should have stayed there kind of moot.

  • bpuharic

    Incidentally, I can hardly wait for the reaction from the right about Obama’s call to Rouhani. No doubt allusions to Chamberlain, appeasement, etc. will be all the rage.

  • Alexander Scipio

    Every policy pursued by Mr Obama in the region has been completely consistent: withdrawing from battle against radical islamists (Iraq, Afghanistan), the replacement of local autocrats that are not particularly anti-Western (Mubarak, Ghaddafi, Assad) with radical islamists: Morsi, or a radical islamist failed State – Libya, Mali, Syria(?). To say, “Obama administration policies to contain terror have failed,” seems inconsistent with his actions and their – for him, successful – results. If the results of his actions were, in his eyes, “Failing,” he would change policy. He’s an intelligent man. That he is only doubling-down on these policies indicates they are succeeding – for him.

    • bpuharic

      Except for killing Bin Laden, having more drone strikes in 4 years than Bush did in 8, the surge in Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, deployment of drones to Yemen and the killing of the American Al Qaida mouthpiece, the deployment of Special forces to Somalia,

      yeah, you have a point. Except when you don’t.

      The right’s ignorance of history is a point of arrogant pride,

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service