Bin Laden's Failure: How Islamists and the U.S. Ended His War With the West

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In halting the global war on terror and engaging with Islamist political parties, Obama has helped create a world that the terrorist leader would hardly recognize.

osama april30 p.jpg
An Indonesian Islamist carries a poster of Bin Laden in this 2011 photo. Reuters

If Osama bin Laden were still alive today, one year after he was killed in a U.S. raid, he would hardly recognize the world he knew. Nor would he see the supposed "clash of civilizations" that he tried so hard to foment over two decades of violent jihad. Instead bin Laden would see Islamist radicals on the election stump in emerging governments in Egypt and Tunisia, pledging cooperation with senior U.S. officials, and even meeting with a few neocons in Washington. He would see a U.S. administration that, having killed most of bin Laden's confederates, is now ready to move into a post-al-Qaida era and engage with Islamist politicians as long as they renounce violence and terrorism. He would see Islamist parties that are passionately pursuing power and vested interests within their own countries (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia) rather than against bin Laden's old "far enemy," the United States.

But there is one small subsection of the world bin Laden would recognize well, just as if nothing had changed. He would feel happily at home among some of his dependable (if inadvertent) allies in the United States: right-wing conservatives such as syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who seem certain that their (and bin Laden's) cherished "war on terror" will go on forever. I discovered this after I wrote an article last week quoting a State Department official as saying "the war on terror is over." Now, to be clear, this idea has effectively been President Obama's policy since 2009, when he discarded George W. Bush's old phrase, "global war on terror," or GWOT, and sensibly refocused America's attention on eliminating al-Qaida, which is still the only enemy that has attacked us since 9/11.

Still, many on the right were outraged by the article. "Well, if the war is over, I must have missed the peace treaty signing ceremony," Thomas wrote. "I also haven't noticed a decline in incendiary rhetoric, or the disarmament--or at least laying down of arms--that usually accompanies the end of war."

On the Web, other conservatives joined in: Barry Rubin, a zealously pro-Israel writer, addressing what he called the "great controversy" that  "erupted" over my article, acknowledged that Obama had discarded the GWOT. But then Rubin went on to lament how misguided this approach still was. "In this context, then, all other revolutionary Islamist groups--the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so on--are not enemies. They can be won over or at least neutralized as threats to U.S. interests," he wrote. This is dangerously naïve, Rubin concluded. The truth, he said, is that America's "interests and allies are increasingly menaced by a growing threat [revolutionary Islamism] whose existence, meaning, and scope current U.S. policy does not even recognize yet, much less counter effectively."

Yet Rubin's contention no longer appears to stand up well to the developing realities in the Arab world. Not only are bin Laden and most of his senior lieutenants (except for Ayman al Zawahiri) dead; the so-called Arab Spring has opened up new channels of expression, supplying for the first time in decades an alternative to violent jihad. Experts point to fractionalizing of the Brotherhood and Salafist groups, which will be forced to govern pragmatically in the jostle for influence and power in their home countries. And what is most interesting is that some U.S. conservatives are starting to agree with this proposition, and to see things in a very different way from Thomas and Rubin. Even prominent neoconservatives such as Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer have outraged their former allies on the right by saying the U.S. has no choice but to engage the new Islamist political parties formed by the Muslim Brotherhood (which renounced violence decades ago) and other former jihadist groups.

"You have to speak to the Brotherhood because it's now in control of parliament and it's likely to win the presidential election," Krauthammer said on Fox News. "It will end up sharing the power or monopolizing it with the military, depending whether the military can hang on to the part of the power it has now. So to be realistic, you have to talk to them."

In fact, it's not entirely clear what role the Brotherhood will play. There is even some evidence that, as the The Wall Street Journal recorded on Friday, their influence is waning in the presidential stakes. But another prominent figure on the right, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official who is deemed one of the most astute analysts of jihadism, wrote in The WSJ that it was always unavoidable that "Islamists who braved the wrath of rulers and trenchantly critiqued the moral breakdown of their societies were going to do well in a post secular age. What is poorly understood in the West is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries. As counter intuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region."

The Obama administration has been understandably jittery over this issue during an election year in which presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney accuses the president regularly of weakness and appeasement. So the administration has been careful to emphasize that the war against al-Qaida will go on.

"We changed this terminology back in 2009. But we absolutely have never said our war against al-Qaida is over," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mail. "We are prosecuting that war at an unprecedented pace, as is clear from the fact that key AQ figures (like Bin Laden) are no longer on the battlefield."

Cal Thomas, who possesses nothing like Reuel Marc Gerecht's expertise in this area, nonetheless condemned as "preposterous" Gerecht's conclusion that the Arab world may have to make its way toward democracy and modernity through Islamism. Writing with that unerring sense of certainty that once led George W. Bush into an unrelated war in Iraq, Thomas said that "Gerecht's kind of thinking is beyond self-delusional. It is suicidal. ... It is like saying the route to women's rights is through patriarchy. War is peace. George Orwell lives! Radical Islamists have made it perfectly clear they have no interest in joining the democratic process. They are at war. They are at war with the West."

True, a deep skepticism is in order when it comes to the longer-term program of radical Islamist groups. But the fact is that many of them are coming to accept that their dreams of caliphates and sharia may have to be compromised, even in the long run. Even unreconstructed jihadists in the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Khairat el-Shater, the group's strategist, have said they want to bring Egypt into the world economy, and to do that they will have to drop their more medieval aims. In early April, Shater and other "Brothers" played convivial hosts to Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chairman of the House Rules Committee, and other visiting lawmakers. "They all go out of their way to say what we want to hear," said one official who was part of the U.S. delegation. "They are going to fully protect women's rights, minority rights, the constitutional assembly. They all made great pains to emphasize, without being asked--Shater included--that they will respect all international agreements."

Those agreements include, apparently, Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, hitherto anathema to Islamists. Whether the Islamists will stick to these pledges once they take power is another matter. According to Richard Bulliet, a scholar of modern Arab history at Columbia University, the worst blow that the Arab Spring delivered to radical Islamism was a profound lesson in what works and what doesn't. "If people see that assassinating Anwar Sadat changed nothing, but peacefully demonstrating changed everything, then why should anyone support jihadists any more?"

Judith Miller, the former New York Times Mideast correspondent who has become identified with the more conservative (and skeptical) view of Islamist intentions in the region (though she described herself in an e-mail as a "staunch political independent, not a conservative or a neo-con or a member of any other kind of political tribe"), wrote in a post on Friday that "of course Washington must engage Islamists if the MB and other so-called moderate Islamists win legitimate elections, agree to abide by their international treaty commitments, (which Hamas and Hezbollah do not, and hence, remain on Obama's terror list), observe democratic principles (ie. agree to leave power if voted out) and don't endorse the use of violence against minorities (ie. Christians) and those who oppose their views. Tunisia's Ennada [party] seems to represent that kind of positive evolving Islamist force, but we shall see. It's early."

Yes, it is early. Nonetheless, there is a sense that we can begin to see the beginning of the end, or at least (as Churchill said) perhaps the end of the beginning. Washington is pursuing a sounder strategy than it did a few years ago. Based on captured computers and documents, we know that bin Laden always wanted an adversary who would give him more allies than he actually had in the Islamic world. He got such an adversary in George W. Bush. We know that al-Qaida's goal on 9/11 was to draw America into a long and draining conflict and to "bleed" and "bankrupt" our country--bin Laden's own words--by pitting us against the broader Islamist world. When Bush invaded Iraq, bin Laden's hopes were realized.

Obama's reorientation of strategy was simply an acknowledgement that there was really only one Islamist group that attacked the United States directly: al-Qaida. As I wrote back during the 2008 campaign, urging then-candidate Obama to abandon the GWOT: "Bush has gradually expanded his definition of the war on terror to include all Islamic 'extremists'--among them Hezbollah, Hamas, and other radical political groups that have no ties to al-Qaida, ideological or otherwise. In doing so the president has plainly condemned us to a permanent war, for the simple reason that we will never be rid of all the terrorists. It is also a war that we will wage by ourselves, since no other nation agrees on such a broadly defined enemy. As Princeton scholar G. John Ikenberry has written, 'It is perhaps a paradox--and one that is fitting for the strangeness of our current age--that we will need to end the war against terrorism because we cannot end terrorism.'"

In the end this is just what Obama did (though not on my advice of course). And now we are indeed in a new world. One that Osama bin Laden, had he not been taken off the field a year ago, would not recognize.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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