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.

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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.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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