Archive for September 10th, 2008

Terrorism and the Presidency

Many people believe that terror organizations like al qaeda would prefer to have Barack Obama win the Presidency. They think that since the Republicans are considered tougher on terror, and supported going to war with Iraq, they’d reckon with a tougher opponent should McCain win. I think that logic is flawed.

First, as I’ve noted many times, I think our invasion of Iraq was a gift to al qaeda. It took us away from taking care of the Taliban and Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and took the US into a country from which there was no terror threat. Sure, one can always imagine potential threats (maybe Saddam would have helped his al qaeda enemies against a common enemy), but that kind of thinking rests on imagination, not evidence. The reason for invading Iraq is because the neo-conservatives believed that if you created a model democracy in Iraq, it would be a pro-American base of operations and a model for political change in the region. Moreover, a quick victory in Iraq would demonstrate that the US had power and could use it decisively and with positive results.

Of course, none of that came to be. Iraq is pushing for a timetable for US withdrawal, Iran is emerging as a close ally of Iraq, and by overstretching the military and dividing the homefront, the Iraq war has proven the strategic weakness of the US in fighting this kind of conflict. Add to that the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the deteriorating conditions there, and the US has been humiliated by the difficulties of the past five years. There has been no push for change in the region and, while nominally a democracy, Iraq remains corrupt, divided, and not truly under governmental control.

America’s allies have also paid a dear price. Tony Blair’s popularity and legacy was greatly harmed by British policy in Iraq, Musharraf in Pakistan found himself increasingly under attack when Iraq spoiled his initial gamble that post 9-11 friendship with the US would be very valuable. He is now gone. And the closest US Iraq ally, Georgia, learned that the US couldn’t do much when Georgia got in a conflict with Russia. The war in Iraq has weakened the US politically, on the world stage, and diverted obscene amounts of money from places where it could have saved lives and improved conditions. America is in decline in large part because of the foreign policy errors of the past few years.

Al qaeda and its leadership want an angry, offensive, and aggressive America. I doubt they’ll get that with either McCain or Obama, but Obama is the kind of President they fear. He first of all can mend America’s image in the world simply by being elected. It would show the world that despite the problems of the last decade, the American people are not afraid to elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama. He can parlay that notion of being someone very different, not stained with past policies, towards going a long way to rebuilding partnerships with Europe, Russia, and countries in the Mideast — countries who want a strong principled America, but resent a bully America.

That would be the worst thing that could happen to al qaeda. The US hasn’t hurt the organization much in recent years. The small group in Iraq calling itself “al qaeda” was a fringe operation, made up mostly of people who otherwise would not even have had the chance to be involved in a war against the US. The idea that somehow terrorists were drawn to Iraq and then killed by the US and its allies is absurd, and objectively false. Al qaeda has been weakened because most people in the Islamic world don’t agree with al qaeda, and don’t like it. Without the propaganda the invasion of Iraq gave them, they’d be even less popular than they are. Moreover, since the Iraq conflict has quieted down (largely due to another enemy of al qaeda, Iran), the popularity of Bin Laden has continued to decline. The Bush administration has also backed off the bluster of the first administration. Instead of sounding like the German Kaiser before WWI, Bush has sounded more like a Cold War Henry Kissinger, and Secretaries Gates and Rice have cultivated a different tone in US diplomacy. That has also hurt al qaeda’s appeal.

They most likely hope McCain is as hawkish as he sometimes sounds, and that he’ll continue to drain US revenues to increase defense spending, further weakening the US economic state. They hope the US will be boisterous on the world stage, and make the US again the country everyone resents — and laughs at when they stumble (like they have been in recent years; we’re the joke of the planet lately).

The good news is that McCain, if elected, almost certainly will not be that kind of President. Indeed, just as “only Nixon could go to China,” perhaps only McCain can go to Tehran. The geostrategic and economic realities that drive policy make it inevitable that the US cannot and will not pursue an assertive and costly policy. This truth has actually been clear since 2006, when the selection of Robert Gates as defense secretary brought the ‘realists’ back into power over the neo-conservatives. Gates and Rice are from the foreign policy establishment of old, people like Bolton, Feith, and Wolfowitz are gone. Even the surge, a project of NSA director Hadley, was built less on military strength and more on realist diplomacy. We made peace with the insurgents rather than continuing to try to defeat them, and we accepted that we could not shape the Iraqi political system or end sectarian differences. The idealism of “Iraq the model” gave way to a “let’s cut our costs” realism.

So ultimately, it may well be that no matter who wins, US policy will be similar. The change since 2006 has gone relatively unnoticed because Bush is so stained with the war and its unpopularity, while quotes and mistakes from early on are remembered and replayed. Foreign diplomats have noticed the changed tone, and have reacted positively. A new face, whether McCain or Obama, can continue this trend and make US policy more multilateral and less ambitious. McCain can perhaps get away with it easier since he has a reputation of being a hawk; Obama might be best set to signal a new kind of policy. The reality is that the US has no choice but to accept the limits of its power and need to be a partner, not just a leader.

Still, McCain appears to the outside as the one most likely to create conditions that would feed in to the kind of culture war or clash of civilizations that terrorists want. When Governor Palin says “we’re doing God’s work,” that is the kind of thing the extremists love to hear, they want it to appear the US is on a modern crusade. They want to see the US aggressive, hated, and thus continually weakened. While I don’t think McCain will give them what they want, Obama certainly won’t, and they know it.