Archive for category Al Qaeda

Striking Iran Risky and Unnecessary

 

The Obama administration is being faced with one of its most difficult foreign policy dilemmas yet: how should the US react to an IAEA report that Iran may be close to producing a nuclear weapon?  Iran, of course, continues to insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.  To be sure, it is rational for them to pursue nuclear power.   Due to refining limits Iran often suffers energy and gas shortages, despite being one of the major producers of crude oil.    Russia, Iran and other states have claimed the report to have been ‘politically motivated.’   But what if it’s accurate?

Pressure is growing on President Obama to do something.   Sanctions haven’t worked, Israel is threatening to act on its own unilaterally (Prime Minister Netanyahu has accused former high level officials of leaking Israeli plans to attack Iran to the press in order to force him to scuttle attack plans), and Republicans on the Presidential campaign trail are sounding a hawkish tone.    Sunni states in the region such as Saudi Arabia quietly urge action, and plans no doubt exist for precision strikes on suspected Iranian nuclear sites.   However, President Obama would be wise to avoid such pressure; bombing Iran is not in our national interest for four main reasons.

1.  The US would be acting virtually alone.   China and Russia are almost certain to oppose any action against Iran.   They’ve publicly warned against such action and reinforced that with criticism of the IAEA report.   This means an attack would not be authorized by the UN Security council.   European allies also oppose military action.   If something goes wrong and the operation is anything but a clear success the US will be responsible for the consequences.   If the UN Security Council were to approve action and there was a broad multi-national coalition that would would be a different situation, but that’s not going to happen.

2.  The Risks are immense.   Let’s face it, US power is not what it used to be.   While America can project military powerthere is strong domestic opposition to anything that isn’t a clear and decisive cheap victory, and with domestic wrangling over debt the danger that Iran could lead to a budget busting barrage of spending is very real.  US clout on the world stage comes from economic strength more than military power.    Iran could push the US further into the economic abyss, while China might see it as a rationale to shift even more towards Euros from dollars.

Moreover, Iran could respond to the attack by unleashing a wave of terrorism in the region, perhaps evem in the US. They could try to block the straits of Hormuz in order to cause a major oil crisis at the very point the economy is pulling itself out of the depths of the worst recession since WWII.   Any military action is sure to see a spike in oil prices, even if it were successful.

17 million barrels of oil per day flow through the 2.2 mile outlet of the Persian Gulf

Iran could also increase weapons flow to Hezbollah in Lebanon, potentially creating another crisis between Israel and Lebanon.    All of this could unravel into one of the worst geopolitical disasters of history.   Now the odds for a worst case scenario may be low, but President Obama should recall how the optimistic assumptions made about Iraq by the Bush Administration turned out to be very wrong.   In war you control only the first shot — after the bombs hit, anything can happen.

3.  The risk of doing nothing is mild.    Even if Iran produced a bomb, it couldn’t produce many and the weapons would have limited value.   Both the US and Israel have enough nuclear weapons to deter Iran.   Iran knows an attack on Israel would lead to destruction of the Islamic Republic.   Iran’s decision makers have been rational (if also ruthless) in pursuit of their goal of having regional power, they are not suicidal.    Deterrence works.   Moreover, Iran operates in a regional framework that includes China and Russia, who have a goal of assuring Iran does not upset the balance.   They already calculate that they can live more easily with a nuclear Iran than with a major war in the region.

Iran as a stronger regional power would be a nuisance to the US, but not a major threat to our national interests.   We could contain Iran and work to maintain a regional balance at far less cost then trying to make the problem go away with bombs.    The US will have to accept that losing prestige and influence in the region, but that’s already happened — US power and influence isn’t what it used to be.   The remedy for that is more cooperative ventures with the EU, Russia and China to help maintain stability and the flow of oil.   The US could even consider a diplomatic ‘charm offense’ with a post-Ahmadinejad Iran, remembering how the “evil communists” became more malleable after Nixon and Kissinger started to work with them.

4.  Iran is changing anyway.   Iran has had a growing movement against its authoritarian rulers for some time, and it remains nominally a democracy with contested elections.   Due to the power of the Guardian Council it’s only semi-Democratic, but with half the population under 24 and change already sweeping the region there is reason for optimism. Even if Iran’s conservative regime doesn’t fall there is immense pressure to liberalize and be more responsive to the people.   A war with the US threatens that process.   It would allow Iranian leaders to demonize the US and create anger throughout the region.    The Saudi Royal family might welcome it, but they’re increasingly out of touch and vulnerable anyway.   It will play into the hands of the already weakening anti-American Islamic extremist movements and risk exponentially expanding threats to the US and the West.

The bottom line: an military strike would have high risks, the potential benefits are low, the risks of not acting are low, and the unintended consequences could include undercutting domestic change already underway in Iran.  Indeed, the conservatives in Iran may be hoping for a US attack in order to deflect attention away from their growing domestic problems.   A staggering virtually leaderless and weakened al qaeda could use US aggression to regain attention stolen by the “Arab Spring” movement!

With the economy the main issue at home, adventurism abroad is dangerous.   The public would not rally to support such action, and Obama’s core supporters would feel once more betrayed by a leader who would be acting more like what they would expect from President Bush than the candidate who promised a new path.   Electoral concerns can’t shape foreign policy, but domestic support is essential for any successful foreign policy venture.

So while speculation about a war with Iran may grow, the arguments against it are so strong that I find it extremely unlikely that President Obama would support unilateral US military action.     Beyond any moral or political concerns, it simply is not in the national interest.

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No Need to Fear Islam

When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting.   Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity.   Most people thought it was Judaism.  She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith.   I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following.   Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.

Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one.   After all, there are Christian extremists as well.   During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.

Then came 9-11.   Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US.    19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction.   For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam.   Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.

Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others.  Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.

Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good.  The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties.   Those problems are real but can be overcome.   The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix.   There is no other way.

The US can facilitate this with a clear message:  We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences.  All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies.   For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.

If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough.    There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories.    That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant?  But there is hope.

The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis).   After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat.   They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory.   Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.

Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders.  My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders.  If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided.   Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.

Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked.  They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away.   One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.

Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism.   As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel.   One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around.   Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.

Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.   Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies.     Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone.    After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.

First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values.   A Taliban like state will have to be opposed.    If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm.   We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over).   Finally, we need patience.   Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism.  Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.

Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism.  The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes.   But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity.   We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.

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The Iraq War, RIP

Shock and awe, March 20, 2003

President Obama’s announcement that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, thereby ending the longest and one of the most divisive foreign policy actions in US history.

I still remember the spring of 2003.   I was finishing up my book on German foreign policy.   Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election as German Chancellor by actively opposing the US decision to go to war in Iraq.   I was adding the final pieces to my last edit when the war started on March 20 (19th if you count the attempt to take out Saddam the night before), and on April 3rd I finished for good, sending back the last changes.

I know it was April 3, 2003 because as I was making my final edits my wife came to let me know that it was time to go to the hospital.   “Five more minutes,” I said, finishing up.    We left at about 5:00 PM, and at 11:47 PM that same day our first son Ryan was born.   In that sense, I’ve always had a measure of how long the war dragged on by the growth of my son.   He’s now in third grade; the US has been in Iraq his whole life.

I was also teaching American Foreign Policy with a delightfully talkative class which debated and argued with each other in a way that never got mean or nasty.   Lance Harvell, now a GOP representative for my state district and neighbor was there, a non-traditional student who’d been in the military.   There was Sam Marzenell, Joonseob Park, Christine Rice, Sev Slaymaker and others, debating current events as they unfolded.

I opposed the war, arguing that Iraq’s political culture was not conducive to democracy and rather than be a quick, easy victory enhancing the US role in the region it could turn into a disaster dragging out over years and helping al qaeda recruit.  At least one student from that class who disagreed with me has since contacted me to tell me that they had to admit I was right.    I think most people who study comparative politics were skeptical of the idea of making Iraq into a model democracy, you don’t just remake societies.   This wasn’t like Japan and Germany after WWII, this was a divided pre-modern society with an Ottoman heritage.

Yet what I really remember from that class is how I felt like a good professor in that students were willing and able to debate me using real foreign policy arguments about policy, not fearing that I would somehow punish them for disagreeing (as one told me, some students suspected I gave higher grades to those who disagreed), and making really excellent points.    Why can’t all political disagreements be so heated in substance but friendly in form?    The day Saddam’s government fell I remember coming to class, tired because of our newborn son, and asked by delighted conservatives what I thought now that Iraq fell so quickly.   “Now comes the hard part,” I said, admitting that the war itself had been faster and more effectively than I had expected.

At that point support for the war was high.  It was just two years after 9-11, and Afghanistan was seen as a done war, with troops staying just to help the new government get off and running.   The next year, in 2004 when Dr. Mellisa Clawson from Early Childhood Education and I taught the course “Children and War” for the first time (we’re teaching it again, for the fourth time next semester) many students were nationalistic and reacted negatively sometimes to our clear skepticism about US policy.

In 2005 for me the tone changed after Vice President Cheney’s “last throes” quote describing the Iraqi insurgency on June 20, 2005.    On June 24, 2005 I wrote:

Cheney claimed (still believing his propaganda, perhaps) that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’ (he defended that by talking about the dictionary meaning of ‘throes’) and — most absurdly — tried to compare this to the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa.  That is the point where the propaganda becomes so absurd that it really had morphed into comedy.  This is not a battle against another military superpower where there can be a turning point or where they throw all they have at one battle hoping to turn things around.  This is a battle against an insurgency that is building, and which can choose targets, play the time game, and score political victories despite successes in the American/Iraqi military offensives.  If they are comparing this to Germany and Japan, they are grasping at whatever they can to try to convince themselves that things will get better.  They are out of touch with reality. 

By 2006 Iraq slipped into civil war, public opinion shifted against the war, the Democrats took the House, and President Bush’s approval ratings began an inexorable slide to some of the lowest in history.   Yet, in 2007 he made the right call. He dumped the original goal of defeating the insurgency and setting up a pro-American government with whom we would be allies and have permanent bases, and embraced a realist notion of making deals with the insurgents, focusing instead only on al qaeda and trying to create enough stability so we could declare victory and leave.  It was a retreat from the grandiose vision of the neo-cons, but for me it increased my respect for President Bush.  He did something that LBJ couldn’t do in Vietnam:  he changed course.

President Obama has taken that policy to it’s logical conclusion.   By the end of the year the US will be out completely, and efforts to leave Afghanistan are growing as well.    There will be time to reflect on the lessons learned from this war, and how it changed both the US and the Mideast.   The challenge of counter-terrorism remains.   The Arab world is at the start of a long transition which will no doubt have peaks and valleys, Pakistan and Afghanistan still represent uncertainty, but at least we’re not caught in a quagmire.

For now, it’s a time for a sigh of relief that this traumatic and costly conflict is now truly entering its last phase.   President Obama disappointed the anti-war crowd by a cautious winding down of the war rather than a quick exit, but combined with Gaddafi’s death in Libya yesterday, he’s piling up foreign policy success after foreign policy success.   And as bad as the economy is, I’d rather the economy be the main issue on the minds of voters than a foreign war.

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Gaddafi Dead

Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is dead 42 years after he took power.   Having already lost Libya he was holed up in Sirte, his stronghold, fighting to the last minute.    Gaddafi was the Osama Bin Laden of the 1980s for Americans.    He was an organizer of state sponsored terrorism, a supporter of radical anti-American movements around the globe and had ambitions to control all of northern Africa.

The only bad news in this is that he lasted so long.  He was one of the most heinous criminals on the world stage and while there is justifiable celebration over his demise, his brutal criminal regime terrorized the Libyan people for over four decades.     In 1986 the US attempted to kill Gaddafi in bombing raids, seeing him as the most dangerous dictator on the planet.  This was a response to Libyan backed terrorism in Germany in which the LaBelle nightclub in West Berlin was bombed, killing three and injuring 229.   That was a nightclub known to be frequented by US military personnel so the US felt justified in trying to take out Gaddafi.    It failed because he was warned (either by the Italian or Maltese Prime Minister) ahead of time.

Two years later, on December 21, 1988 Gaddafi got his revenge as Libyan agents caused a bomb to go off on Pan Am Flight 103, which went down over Lockerbie, Scotland.    259 passengers and crew members died as well as 11 people on the ground who got hit by falling debris.    Calls for Gaddafi’s ouster intensified, but he hung on.

But his geopolitical ambitions were already on the wane.   Libya had lost a war to Chad in 1987 and within a year of downing Pan Am 103 the Soviet bloc disintegrated.    The world was changing, and Gaddafi’s influence declined.   After having tried to become a nuclear power in order to cement his leadership position in northern Africa, his WMD programs became a drain on the economy and increasingly meaningless.    As his political ambitions waned his family became more liked an organized criminal syndicate running a state. They siphoned wealth from Libya’s oil revenues, controlled economic relations internally, and ruled with an iron fist.

In 1999 they gave up their WMD program as part of a strategy to gain favor with the West.    It was a cynical shifting of position in recognition to the fact that Gaddafi and his family now had more to gain as a friend of the West rather than a foe.  They then settled the Lockerbie bombing case and promising to work with the West against its newest foe, al qaeda.   Unfortunately leaders in Europe and the US were all too willing to “forgive and forget” Gaddafi’s past.  By 2001 he had been weakened but now used better connections with the West to enhance his grip on power and buy support.

Yet he remained what he always had been: a ruthless tyrant.

Then on February 15, 2011 the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel sparked a riot in Benghazi.   The unthinkable happened – the Libyan people rose up and defied Gaddafi, starting a revolt.   They had early gains; emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt they hoped to bring down the repressive regime.   Gaddafi, seeing how Mubarak folded and was humiliated, decided to do everything in his power to defeat the rebellion.   He used ethnic rivalries, his control of resources, and the Libyan military to strike back.   Soon the rebels were losing ground.  Gaddafi, believing that the West would simply stand back, promised “no mercy” as he moved his military in position to crush the rebellion completely.   Most observers were expecting harsh retribution against those who had dared challenge his authority.   Gaddafi’s sons, once seen as reflecting hope that perhaps the next generation would bring more enlightened rule, echoed the threats.

On March 17th after Gaddafi’s forces took back most of Libya and were advancing no Benghazi the UN Security Council ordered a no fly zone over parts of Libya and authorized air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces.  On March 19th those airstrikes began and the government offensive was halted.   Slowly the rebels started to regain ground.    At first there was intense criticism of the UN action, enforced mostly by NATO airstrikes.  President Obama was criticized by some for acting too slow, but by many for doing anything at all.     As the fighting dragged into summer people accused the President of entering a conflict that could not be won.

NATO leaders knew that it was a matter of time.    With NATO air support the rebels would defeat the government, and it would be months rather than years.  They were right.   In August rebel forces entered Tripoli, and with Gaddafi’s death the rebellion is complete.

Gruesome image of Gaddafi after he was killed

Was this a success for President Obama?  Undoubtedly yes.   A dictator just as heinous and brutal as Saddam was overthrown, yet by his own people thanks to assistance from the West.  No American lives were lost, and the cost was far less than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   This proved that the West will not always side with oppressive regimes if their people rise against them, and that the West is powerful enough and patient enough to offer effective assistance to those fighting oppression.   Moreover without western help it was clear that Gaddafi was going to crush the rebels with brutal force.

This also showed that the US was still relevant in the region; many thought that after the Iraq war’s high cost and ambiguous conclusion (still being played out), the US would be sidelined for quite awhile.  No way would the public support another foreign intervention.   Perhaps more important is the message this sends to other dictators.   The times are changing.   Being pro-western in your policy does not buy you a free pass to oppress your people without mercy.

President Obama’s foreign policy is a mix of realism and idealism.   He doesn’t sacrifice democratic principles for raw self interest, but he’s been willing to act even if it goes against international law.    Such “principled realism” has marked American foreign policy at its most effective, and for all Obama’s economic woes at home, his foreign policy has been strong.   Gaddafi and Osama are dead.  Clinton and Karzai are in Afghanistan planning how to end NATO involvement there, while there is serious talk of the US being out of Iraq completely by next year (except for military guards at the US embassy).   US status abroad is much higher than it was in 2008, and relations with important powers such as China and Russia have been smoother than expected.

Recent US allegations of Iranian plots to assassinate the Saudi ambassador have led to Iranian bombast against the US and Saudi Arabia.   But the Iranians know that Obama is not one to be pushed around, and instead of provoking an Iranian challenge to the US, there has been an internal challenge to Iran’s hardline leadership.   It’s not inconceivable that Iran’s hardliners will be pushed aside by a more moderate faction.  The patient but real successes of Obama’s foreign policy have been a relatively untold story thanks to economic woes, but it appears that one area where Obama will not be vulnerable next year is on foreign policy.

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Tweedlemitt vs. Tweedlebarack?

It is a match up that the tea party and Occupy Wall Street will abhor.  An inside the beltway Republican whose Massachusetts health care plan was the blue print for President Obama’s health care reform vs. an establishment Democrat who choose Wall Street insiders as his economic team rather than more radical economic mavericks.   President Obama is among the 1% the OWS oppose.

It’s too early to know for sure that Mitt Romney will be the GOP candidate, but it certainly looks that way as he lines up endorsements.   At this point in 2008 Hillary Clinton looked like a shoe in for the Democratic nomination so there still could be surprises.   Yet none of Romney’s rivals have anything like the campaign juggernaut Obama already had in place in 2007 and in modern politics that’s what matters.

Mitt Romney is everything the tea party supposedly opposed.   He is Mormon (not Christian in the eyes of some fundamentalists), he’s been pro-choice in the past, and he governed liberal Massachusetts in a markedly moderate manner.   Like former President Clinton he seems adept at saying what an audience wants to hear, but once in power his pragmatism will mean he’s unlikely to push for tea party ideas that don’t play well with the majority.  In short, he won’t fight for the right wing, he’ll govern to try to solve problems.   A Romney Presidency may not be that much different than an Obama Presidency!

To both the tea party and OWS it leaves little choice.  Most will vote for the guy on their side out of a desire to prevent the other guy from winning.   But many true believers may sit this out or vote for a third party out of protest.

For the GOP the focus will be negative advertising against Obama, mostly by special interest groups not directly associated with Romney.  That way he’s not tied to the tactics and can even criticize them while they push the tea party to vote Romney out of fear/hatred of Obama.   It would be winning ugly, but a win is a win.

For Obama the goal is to infiltrate the OWS movement and try to direct its energy into participation in the 2012 election, recapturing the fervor of 2008.   The idea is that motivated students and young people, as well as others caught up in the protest, will be more likely to vote than otherwise would be the case.    If they aren’t excited for Obama, they can be lured to vote against Romney through negative advertising, or brought to the voting both for ballot issues or lower ballot races reflecting the movement’s ideals.

Obama looks vulnerable, but given the economy he could be in much worse shape.  His third quarter haul for fund raising was $70 million, down from $80 million in Q2, but above expectations.   This means he already has raised about $200 million overall, and the heaviest fundraising hasn’t even started yet.   He’s likely to top $1 billion, and money matters in modern campaigns.   Moreover, with no primary opponent this time he can focus entirely on defeating the eventual Republican nominee.

The GOP, meanwhile, has been suffering the same kind of let down that the Democrats experienced after 2008.   They took the House, but the tea party’s allure has faded and Obama’s numbers remain just under 50% approval.    Obama’s foreign policy also has turned out to be a strong point.  Besides being generally liked and respected abroad, he’s mixed a tough counter-terrorism policy (killing many top al qaeda leaders including Osama Bin Laden) with a reasonably effective draw down of forces in Iraq.   Even Afghanistan appears more stable than it used to be, and the GOP will have trouble making the argument that Obama is soft or ineffective on foreign policy.

It all comes down to the economy, but Republican success in 2010 gives Obama a tool in 2012.   He can blame the GOP for not passing a jobs bill and standing in the way of compromises that could have moved the economy forward.   This is already being said, Vice President Biden claimed recently that the Republicans want to “sabotage the economy.”  In a close election if doubt can be cast on which party really should be blamed for economic conditions, that helps Obama.

All that said, Romney is a consummate politician who unlike the rest of the GOP field is making no unforced errors and doing nothing that will come back to haunt him in the general election (unlike Rick Perry, whose social security stance will cost him elderly voters if he’s the nominee).    He’s managed to play the tea party favorites off against each other and appeal to the average Republican — those more concerned about competence and beating Obama.   He’s not totally ignoring Iowa this time and has an operation in New Hampshire that is almost sure to bring him a big victory there.    He’s got a better than even chance of avoiding a long, bloody primary battle.

While he seems slick, he also appears calm and competent.   Independents disappointed with Obama won’t be scared away from Romney the way they might be from Cain or Perry (let alone Bachmann or Palin!)   If the economy is still in the dumps, it will be relatively easy for people to say, “well, let’s try Romney, let’s see what he can do.”

The question is whether Romney can inspire support, something I noted awhile back when I compared him to Mondale.  Here is where the left and right “movements” become interesting.   Romney’s capacity to appeal to the center is clear, but can he keep the loyalty and enthusiasm of the activists, people who until now have been very cool to a Romney candidacy?   Assuming no third party candidacy, many tea party folk may decide they can’t stomach Mitt as the GOP standard barrier and wait for 2016 and a chance to nominate a “true Christian conservative.”

OWS has two dangers for Obama.  First, just as the tea party scared off moderates from the GOP, OWS arouses skepticism as well.   Just as Nixon used the 1968 protests in his favor, Romney could argue that the country needs to return to a more stable and predictable government.  Second, OWS could turn on Obama and urge people to sit out the election.   Despite Republican rhetoric, Obama’s policies have been very friendly to Wall Street and the business community.   To OWS he’s shown that he’s not a true progressive, they may feel compelled to sit out and try to nominate someone fresh in 2016.  Romney won’t cause fear based Obama voting in the way that a Perry might.

It’s still very early and things could change rapidly.  But right now the 2012 campaign looks to be fascinating.  In a country that appears divided with rival left and right movements, the probable candidates are centrist and more alike then most people realize.     Comparisons with past elections are of little help — the Obama campaign machine and the nature of this crisis will assure 2012 will be a unique, perhaps historic election.   Let the fun begin!

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A Better Kind of Regime Change?

When President Obama called on President Assad of Syria to leave office last week it was a sign that Gaddafi was the verge of losing Libya.  Obama made clear that the West would continue the strategy of aiding popular uprisings through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and low levels of military support.   His message to the Syrian people was clear: Don’t give up.   President Obama, like President Bush before him, has a strategy designed to promote regime change.   It’s less risky than the one embraced by Bush, but can it succeed?

President George W. Bush went into Iraq with a bold and risky foreign policy.   He wanted regime change led by the US, so the US could shape the new regional order.   The Bush Administration understood that the dictators of the Mideast were anachronistic — out of place in the globalizing 21st Century.  Surveying the region directly after 9-11-01, while the fear of Islamic extremism was still intense, they reckoned that the benefactors of the coming instability would be Islamic extremists.   This would create more terror threats and perhaps lead to an existential threat against Israel.

Emboldened by the end of the Cold War and the belief that the American economy was unstoppable, they gambled.  What if the US went into Iraq, ousted Saddam, and then used Iraq as a take off point for further regime change throughout the region?

The formula was clear: invade, use America’s massive military to overthrow a regime, and then pour in resources to rebuild the country and make friends.    The Bush Administration thoroughly under-estimated the task at hand and over-estimated the US capacity to control events.     Their effort to reshape the Mideast failed.   By 2006 Iraq was mired in civil war, and President Bush was forced to change strategy.   Bush’s new realism was designed to simply create conditions of stability enough to allow the US to get out of Iraq with minimal damage to its prestige and national interests.   President Obama has continued that policy.

However, when governments in Tunisia and Egypt fell in early 2011, and rebellions spread around the region creating the so called “Arab Spring,” it became clear that the dynamics the Bush Administration noticed a decade earlier were still in play.   These dictatorships are not going to last.   Some may hold on for years with state terror against their own citizens; others will buy time by making genuine reforms.   But the old order in the Mideast is starting to crumble, and no one is sure what is next.

President Obama choose a new strategy in 2010, much maligned by both the right and left.   Instead of standing back and letting Gaddafi simply use his military power to crush the rebellion, Obama supported NATO using its air power to grant support for the rebels.    That, combined with diplomatic efforts to isolate Gaddafi and his supporters, financial moves to block Libyan access to its foreign holdings, and assistance in the forms of arms and intelligence to the rebels, assured that Gaddafi could not hold on.

Gaddafi’s fall creates the possibility that NATO assets could be used against Syria in a similar effort.   Moreover, it shows that the argument that those who use force will survive while those who try to appease the protesters will fall is wrong.   Survival is not assured by using force, the world community does not ‘forgive and forget’ like it did in the past.

The strategy is subtle.  Like President Bush, Obama’s goal is a recasting of the entire region; unlike his predecessor, Obama’s chosen a lower risk,  patient, longer-term strategy.    If Bush was the Texas gambler, Obama is the Chicago chess master.   But will it work?    Is this really a better form of regime change?

President Bush’s policy was one with the US in control, calling the shots, and providing most of the resources.   President Obama’s approach is to share the burden, but give up US control over how the policy operates.   It is a true shift from unilateralism to multi-lateralism.   While many on the left are against any use of the military, President Obama shares the Bush era view that doing nothing will harm US interests.   The longer the dictatorships use repression, the more likely that Islamic extremism will grow.   The more friendly the US is to dictatorial repression, the more likely it is that future regimes will be hostile.

So the US now backs a multi-faceted multi-national strategy whereby constant pressure to used to convince insiders within Syria (and other Mideast countries) that supporting the dictator is a long term losing proposition.   Dictators cannot run the country on their own.   Even a cadre of leaders rely on loyalty from top military officials, police, and economic actors.   In most cases, their best bet is to support the dictator.   This gives them inside perks, and can be sustained for generations.  However, if the regime falls, these supporters lose everything.

The message President Obama and NATO are sending to the Syrians and others in the region is that they can’t assume that once stability is restored it will be business as usual.   The pressure on the regime, the sanctions, the freezing of assets, and various kinds of support for the protesters will continue.   As more insiders decide to bet against the regime a tipping point is reached whereby change becomes likely.

For this to work a number of things must happen.   First, a stable government must emerge in Libya.  It needs to be broad based, including (but co-opting) Islamic fundamentalists.   The West has to foster good relations with the new government, building on how important western support was in toppling the Libyan regime.  Second, the pressure on Syria cannot let up.   There has to be the will to keep this up for as long as it takes.    Third, the possibility of NATO air support has to be real — the idea is that if it appears that Syria might launch a devastating blow against the revolt, NATO will do what is necessary to bring it back to life.   Finally, the costs and risks of the operation must be kept low so the dictators cannot expect to wait out the West.

If this works, there could be a slow modernization and ultimately democratization of the Arab world, perhaps even spreading into Persian Iran.  If it fails the costs won’t be as monumental as the failure of the US in Iraq, but it will be a sign that Mideast instability in the future is unavoidable, and we have to be ready for dangerous instability.  Has President Obama found a better style of regime change?   Time will tell — and it may take years to know for sure.

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Attila and Osama

I have finished Christopher Kelly’s intriguing and riveting book The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome.   It is a superb read for anyone interested in the fall of Rome, and a period of history where the West slipped into chaotic localism after over 600 years of Roman dominance and peace.

In the second half of the book the Empire falls and we get a much closer look at Attila.

In 447 an earthquake did major damage to the Theodosian walls.  57 towers were destroyed, and much of its defensive ability was gone.    Constantinople was vulnerable to a Hun attack.    Attila did attack, and the Roman forces lost every battle in an effort to slow down the progress.  They didn’t try to come together and decisively win, fearing that if they lost, Attila would rush to Constantinople and take the city.  They had to buy time – and did.  In an heroic effort to rebuild the walls in 60 days all of the citizens came together and formed work teams.   Attila got within 20 miles, and then negotiated a peace.  He got chunks of territory along the Danube and a large yearly pay off not to attack.

The result was that by 450 the Roman empire had become a shell of what it was.  The western Empire had lost Great Britain, much of Spain, northern Africa and even Sicily.  The Eastern Empire fared better.  Persia was keeping the peace.   By this point, the Emperors were scrambling to keep their empires in tact.  Theodosius would die in 450, just before Attila would make a bold dash into France in 451.  The Goths and Romans would together defeat the Huns, but only after Attila pushed nearly to the coast and did considerable damage.

They thought that Attila would regroup back on the Hungarian plains, but instead in he attacked Italy in 452, taking Milan and threatening Rome itself.  Attila’s forces had cut into the Western Empire in both France and Italy, and had a few times gotten deep into the East near Constantinople.  However, in 453 he died.   He had taken a new wife and in the celebration after the wedding he died.   His sons couldn’t hold the empire and the people they had conquered rebelled and within a few years the Huns were no longer a force in Europe.

Still, the Vandals, Goths and others were too much for the West.  In 476 the last western Emperor was deposed.  The Eastern Empire, which would morph into what would be known as the Byzantine Empire, would survive until 1453, but only with a shell of the former Roman glory.   A great Empire had fallen.

As noted in the previous post, Rome had been built on brutality – on the same kind of cold willingness to kill that so offended the Romans when it came from the Huns.   Caesar’s conquests destroyed human life at a pace and scope not to be met until the Spaniards would invade Latin America.   A Christian Roman Empire had a different set of values than the pagan Roman Empire.

Thus the Empire did not keep its military science moving forward, culture stagnated, and the number of troops available and the taxes to arm them started to diminish.   Instead of taking from those they conquered they started to pay off others so that they would not conquer them.

To the Romans the Huns were savages, lacking Christian values or even the basics of civilization.   The Roman historian Ammianus describes them (this quote taken from Christopher Kelly’s The End of Empire, pp. 23-25 — get the book to read more, I’m cutting a lot out):

“The Huns exceed any definition of savagery.  They have compact, sturdy limbs and thick necks.  They are so hideously ugly and distorted that they could be mistaken for two legged beasts…they are so wild in their way of life that they have no need of fire or pleasant tasting foods, but eat the roots of uncultivated plants and the half raw flesh of all sorts of animals.  This they place between their thighs and the backs of their horses to warm it up a little.

…They wear garments made of linen or stitched together from the pelts of mice found in the wild; they have the same clothes for indoors and out…Once they have put on a tunic (that is drab colored) it is not changed or even taken off until it has been reduced to tatters by a long process of decay and falls apart bit by bit.

…  Like refugees, all without permanent settlements, homes, law or a fixed way of life – they are always on the move with their wagons…in their wagons their wives weave for them the horrid clothes that they wear.

…In agreeing truces they are faithless and fickle, swaying from side to side in every breeze as new possibilities present themselves, subordinating everything to their impulsive desires.  Like unthinking animals they are completely ignorant of the difference between right and wrong. They burn with an unquenchable lust for gold, and are so capricious and quick to anger that often without any provocation they quarrel with their allies…Fired with an overwhelming desire for seizing the property of others, these swift moving and ungovernable people make their destructive away amid the pillage and slaughter of those who live around them.”

The Romans contrasted their advanced culture and civilization – and Christianity – with these godless semi-human beasts.    Yet almost all of that was propaganda, reflecting traditional Roman views of non-Romans.   Ammianus may have believed it, but he was going on hearsay and bias.

In that same book, Kelly tells of another history of the Huns, written later by Priscus.  Priscus could speak Hunnish, so he was sent along on a diplomatic mission from Constantinople to meet Attila.    Priscus and the Roman envoy Maximillan stayed in Attila’s city for almost two months.  Priscus knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and acting like a social scientist he observed and analyzed Hun culture.  (The whole story is fascinating, get Kelly’s book to read it in detail!)

The Huns had homes, dressed well and liked fancy clothes.   Their food was good and well cooked.  They had rituals, customs, treated each other and their guests with respect, enjoyed Roman delights like dried fruits, and were curious about Roman culture.   One ex-Roman he met – a farmer who had been attacked by the Huns and ultimately joined them and took a Hun wife – said that Hun culture had the virtue and strength Rome had lost.  Priscus puts forth a defense of Roman civilization in his recounting of this encounter, but leaves with the farmer saying that Rome has lost much of what Priscus describes.  Priscus does not respond, suggesting that he may agree.

Priscus point is simple: though he doesn’t condone Hun destruction of whole towns and the slaughter of innocents, the caricatured view of the Huns as savages with no regard for the value of human life is absolutely false.

There are parallels between the above example and how some Americans look at Arabs or Muslims.  Describing and attacking whole groups as having weird and even inhumane (e.g., ‘they don’t value life as we do’) traits is a common way to portray an enemy.  This fed into Roman notions that they were defending Christian civilization from barbarism and paganism.  That’s how many have portrayed the US ‘war on terror.’

One could compare Attila and Osama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden has been portrayed as the inhumane essence of evil.  But like Attila, he was shrewd, even brilliant, and rationally pursued his goal.  For Attila it was to build the most profitable protection racket he could; for Osama it was to try to get western influence out of the Muslim world.   Neither had moral qualms about killing innocents.   For Attila this was to instill fear so people would pay; for Osama it was to use the little power he had to weaken and potentially manipulate a great power.

I hopes that there is yet another similarity.   After Attila died, the Huns became a non-factor, fighting amongst themselves as the people they once subjugated rose up and crushed the Hun Empire.   Osama Bin Laden is now dead; hopefully his movement will also dissipate and the Arab spring will crush violent extremism.

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A New Generation

On Wednesday evening President Obama addressed the country to inform us that the war in Afghanistan was winding down and would be ended ‘responsibly.’   10,000 troops will return this year, and another 23,000 by the middle of 2012.  He neglected to say that over 65,000 would still be there, promising only to continue the draw down as security responsibility is handed over to the Afghans, with a goal of completing the process by 2014.   A NATO/Afghan conference next May will work through the details.

Thursday morning in Summer Experience the class watched a shaky Youtube video of Obama’s speech, and critiqued it having read a number of pieces about war, and an article by Howard Zinn about our double standard when it comes to violence.  Students were uniformly critical of the wars, though some said they understood why we went into Afghanistan in 2001 before Iraq pushed us off course.    It’s interesting how in 2001-04 students showed a strong burst of patriotism and support for even the Iraq war, which by 2006 had shifted to anger about the on going wars, and since 2009 or so has become a kind of an apathetic cynicism.   One fascinating aspect of teaching is seeing how attitudes can quickly change with new groups of college students.

Another piece we read was about Kent State.   Most students don’t know what happened in May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded others when confronting an angry student protest.   To give background I played some of President Nixon’s speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia, which he gave on April 30, 1970.   That speech sparked the protests that led to the shootings.   What students noticed (and I hadn’t really expected) was the similarity between some of what each President said.   Nixon was also announcing a draw down of forces from Vietnam, over 100,000.   His explanation (have the Vietnamese take over responsibility for their own security – Vietnamization) and rhetoric about the US role was often similar to what Obama said.   To be sure, Obama didn’t announce the invasion of another country, though one student noticed the parallel between the importance of Cambodia in that war, and Pakistan in the current one.

They were shocked about the protests and especially the fact live ammo would be used on students.   One student compared that to China at Tienanmen Square, though clearly the scope was far less.   They were surprised that many people even supported the shootings at the time, and said that this is another example of groups of people not understanding each other and thus rationalizing conflict and violence.

We ended up discussing the conditions my generation is handing off to them:   a number of on going wars that need to be ended (they’ve cost over $1 trillion so far), government debt that started growing dramatically in the early eighties,  private debt and credit card debt that has grown even faster (the public has mirrored the government in that regard),  the current account deficit that has made the dollar and the US very vulnerable to outside shocks, and the growing gap between the rich and poor.   I showed the charts that showed that the wealthy have done very well during the last thirty years, while the middle class and poor have actually lost ground.   Finally, we talked about energy and touched yesterday on the environment.

Most of the problems, especially the economic ones, are rooted in choices made in the early 80s after the last recession when tax rates were cut and spending/debt increased.   Thirty years of imbalances, and these 18 year olds now have to face the fact that unless this gets fixed, their future will not be as comfortable as the lifestyles enjoyed by the previous generation.  They expressed disdain for the ideological bickering between the political parties and said that if people listened to each other (the point of a Walter Lippmann piece they read for today), we’d realize that the problems were real and we have to solve them.

It also seems that in a world of constant communication and technical sophistication, the allure of ideological thinking is fading.   The reality of the problems we face and the messes such thinking has caused in the past presents them with a challenge: their future depends on shifting our political and economic thinking in a profound manner.    We discussed the naive thinking of economic ideologues — those on the left who think government can plan and run an economy without markets, and those libertarians who think markets are magic and can operate without regulation and the state.   A little common sense can cure such ideological blindness, and for all the faults people find with the ‘facebook generation,’ they seem to have little patience for putting theory ahead of reality.

I’ve taught summer experience for 12 years now, starting in 2000 in the midst of the dot.com crash.   In the late 90s many students had bragged about making money through day trading and some thought they might never have to work since their investments could just keep proliferating.   In the years since as technology progressed and the country has gone through extended wars and now a deep recession, I find myself more impressed than ever by the young people heading into college.   There seems to be more pragmatism behind youthful idealism (I can’t imagine them burning down ROTC buildings and the like, regardless of how opposed they might be to a war), a willingness to consider and try to understand a variety of perspectives (I credit both the internet and globalization with this) and even improved knowledge about world events.

I hope my faith in the new generation is well placed, since I am losing faith in mine to actually start listening to each other and working for compromise and a pragmatic solution of the serious problems we face.   If ideological screaming by the left and right continues, with elections zig zagging between parties as the public becomes frustrated by the inability to collaborate on creative solutions, we’ll need young people to come forth with new solutions.   And, given their command of technology and the information revolution, they just might be able to do it — it’s not just Egypt that needs the youth to rise up and demand change!

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Defining a Presidency

President Obama has been in office just under two and a half years, and besides noting that  he is the first black President, there is little agreement on how to categorize his Presidency so far.

The right has always tried to belittle him.   First they claimed he couldn’t get anything done (sometimes asserting that he had never accomplished anything in life — an odd claim, given his career!), but then the 111th Congress passed health care and closed with a flurry of activity.  For better or worse Obama and the Democratic Congress accomplished a lot in two years, no one can accuse him of inactivity.   Then Obama was cast as a radical President, driving up the debt in order to pursue an agenda that ignores economic reality.

His foreign policy was criticized as ill thought out — he was supposedly snubbing allies and giving haven to adversaries.   These criticisms were ad hoc rather than systematic.   He might be criticized for being too friendly to the Saudis one day, then for jilting an important Saudi ally the next.   The message the Republicans tried to send: he’s in over his head.

The left has also been dismayed by Obama.   When the exuberance of electing a young charismatic President promising change wore off, Obama’s centrist pragmatism was a let down.   Where was the fighter to take on special interests, close Guantanamo, get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan and take us down a new path?   Even health care reform, passed by the slimmest of margins, didn’t satisfy the left — why wasn’t Obama out there shaking the bully pulpit and pushing for a single payer system or something more dramatic?  Rather than confronting the Republicans he was trying to deal with them, and in the eyes of the left, they were eating him alive.

The left also is dismayed by his foreign policy.  They note, accurately, that the Obama foreign policy is not that much different than the Bush foreign policy after 2007.    To many on the left Obama is a sell out, promising change to get elected and then governing in a way that serves the inside the beltway elite, just like President Bush before him.

The fact that these narratives about Obama’s Presidency are contradictory and all over the place reflect that his Presidency remains undefined.    He has far more accomplishments than Bill Clinton did at this point in his tenure, and remains more popular than Ronald Reagan was two and a half years in.   But there is still uncertainty — who is Barack Obama really?   What kind of President is he?

This week President Obama went a long ways towards etching out his own definition.   In releasing his birth certificate, and subsequently subjecting Donald Trump to considerable ridicule, he grabbed the high road and was able to speak about the birthers as being petty political opportunists, playing games when real issues are at stake.   Then with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in a risky and bold raid, he threw off the narrative of him as the vacillater in chief, unable to make a clear decision.

The President could have chosen a safer option of obliterating the region with bombs, thereby avoiding questions of whether it was a “legal assassination.”    He undertook an operation that very easily could have gone bad, and not only trusted the military, but took full responsibility.   For most Americans who haven’t been following the competing Obama narratives, where dissatisfaction on the left and hostility from the right have seemed to pin Obama into an uncomfortable corner, this is the first real glimpse of Obama as a leader.   He comes off as not only Presidential, but firm, resolute and certainly not naive.

Suddenly those who tried to belittle Obama as being a horrible leader, just a ‘community organizer,’ look as petty as Trump touting the birther issue.  That’s gossip politics, ad hominems designed for overt political purposes.   You can dislike Obama’s health care reform, think he’s wrong on the budget and blame him for the economy, but a gutless deer with his eyes caught in the headlights he is not.

Moreover, Obama’s putting his stamp on foreign policy.  He has shifted US emphasis away from Europe and towards the Mideast and Asia.    His move of Panetta to Defense and Petraeus to the CIA also illustrate the way in which defense policy is increasingly interdependent with intelligence.    As major war becomes less likely, smaller operations become more of a focus.   This isn’t a new idea — Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was headed the same direction.   The mix of shifting emphasis from Europe to the Mideast and Asia along with a rethinking of the core structure and strategy of the military suggests a new security policy identity.

One can see the outlines of a true foreign policy legacy, though still in its nascent stages.   Obama has the chance to conclude the original ‘war on terror,’ and implement a new defense identity built on counter-terrorism and a meshing of military and intelligence capacities in order to deal with 21st century threats.   That, combined with a shift of emphasis away from Europe would create an entirely new foreign policy, though arguably one more in line with the realities of the new century.  This also isn’t an abrupt break from the Bush policy; rather, the neo-conservative bravado has been replaced by a more diplomatic touch — but even President Bush shifted tone after 2006.  This suggests that for all the discontent, we’re likely seeing the development of what will become a new bipartisan foreign policy consensus.

Of course, President Obama’s ultimate legacy will depend greatly on the economy and whether or not Americans are in a more hopeful and optimistic mood a year and a half from now.  Still, I would not be surprised if the Bin Laden killing is seen as a focal point in shaping the Obama Presidency.   In a real sense Obama has retaken control of the capacity define his own Presidency and not have it be trapped by competing political narratives.   The young President new on the job and perhaps overly cautious now appears Presidential and a real leader.

To parlay this into longer term political success and a second term he has to expand that leadership to the economic realm and show results there as well.   And, as hard as it was to get Bin Laden, the task of turning around an economy is far more complex and subject to unexpected difficulties.  Still, last week was a very good week for President Obama.

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The End of the Osama Bin Laden Era?

In my Comparative Politics class Tuesday we had assigned readings covering terrorism and Islamic extremism as a revolutionary force.  I joked to the class that when I made the syllabus last December I purposefully put these readings for our first class meeting after Bin Laden’s killing.   The chapter about Islam as a revolutionary force (Sheri Berman, Islamism, Revolution and Civil Society) focuses on countries like Egypt, still stable when the article was written.  The chapter on terrorism (Martha Crenshaw, The Causes of Terrorism) nicely set up a discussion of Bin Laden’s death and what it means.   That made for a lively class discussion!

I think that Osama Bin Laden’s death symbolizes an end of an era.   For a decade Bin Laden has been the public face of Islam for many Americans, arousing fear, anger and antipathy.   Visions of Islam defeating the West or sharia law spreading to places like Oklahoma created almost surreal bouts of fear and distrust.   That is starting to fade away.

Since 9-11 al qaeda has had a meager record.  Unable to score any spectacular attacks in recent years, their message no longer resonates in the Arab world.   The youth today are less prone to be swayed by the rhetoric Bin Laden used in the 90s.   They are more in tune with the rest of the world as the information revolution and globalization make it harder to maintain isolation.

In the 90s this was part of the problem.  The encroachment of Western ideas into traditional Muslim communities was a threat, raising fears about losing identity and traditions to a godless, souless West, addicted to oil and willing to arm corrupt tyrannies.    It was this first phase of globalization that both Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) and Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) sounded alarms about.   This phase emboldened Bin Laden as it was easy to stir up fear of the West and especially the US.

But now in 2011 we’re seeing generational change, as the youth are more immersed in modern culture and thus less enamored with the puritanical teachings of al qaeda or the Taliban.   Few want to go back to 622 AD.   Even those who dislike western foreign policy don’t believe it’s feasible or desirable to fight a war with the West.  The focus now is overturning tyrannies and taking care of their own political destinies.

It’s true that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a history of extremist rhetoric and a diverse membership, could be in a position to dominate new governments once the dictators leave.    But there is little reason to expect them to fundamentally threaten the West.    If they are too reactionary, they’ll likely face a backlash from their own people — a people who now understand that they can pressure governments and force change.    Most of them also reject al qaeda’s agenda or an all out war with the West.   To be sure, this will pressure Israel, but Wikileaks documents have revealed that even Hamas is more willing to work with the Jewish state than their public bravado indicates.

With Bin Laden’s death he no longer symbolizes the Arab or Muslim worlds.  In the US the perception of Muslims has already improved thanks to the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.    In the Arab world the so-called “Arab Spring” has displaced anger at America as the most visible political force.   NATO is bombing Libya, another Muslim country, though this time it is in support of a home grown revolution.

Given all of this, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the death of Osama Bin Laden is also the symbolic death of the danger and threat of Islamic extremism.   Not that there is no more terror threat — terrorism is possible any time a hand full of angry people can pull off some kind of deadly violent act.    Extremist elements in the Muslim world will remain active for some time.   But unless we over-react, the threat is dwindling.  Islam will still be a force in politics, but not a violent force bent on confronting the West.

Now the Taliban will be under more pressure to moderate their positions, break with al qaeda completely, and be part of a solution in Afghanistan.   Bin Laden’s death helps those elements in the Taliban willing to compromise and share power.  In other countries political Islam will look inward and focus on reforming their societies, perhaps more fully exploring the meaning of Islam in a modern world.   We may not like the path it takes sometimes, and progress may be excruciatingly slow, but it need not be something to fear.

It is the end of the Bin Laden era.   Fear of Islam will diminish in the West, and we will avert the clash of civilization that Bin Laden so hoped to spark.   This isn’t because the US killed Bin Laden — al qaeda’s been losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Arab world for years, and fear of Islam has been on the wane in the US — but his death is symbolically important.   It’s been a rough ten years; time to move on to something better!

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