Is Obama Doing A Better Job Against Terrorists Than Bush?

by Daniel Russ on February 7, 2010

This is a fair question. It also opens up another avenue of questioning: if this turns out to be true, then how is it that terrorists should be combated? Take a look at the terrorism that plagued Egypt and Algeria at the end of the 20th century. Jihadists tried desperately to bank on the win they had in driving the French government out of Algeria in the 1960s. They wanted a second prize, a caliphate established in lieu of the western style democracy that the Algerian government sought. It was not that hard to drive the French out of Algeria to begin with. The French drove themselves out. They tortured dissidents. They clamped down on religiosity. They were so unpopular, that a bomb in the street that killed innocent Algerians was tolerated if it at least killed French invaders with them. The extremists who assassinated Sadat one fateful day during a military parade could not take down the Mubarak government. They were furious that Sadat had signed a peace treaty with their mortal enemy Israel that has worked to this day.

The difference between those Arab countries and the ones we are occupying are plain to see. The jihadists succeed best when they and the mainstream public share a similar enemy. When the US was supplying arms and support to Israel during the wars with Egypt, the terrorist and the mainstream Egyptian street merchant had a common goal and a common enemy: US/Israel. When the US Army marched into Iraq after accusing them of harboring WMDs, WMDs which never materialized even after three hand picked inspection teams, then the jihadists and the mainstream Arabs had a common enemy. Sure innocent Iraqis die when bombs go off in the streets of Baghdad. But during the early stages of the occupation, this was considered a price to pay for killing invaders as well (that would be us).

In fact, every overt military action taken by the US created more terrorists, spread more hatred, inflamed more anti-US feelings. Every air strike that landed on a wedding party to kill and few bad guys made the Arab street hate us even more.

But what happens when western armies downsize? What happens when a new American president promises to close Gitmo, our biggest sin, our worst black eye, our most shameful history. What happens when terrorists slaughter innocent Arabs whose only crimes are following the wrong sect? Or deciding to live as normal a life as possible? This large excerpt from Peter Beinart of Salon tracks the favorability numbers of Osama Bin Laden in recent years, and correlates these numbers to the small, insignificant operations they have been putting together recently. The conclusion one draws is plain to see: it is better to treat terrorism as a crime and oppose it using police forces than a military operation and oppose it using GI Joes. Republicans might prefer the latter, but Obama appears to be getting better results using courts than Jack Bauer.

“Which brings us to Barack Obama’s “war on terror.” Conservatives keep saying that Obama doesn’t really believe we’re at war; that he sees terrorists as mere criminals, not the epic evil-doers that they really are. But here’s the irony: It’s precisely because he doesn’t see the terrorist threat as quite so epic that al Qaeda is falling apart.

To understand why, it helps to understand that al Qaeda is one of the weakest enemies America has ever faced. In their day, the Nazis and communists each ran a great power. (In the case of the communists, two). What’s more, during the Depression, vast numbers of people across the globe—including some of the most famous intellectuals in the United States and Europe—believed the fascists and communists could build societies that were more prosperous and dynamic than their democratic competitors. Barely anyone has ever believed that about al Qaeda. Not only have the jihadists never controlled a powerful country, but no one really believes that if they did it would be anything other than a basket case. To millions of people, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia once offered compelling visions of modernity; Taliban Afghanistan never did.

At the end of the day, all jihadist terrorists can really do is kill. But the more they kill, the more they alienate their fellow Muslims. As the French scholar Gilles Kepel has pointed out, the reason jihadists turned their attention to the United States in the first place was because they utterly failed in the 1990s to overthrow the governments of Algeria and Egypt. They failed because the more people they killed, the more hated they became. And when they lost popular support, they were easily crushed.

In recent years, the dynamic has been playing itself out again. In countries like Pakistan and Jordan, where al Qaeda keeps slaughtering innocent Muslims, its public support has fallen off a cliff. During the Bush years, the only thing that kept al Qaeda from complete ideological collapse was Muslim hatred of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our unblinking support for Muslim dictatorships and for Israel, and our use of torture at places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

Now Obama, by pledging to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and close Gitmo, and by eschewing torture—in other words, by not overreacting to the terrorist threat—is cutting al Qaeda’s throat. Although the U.S. government is still not exactly loved in Muslim nations, it is hated less. Between 2008 and 2009, according to Gallup, approval of U.S. policies rose 23 points in Tunisia, 22 points in Algeria, 19 points in Egypt, 17 points in Saudi Arabia and 13 points in Kuwait. In Indonesia, according to the Pew Research Center, approval of the U.S. rose 26 points. And not coincidentally, al Qaeda’s slide seems to be accelerating. Between 2003 and 2009, according to Pew, support for Osama bin Laden has dropped 34 points in Indonesia, 28 points in Pakistan, 28 points in Jordan, 20 points in the Palestinian territories, 16 points in Lebanon and 13 points in Turkey. In Indonesia and Pakistan, much of the decline has occurred in the last year alone. Bin Laden is having so much trouble demonizing the United States that his last audio tape focused on climate change.

Even the Christmas bombing attack testifies to al Qaeda’s decline. On 9/11, al Qaeda deployed 19 highly trained terrorists in a successful bid to kill thousands of Americans. On 12/25, it deployed one poorly trained terrorist in an unsuccessful bid to kill hundreds. Once upon a time, al Qaeda’s modus operandi was multiple, simultaneous attacks so at least one of them would succeed. Now the organization seems unable to achieve that. As Rand’s Brian Jenkins has put it—echoing many other terrorism experts—-“Al Qaeda is no longer capable of carrying out a big attack. Its capability appears to have been degraded.”

None of this is to say there won’t be future strikes, or that the U.S. government shouldn’t be working diligently to ferret them out. But the key is to ferret them out without committing the kinds of abuses that remind Muslims why they hate the U.S., and which distract them from their hatred of al Qaeda.

The dirty little secret of the “war on terror” is that America is winning. We began winning during George W. Bush’s second term, when al Qaeda’s violence began corroding its support among Muslims, and we’re doing even better under Barack Obama, because the U.S. now presents a less menacing face. The best chance al Qaeda has is another American overreaction of the kind the GOP demands: reckless military attacks by the United States or Israel, mass profiling of Muslims, a return to torture. Perhaps Obama’s Republican critics do take the terrorist threat more seriously than he does. I’d rather take it less seriously, and win.”

Source: Peter Beinart

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