By Matthew Reed
October 25, 2009
By Matthew Reed
October 25, 2009
America’s future in the Middle East depends on U.S. priorities in the short and long term. The immediate future requires engagement to ensure resource security and the resolution of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, if Washington seeks national security in the long term, America’s future depends on how quickly it can disengage from the region, pursue energy independence, and destroy groups like al Qaeda. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is right when he argues al Qaeda remains the greatest threat to American security. For this reason, we should reconsider the nature of the threat and the danger of further commitments in the Middle East.
Washington must look beyond current crises in Afghanistan and Iraq and remember that al Qaeda is an organization built on popularity. They cannot tax their membership to generate a war chest, or draft an army like an Arab government might. Instead, they thrive entirely on the relevance of their agenda, donations, and volunteers.
What keeps them relevant today, even if al Qaeda does not enjoy the same popularity it did five years ago? The answer is shockingly simple: When al Qaeda and other terrorist groups call Muslims to war, they highlight American policies many find offensive. Therefore, American policies in the Middle East must change course and deny a status quo that translates Muslim grievances into acts of terrorism.
Consider these facts about American foreign policy and how al Qaeda has taken advantage of it for their gain.
Fact: The U.S. champions freedom, democracy, and human rights abroad; meanwhile it supports Saudi monarchs and Egyptian autocrats that abuse these same traditions. Bin Laden charges that the United States manipulates Arab Muslim leaders because these regimes enjoy billions in U.S. aid—the next logical step for Arab critics is to assume they are American agents, guaranteeing influence and corrupted by a robust payroll. Such hypocrisy reinforces Arab suspicions.
Lesson: When America befriends dictators, its foreign policy is contradictory.
Fact: The United States has maintained thousands of troops in greater Arabia since 1990, with or without conflict. Al Qaeda thus claims the U.S. occupies the Holy Land. Americans should understand that the entire Arabian Peninsula is holy to Muslims because it is the first land consecrated under Islam. When 100,000 troops are stationed in Iraq, the United States runs the risk of offending Muslims and bolstering al Qaeda’s cause. Unfortunately, it is too late to criticize the Iraq invasion and the cost of occupation is now evident.
Lesson: American troops in Arabia make the homeland less safe.
Fact: Most recently, American peace overtures in the Holy Land have been muted by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s expansion of new settlements on Palestinian land. Arabs await a substantial American response. Al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri contend that the United States facilitates Muslim suffering by unconditionally supporting Israel, its occupation, and settlement policies. While this accusation made more sense under the last administration, when President Bush held back criticism against expanding settlements, it still has traction today. President Obama has brought balance to the conflict, but it is still too early for Arab Muslims to be hopeful.
Lesson: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires even-handedness and a willingness to criticize allies.
New policies are needed that address the true nature of the enemy and recognize the lessons listed above: U.S. leadership must challenge allies whose policies reflect poorly on them; they must withdraw American troops from Iraq and Arabia; and they must prove to the Arab world that Americans favor peace above one party. Due to peacemaking missions and oil security interests, substantial policy shifts are unrealistic in the short-term.
The long-term goal of the United States should be military withdrawal and domestic energy independence that effectively removes the stigma of Uncle Sam and his big American footprint in the region. Right now Americans are still exposed because all the rhetorical pieces remain in place for the recruitment of terrorists dedicated to 9/11-style attacks. Resolving these issues will not restore the invincibility enjoyed by the United States on September 10, 2001, but it will make recruiting the next generation of hijackers infinitely more difficult. By destroying the enemies’ platform and removing the U.S. from the equation, all will be safer.
Americans must realize that political grievances are the impetus for al Qaeda’s campaign rather than an unsophisticated hatred of freedom or Christian tradition. Flawed policies in the Middle East reinforce general opposition and provide a moral platform of resistance for jihadists still seeking to kill Americans eight years after 9/11. Several failed terror plots, including one last month in New York, prove the enemy is dangerous and its ideology still resonates. Washington must launch a long-term plan to silence them.
This article is a revised version of the article published on October 25, 2009.