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.
(RELATED: Officials Reflect on the bin Laden Hunt)
“We changed this terminology back in 2009. But we absolutely have never said our war against al-Qaida is over,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mail. “We are prosecuting that war at an unprecedented pace, as is clear from the fact that key AQ figures (like Bin Laden) are no longer on the battlefield.”
Cal Thomas, who possesses nothing like Reuel Marc Gerecht’s expertise in this area, nonetheless condemned as “preposterous” Gerecht’s conclusion that the Arab world may have to make its way toward democracy and modernity through Islamism. Writing with that unerring sense of certainty that once led George W. Bush into an unrelated war in Iraq, Thomas said that “Gerecht's kind of thinking is beyond self-delusional. It is suicidal. … It is like saying the route to women's rights is through patriarchy. War is peace. George Orwell lives! Radical Islamists have made it perfectly clear they have no interest in joining the democratic process. They are at war. They are at war with the West.”
True, a deep skepticism is in order when it comes to the longer-term program of radical Islamist groups. But the fact is that many of them are coming to accept that their dreams of caliphates and sharia may have to be compromised, even in the long run. Even unreconstructed jihadists in the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Khairat el-Shater, the group’s strategist, have said they want to bring Egypt into the world economy, and to do that they will have to drop their more medieval aims. In early April, Shater and other “Brothers” played convivial hosts to Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chairman of the House Rules Committee, and other visiting lawmakers. “They all go out of their way to say what we want to hear,” said one official who was part of the U.S. delegation. “They are going to fully protect women’s rights, minority rights, the constitutional assembly. They all made great pains to emphasize, without being asked--Shater included—that they will respect all international agreements.”
Those agreements include, apparently, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, hitherto anathema to Islamists. Whether the Islamists will stick to these pledges once they take power is another matter. According to Richard Bulliet, a scholar of modern Arab history at Columbia University, the worst blow that the Arab Spring delivered to radical Islamism was a profound lesson in what works and what doesn’t. “If people see that assassinating Anwar Sadat changed nothing, but peacefully demonstrating changed everything, then why should anyone support jihadists any more?”
Judith Miller, the former New York Times Mideast correspondent who has become identified with the more conservative (and skeptical) view of Islamist intentions in the region (though she described herself in an e-mail as a “staunch political independent, not a conservative or a neo-con or a member of any other kind of political tribe”), wrote in a post on Friday that “of course Washington must engage Islamists if the MB and other so-called moderate Islamists win legitimate elections, agree to abide by their international treaty commitments, (which Hamas and Hezbollah do not, and hence, remain on Obama’s terror list), observe democratic principles (ie. agree to leave power if voted out) and don’t endorse the use of violence against minorities (ie. Christians) and those who oppose their views. Tunisia’s Ennada [party] seems to represent that kind of positive evolving Islamist force, but we shall see. It’s early.”
Yes, it is early. Nonetheless, there is a sense that we can begin to see the beginning of the end, or at least (as Churchill said) perhaps the end of the beginning. Washington is pursuing a sounder strategy than it did a few years ago. Based on captured computers and documents, we know that bin Laden always wanted an adversary who would give him more allies than he actually had in the Islamic world. He got such an adversary in George W. Bush. We know that al-Qaida’s goal on 9/11 was to draw America into a long and draining conflict and to “bleed” and “bankrupt” our country--bin Laden’s own words--by pitting us against the broader Islamist world. When Bush invaded Iraq, bin Laden’s hopes were realized.
Obama’s reorientation of strategy was simply an acknowledgement that there was really only one Islamist group that attacked the United States directly: al-Qaida. As I wrote back during the 2008 campaign, urging then-candidate Obama to abandon the GWOT: “Bush has gradually expanded his definition of the war on terror to include all Islamic 'extremists'—among them Hezbollah, Hamas, and other radical political groups that have no ties to al-Qaida, ideological or otherwise. In doing so the president has plainly condemned us to a permanent war, for the simple reason that we will never be rid of all the terrorists. It is also a war that we will wage by ourselves, since no other nation agrees on such a broadly defined enemy. As Princeton scholar G. John Ikenberry has written, ‘It is perhaps a paradox—and one that is fitting for the strangeness of our current age—that we will need to end the war against terrorism because we cannot end terrorism.'"
In the end this is just what Obama did (though not on my advice of course). And now we are indeed in a new world. One that Osama bin Laden, had he not been taken off the field a year ago, would not recognize.