A true cynic would question the timing of the widespread closings of U.S embassies in the Middle East and the concurrent barrage of drone attacks in Yemen, just as the Obama administration is defending its intrusive spying on Americans after exposure by an intelligence agency contractor. Although in May, President Obama told us that he would wind down the war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, perhaps his newly "outed" unconstitutional domestic spying programs required a threat refresher to justify them. Yet, one doesn't even have to be that cynical to question Obama's recently reinvigorated war on terrorism. To Obama's credit, he seems to at least have come up with a theoretical answer to the question that Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush neglected to answer: "Are we creating more enemies than we are killing?" Obama's initial decision to constrain the use of drone attacks was motivated partially by a backlash in Pakistan, Yemen, and throughout the Islamic world, leading to attempts by Pakistani- and Yemeni-based Islamist groups to attack targets in the U.S. homeland.
At the intellectual level, the president seems to realize that U.S. counterterrorism attacks can adversely affect public opinion in Islamic countries and potentially generate lethal blowback. Yet, when a threat -- real or exaggerated -- is uncovered, Obama has quickly responded with a fusillade of drone strikes. Although the administration likes to tout the many senior al Qaeda figures they have killed using drones, senior intelligence officials admit that the recent flurry of attacks in Yemen have killed only three dozen minor actors, such as vehicle drivers for the group.
The Obama administration also justifies the use of drone attacks' by claiming that collateral damage -- the military's bureaucratic euphemism for killing civilians accidentally -- is low, which might be correct if compared to the hundreds of thousands or even millions of Vietnamese that Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon killed by carpet bombing. The problem, however, is the same with civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The U.S. government doesn't understand why Afghans are just as likely to side with the brutal Islamist Taliban as with the United States' instituted Afghan client government. How can a people continue to side with the Taliban regime, which is responsible for over 70 percent of the civilian casualties in that war?
The reason is simple: the Taliban are locals, U.S. forces are foreign occupiers, and the Afghan government is perceived as being American stooges. Foreign occupiers are held to a different standard than local people -- locals get the benefit of the doubt and foreigners don't. In other words, in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan, even a few civilian casualties can generate a lot of anti-U.S. hatred. Even if the U.S kills a high-level al Qaeda operative, war is an evolutionary hothouse in which replacements for assassinated terrorists may be even more ruthless and effective; in war, the strong survive.
The two major problems with the American war on terror in the Middle East remain:
1. The American people, especially in the wake of the painful 9/11 attacks, were not honest with themselves about the causes of Islamist terrorism.
2. The American mentality of policing the world doesn't allow the government to distinguish between those Islamist groups that attacked the United States and those that didn't.
Osama bin Laden and the main trunk of al Qaeda have always been clear about why they attacked the United States -- profligate U.S. intervention in Muslim world, especially the Middle East. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of the massive scale of post-World War II meddling in that region. Many are scared that to be accused of devaluing the lives of innocent Americans victimized by al Qaeda's monstrous attacks. However, acknowledging the subsequent, extensive overreach of U.S military intervention in the Middle East could lead to more responsible policy, which could likely do more to promote American safety from terrorist threats than the Obama administration's current approach.
To demonstrate, a new al Qaeda affiliate is emerging out of the civil war in Syria -- but its leader, Abu Omar, didn't list the United States as a target of the group. Instead, he listed Iran and Russia. Why? Because Iran and Russia have provided significant military assistance to the Assad regime in Syria while the United States, to date, has not. Obama's limited interference in Syria has thus far protected America from an emerging world threat.
Another example of appropriate U.S. military restraint was in reaction to disruptions in Lebanon during the 1980s. After the Islamist group Hezbollah (now fighting with the Assad regime in Syria) blew up the U.S. Marine barracks there in 1983, killing hundreds of Marines, President Ronald Reagan wisely responded by forming a "peacekeeping" mission, ending the U.S' meddlesome activities in the region. Predictably, Hezbollah's attacks on U.S. targets around the world eventually attenuated.
In contrast, unrestrained U.S. interventions have fueled terrorists directly and indirectly. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq began to resist the U.S. occupation, and terrorist incidents spiked worldwide. According to the New York Times, John McLaughlin, a former director of the CIA, noted that terrorists in the region now have the largest areas for safe haven and operational training that they've had in 10 years. Not coincidentally, one of these massive sanctuaries is in southern Libya, a country that the United States and NATO recently destabilized by "liberating" it, through military force, into the hands of a weak government that cannot control its own territory.
Clearly, these historical trends exhibit the danger that newly poised al Qaeda affiliates are posing to American safety, rivaling or even eclipsing the original sects in place before U.S interventions. These militant groups have primarily local interests, and are best left alone if the United States wants to avoid making new enemies or to attenuate existing plotting against U.S. targets. Yet instead, the U.S continues to form "partnerships" with often questionable factions to fight terrorism, many times resulting in the exchange of one extremist government for another. This policy can incite blowback -- Russia, for example, is in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's sites because of its mere provision of military assistance to Assad in Syria.
Unfortunately, until the United States realizes that its informal overseas empire, and the military interventions needed to maintain it, is the primary cause of anti-U.S. terrorism, the excessively grandiose and counterproductive war on terror is likely to continue endlessly. If the Obama administration can reassess and adopt a policy of military restraint, isolating and discreetly neutralizing only groups that primarily target Americans, we will likely find ourselves with less enemies to fight and many less innocent lives to mourn.