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January 11, 2014



good idea

Slim Forte


Eric Chen

Professor Nacos: "What we do know is this: Today Al Qaeda Central’s self-proclaimed affiliates and, more importantly, independent groups with bin Ladenism as their guiding ideology are stronger and control more real estate in the Middle East and parts of Africa than ever before."

This result was predictable with President Obama's feckless foreign policy.

In the modern era, we've basically only had 3 basic choices in the Middle East: autocrats, Islamists, and liberals.

Moved by 9/11, President Bush actively supported liberals on the ground as the 3rd-way antidote to the autocrats and Islamists. But Obama withdrew Bush's active support for liberals on the ground just when we most needed the liberals to gain control in the Arab Spring. Yet Obama also exerted US pressure to oppose regional autocrats in the Arab Spring, even ones without pretextual conflicts with the US, in contrast to the festering direct and active conflict between the US and Saddam that was resolved under Bush.

The predictable consequence of Obama's egregious choices was helping to clear the field for the Islamists.

For more, here's a third relevant excerpt from my blog in 2012, http://learning-curve.blogspot.com/2012/09/our-middle-east-choices-autocrats.html :

The contest for dominance in the Middle East is a 3-way contest between autocrats, Islamists, and liberals. We want the liberals to be dominant. However, due to urgent political economic needs, we historically worked with the autocrats in power, who at least participated in the conventional nation-state system. The autocrats checked (repressed) both populist threats, Islamists and liberals, to the autocrats' dominance.

Political scientists from the 'realist' school that guided our foreign policy during the Cold War believe that liberal dominance in the Middle East is an unrealistic option. Therefore, they believe the realistic option in the Middle East is working with autocrats who will repress Islamists, even if the cost is sacrificing the liberals who are most compatible with us.

In the Arab Spring at Step One, we used the various tools of our superior power in the nation-state system to defeat the autocrats on behalf of the liberals. However, removing the autocrats' check on the liberals also removed the autocrats' check on the Islamists. The Islamists are less affected and influenced than the autocrats by our conventional power, so we need the liberals to check the Islamists at Step Two. But in the post-autocrat populist contest, the Islamists are far more powerful than the liberals. The liberals need sufficient smart assistance from the liberal West in order to have a feasible chance (note: not a guarantee) of winning dominance over the Islamists.

The best example of sufficient smart assistance to liberals competing with Islamists in the Middle East is the Bush-era Counter-Insurgency 'Surge' in Iraq. President Bush understood the dynamics of our 3 choices in the Middle East when he championed liberals in the Middle East with the Freedom Agenda, but President Obama ended the Freedom Agenda and decided to implement a more 'realist' foreign policy. Obama's change in course, though popular with opponents of Bush's foreign policy, rendered the West ill-prepared to assist the liberals in Step Two of the Arab Spring.

In short, when it came time to put up or shut up on behalf of liberals in Iraq, Bush put up. If we want - need - the liberals to defeat the Islamists and achieve dominance of the Middle East, then Obama and the West need to put up in Libya and the rest of the Arab Spring.

Eric Chen

Professor Nacos,

I'll make one response to your post (for now), in addition to the excerpts from my blog.

Professor Nacos said:

"When President Obama announced the result of the Special Operation Forces’ mission, many Americans hoped that the death of bin Laden would be the final nail in the coffin of an Al Qaeda organization already hard hit by relentless American counterterrorism efforts.

That was a rather reasonable expectation since one result of a terrorist organization’s decapitation can be its disintegration."

This reminds me of your point about the "bitter lesson" in the Boston Marathon bombing regarding the link between Chechen unrest and Islamic terrorism, when that link was already known and shouldn't have been a lesson in the first place.

I'll allow that the belief that killing bin Laden meant we won the War on Terror may be a "reasonable expectation" for the man on the street who has only a lay understanding.

But that belief has not been a reasonable expectation since the mid-2000s at the latest for any national-security academic or government official.

How do I know this?

Because I was a Columbia poli-sci major in the 2000s. There, I learned the Bush administration's counter-terrorism campaign responding to 9/11 had systematically broken down the al Qaeda organization as it had existed on 9/11.

In other words, years before we killed him, Osama bin Laden had already been greatly reduced - if not eliminated - as the practical 'boss' of Islamic terrorism.

We knew from the start, even long before 9/11, that reducing one terrorist leader's efficacy didn't mean the Islamic terror problem was solved. I was taught at Columbia that the Islamic terror phenomenon does not originate and is not contained within the al Qaeda organization responsible for 9/11.

As such, narrowly judging our counter-terrorism by whether bin Laden was killed/captured or terrorist attacks by their corporate paper trail to bin Laden was, at best, a misleading and unhelpful standard. Unfortunately, partisan hacks cynically propagated that misunderstanding to the public in order to undermine the Bush administration.

As Bush counter-terrorism officials understood from the start, neutralizing - even killing - bin Laden was necessary, but not sufficient.

Fighting Islamic terrorism properly is like battling an aggressive cancer with radiation and chemo-therapy. It's not enough merely to cut out the visible tumors and alleviate the most pressing symptoms.

Fighting cancer requires comprehensive treatment to grind down the cancer throughout the body *and* rebuilding the body so that the cancer can be overpowered by the body's immune system. Cancer is resilient and most likely won't be eradicated, but it may be controlled sufficiently for the body to normalize.

Under the Bush administration, we undertook a comprehensive liberal treatment plan that could reduce the Islamic terror cancer while also changing the social and political conditions that fostered the Islamic terror phenomenon that caused 9/11 in the 1st place.

But Bush was vilified for it, including by you on your blog.

Then, disastrously, Obama changed course from Bush's comprehensive liberal counter-terrorist strategy. Obama chose to retain the less visible but more destructive* aspects of counter-terrorism while eliminating the more visible constructive parts.

[* I say 'destructive' descriptively, for lack of a better word, not pejoratively.']

Due to Obama's historic error, when the constructive liberal parts of Bush's counter-terrorist strategy were needed for the Arab Spring, they were not available to us.

The need for the liberalizing aspects that Bush put in place but Obama stopped can be summed in the conclusion of Marc Sagemen's 2004 essay, "Understanding Terror Networks"
http://www.fpri.org/enotes/20041101.middleeast.sageman.understandingterrornetworks.html :

"So in 2004, Al Qaeda has new leadership. In a way today’s operatives are far more aggressive and senseless than the earlier leaders. The whole network is held together by the vision of creating the Salafi state. A fuzzy, idea-based network really requires an idea-based solution. The war of ideas is very important and this is one we haven’t really started to engage yet."

An idea-based solution, the war of ideas - drone and SEAL Team 6 killings won't accomplish that end. Winning the war of ideas was what a pluralistic liberalized Iraq the model and the Bush Freedom Agenda were for.

Bush tried to set us up to win the War on Terror with liberal principles, but Obama and his cohort screwed that up.

Eric Chen

Second relevant excerpt, from http://learning-curve.blogspot.com/2013/03/10-year-anniversary-of-start-of.html :

In response to 9/11, the US could have pulled back from the Middle East, supported greater repression in the Middle East, or promoted greater freedom in the Middle East.

President Bush also could have reacted to 9/11 with a narrow focus on hunting down and killing terrorists, like President Obama's drone-centered campaign. (Bush used hunter-killer drone killings, too, but as one tool in the toolbox, not the centerpiece of his counter-terror strategy.) However, President Bush understood punishment and revenge did not amount to a big-picture, long-term solution.

Instead, the centerpiece of President Bush's big-picture, long-term response to 9/11 was revitalizing the American grand promise that animated the "free world" after World War 2. When he officially declared America's entry into the War on Terror on September 20, 2001, President Bush announced a liberal vision on a global scope and warned of a generational endeavor:

"Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. . . . But the only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows. . . . This is not, however, just America's fight. And what is at stake is not just America's freedom. This is the world's fight. This is civilization's fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom. . . . As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world."

President Bush's liberal view of the American response to the 9/11 attacks aligned with President Clinton's liberal view of the American response to Saddam's noncompliance:

"In the century we're leaving, America has often made the difference between chaos and community; fear and hope. Now, in a new century, we'll have a remarkable opportunity to shape a future more peaceful than the past -- but only if we stand strong against the enemies of peace. Tonight, the United States is doing just that."

President Bush understood the obstacles and the ambitious scale of the aspiration. He recognized that a patiently assisted, controlled transition would be necessary for liberal reform to succeed in the Middle East:

"For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability, and much oppression. So I have changed this policy. In the short-term, we will work with every government in the Middle East dedicated to destroying the terrorist networks. In the longer-term, we will expect a higher standard of reform and democracy from our friends in the region. Democracy and reform will make those nations stronger and more stable, and make the world more secure by undermining terrorism at it source. Democratic institutions in the Middle East will not grow overnight; in America, they grew over generations. Yet the nations of the Middle East will find, as we have found, the only path to true progress is the path of freedom and justice and democracy."

I observed in a January 2005 post:

"Whether or not George W. Bush is doing a good job of the Presidency, I have to respect his decision in the War on Terror to make a try for it - [Francis Fukuyama's] the End of History. It is revolutionary and will either result in America's finest hour or the beginning of the end."

President Bush positioned America to provide assistance for liberal reform, but he couldn't achieve his idealistic liberal vision alone. American liberals needed to become magnificent again and rally around Bush as he advanced the Freedom Agenda along with peace operations in Iraq to spark and empower a pluralistic liberal movement in the Middle East. Liberals over here needed to buy in to Bush's goals in order to convince liberals over there to buy in. They could not fairly be expected to trust the liberal intentions of the American president when American liberals refused to trust him, and worse, discredited and actively worked to undermine his agenda. Much of the anti-American propaganda in the Middle East was drawn from anti-Bush and anti-OIF misinformation legitimized by liberals in the West. Outside of Iraq, a few Middle East liberals recognized the lost opportunity of rejecting America's help, but most of them didn't trust Bush. Instead, when the liberals in the region attempted the "Arab Spring" revolution on their own, the result was predictable.

President Bush gave us the opportunity to reaffirm that 'we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, & our sacred Honor' in order to battle the regressive challenge to our hegemony and make the world a better place. Instead, Bush's detractors used the opportunity to attack Bush with a false narrative in order to advance their own parochial partisan self-interests at the expense of the Iraq mission, our national interest, and a progressive world order.

Our peace operators - military, non-military, and contracted civilian - have been magnificent. But the rest of us shrank from President Bush's idealistic liberal vision. We the people let down our President, we let down our American heritage, and we let down the world. Rather than rise to the challenge of 9/11 with America's finest hour, we chose the beginning of the end.


Misinformation and mischaracterization have distorted the popular perception of the context, stakes, and achievements of Operation Iraqi Freedom with compounding harmful effects. They have obscured the strict enforcement mission with Saddam's Iraq that President Bush carried forward from President Clinton and the ground-breaking peace operations by the US military in post-Saddam Iraq, thus undermining the enforcement of international norms and obstructing the further development and application of peace operations.

The distorted public perception of the Iraq mission has led to poor policy decisions by the Obama administration in the Arab Spring, most notably regarding Libya and Syria. Where President Bush positioned America after 9/11 to lead vigorously from the front as the liberal internationalist "leader of the free world", President Obama has reduced America to 'leading from behind' with predictable consequences. Bush gave Obama a hard-earned winning hand in Iraq, yet the Obama administration bungled the SOFA negotiation at a critical turning point. The premature exit from Iraq has cast doubt on the future of Iraq's development and caused the loss of a difference-making regional strategic partnership.

Eric Chen

Professor Nacos,

I'm sure you can guess based our on our past discussions on this blog how I feel about these developments. I could say a lot more; I might do so later.

For now, I'll copy 2 relevant excerpts from my blog into the comments.

From http://learning-curve.blogspot.com/2014/01/infuriating.html :

The feared consequence of the Obama administration's weakness in the Arab Spring, abandonment of President Bush's Freedom Agenda, and bungling of the SOFA negotiation causing our irresponsible exit from Iraq is becoming real.

The enemy defeated by the Counterinsurgency "surge" in Iraq has resurged in the collapse of the Arab Spring, especially the Syrian war, and the gaps left by President Obama's diminishment of American leadership in the region.

Like our regional partners in Asia and Europe where US soldiers still serve, COIN-saved Iraq with American partnership *should have been* the cornerstone of regional reform. President Obama, 19May11:

"Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security. Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner."

The Arab Spring *should have been* the decisive point where strong American leadership characterized by the Bush Freedom Agenda, and Iraq the model, seized the historical moment.

President Obama *should have* stayed the course he inherited from President Bush as President Eisenhower stayed the course he inherited from Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

Instead, the utter squandering of the hard-won promising, but still-tenuous, gains that President Obama inherited from the Bush administration and the fecklessness of the Obama administration's foreign affairs at a critical turning point in world affairs have brought on a predictable, evitable disaster.

Moved by 9/11, President Bush wore the mantle of American leadership of the free world and set us on a liberal course to compete for the shape of our children's world. America's self-labeled liberals *should have* stood strong with President Bush. Instead, he was vilified by then-Senator Obama and his cohort.

Because of their betrayal, we have moved a long, long way from President Kennedy's pledge (1961), "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty," and President Clinton's counsel (1998) that “In the century we're leaving, America has often made the difference between chaos and community; fear and hope. Now, in a new century, we'll have a remarkable opportunity to shape a future more peaceful than the past -- but only if we stand strong against the enemies of peace."

From 'Robert Gates, former defense secretary, offers harsh critique of Obama’s leadership in ‘Duty’', by Bob Woodward, in the Washington Post:

"Gates offers a catalogue of various meetings, based in part on notes that he and his aides made at the time, including an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he calls “remarkable.”

He writes: “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”"

On these admissions alone of rank self-interest and parochial partisanship trumping the grave stakes in Iraq, Secretary Clinton and President Obama should be pilloried and disqualified from Commander in Chief.

President Bush handed to President Obama a history-changing winning hand in Iraq, earned with dear cost, and a progressing liberal strategy to win the War on Terror, and President Obama threw them away. Bush honored the commitment of his predecessors to American leadership of the free world. Obama has dishonored it and them - and us - and opened the way for the illiberal enemy.

It's enough to push this Generation-X JFK liberal to give up in disgust.

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