We are at War – Others May Not Be

Now that President Obama has acknowledged that the United States is, indeed, at war, the relevant questions are, “against whom and with what allies?”

Now that President Obama has acknowledged that the United States is, indeed, at war, the relevant questions are, “against whom and with what allies?”

Mr. Obama said, “We are at war with al Qaeda.” Our allies include our Western-thinking coalition partners, of course. But our allies are also supposed to be the governments of countries in which al Qaeda has rooted itself. Those governments are supposed to see the problem of radical Islam the way we do and are supposed to want it gone the way we do. Both the President and Gen. Petraeus said in interviews last week that we only plan to “assist” the Yemeni government in ousting al Qaeda itself. But what if the government of Yemen or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Somalia decides they have to live with al Qaeda permutations for the long term while the United States will soon be leaving? What if they think they ultimately have more in common with local al Qaeda offshoots than with us? What if they are more comfortable with tribal loyalties and radical Islamic thought than they are with secular, Western democratic norms? Then they will not be very good allies.

It is already clear that all four governments (and others, including Lebanon) have mixed views about what we call Islamic radicalism, and the administration has been public in its criticism of the Pakistani and Afghan governments. The President has gone to great lengths to separate a form of Islam of which he approves from al Qaeda, which he considers a distortion if not a perversion. The distinction may not be so neat.

Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations defy simple definition. They have no bylaws, membership cards, lapel pins or secret handshakes. People can set up their own franchises that may have tighter or looser ties to Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri-or none. Some radical Islamic groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, provide services to people the government cannot, or doesn’t care to reach, making them part of the scenery. Others, including al Qaeda in Iraq, alienate the local population. Groups can be larger or smaller, tighter or looser. They can cooperate for tactical or strategic ends (think Taliban and al Qaeda and where one begins and the other ends) and what they lack in common definition, they make up for in common worldview.

They believe the United States and Israel are the primary enemy, with other Westerners close behind. They believe in the expansion of violent, radical Islam to subjugate their own people, destroy infidels and expand the realm of Sharia law. They are misogynistic and homophobic. They are McCarthyite in their demonization of “the other” and Hitlerite in their propaganda. They undermine weak governments and then thrive in the chaos with money and arms provided by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and others. They react not to what we do, but to their own view of the Islamic future. It is a mistake to believe poverty drives them; they can be and often are personally middle class or even wealthy. It is true that poor people may have fewer resources with which to differentiate propaganda from truth, but many jihadists are worldly, well-traveled and still think it best to seek heaven in bloody tatters.

Certainly not all Muslims share the mindset. Millions have happily integrated the 21st Century and millions would if given the chance. But many people who would never consider blowing themselves up are sympathetic to the principle of Islamic expansionism, many others believe they have legitimate grievances against the West. And many weak governments find it unwise to antagonize them, or don’t want to antagonize them and use their weakness for cover.

As this war continues, and it will, the United States should be careful how much it expects from the governments of Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia and consider how much we are on our own in their countries.