Monday, September 12, 2011

The Truth about Al Qaeda and the Arab Spring

Juan Cole is the most insightful observers of the Middle East. Here is a bit from a post by him on his blog Informed Comment:
Al-Qaeda was grossly over-estimated in the wake of the horrific September 11 attacks. It was a relatively small terrorist group that spent less than half a million dollars on the operation. It should have been dealt with as a police matter, not as the enemy in a trillion-dollar “war” conducted by the Pentagon. It did, however, have a clever over-all strategy and political ideology. It adopted a form of pan-Islamism, a dream of making Islam a basis for a national idea, so that an Islamic superpower could be created, in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be provinces. This superpower would be a dictatorship, and would come into being through the actions of pan-Islamic guerrillas in each country who would violently overthrow the national government. The point of attacking the United States was only that it was seen to stand behind the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and so forth, making them impossible to overthrow.

All the major assumptions of Bin Laden and his associates have fallen by the wayside in the Arab world. First, it has been shown that dictators such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia can be overthrown by peaceful crowd action, emulating Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The cry in Tahrir Square last winter in downtown Cairo was “Silmiya, Silmiya!” — Peacefully, peacefully.


Just as the massive crowds of young demonstrators constrained regime members such as Rashid Ammar (chief of staff in Tunisia), Air Marshall Hussein Tantawi of Egypt, and technocrat Mustafa Abdel Jalil of Libya to defect to the reformers, so the same masses could convince President Barack Obama at length to demand the departure of Mubarak and of Qaddafi. Obviously, Western support can only be hoped for in the case of a likely transition to democratic regimes with moderate policies, such that domestic reform through moderation synchronizes with gaining foreign acquiescence in it.

Bin Laden had imbibed through Egyptian radical theorist Sayyid Qutb the Leninist notion that change requires vanguard fighters (tala’i`). But the masses showed that they do not need seedy vanguards to represent and potentially to hijack their movements. They are perfectly capable of asserting their own agency.


Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, however, saw the attacks as “an opportunity.” They were an opportunity to assert American dominance of the oil fields of the Middle East, and therefore, they reasoned, of the energy future of the entire world, ensuring the predominance of the American superpower throughout the twenty-first century. They thus followed a successful overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan with a disastrous military occupation of that country. They coddled the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. They threw international law into the trash compactor and invaded and occupied Iraq, kicking off a massive insurgency and then a civil war, and leaving the country a political basket case. They left hundreds of thousands dead and some 4 million displaced. In northern Pakistan and then in Yemen and elsewhere, a covert program of drone strikes was carried out lawlessly and with no oversight; because it is done by the CIA and is classified, our elected officials cannot even confirm that it exists, much less conduct a public debate as to its legality, constitutional validity, or wisdom.


Some critics trace the debt and budget crisis to the Bush wars, but in a $14.5 trillion a year economy, the $1 trillion spent on the wars over a decade was not decisive. The real cost of the wars of aggression was a decline in the standing of the US abroad, a gutting of the UN Charter and international legal norms, and a de facto repeal civil liberties at home. The American people, however, are resilient and strong. The American system of government is flexible. If we are supine and abject, our children will not be. Already, federal government intrusion into our lives is being questioned on the right and the left alike. With hard work and a bit of luck, perhaps over the course of a generation, we can get our Bill of Rights back. And if government officials drag their feet too much in returning our inalienable rights to us, the Egyptian and Tunisian youth have already shown the way forward.
Sadly, when Obama took office he had a mandate to reject the Bush policies. He had campaigned against them. But he quietly adopted them as his own. He sponsored his own "surge" in Afghanistan. He increased the drone attacks. He kept the secret prisons and Guantanamo but did tone down the official "torture policy" of the US.

I think the post by Juan Cole should be taken to heart. It is an upbeat message for Americans. It is a clarion call to take back their country by rejecting the Republicans and Obama.

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