Osama bin Laden is dead, but America must still face the stark political reality that the fragile status quo in the Middle East and Northern Africa — a status quo that confronted the threat from al-Qaeda and maintained a semblance of stability in the region — has cracked. A real possibility exists that we will be forced to confront, contain, and ultimately defeat radicalism and al-Qaeda alone, or at least with far fewer allies in the region than we had before.
This is a troubling proposition for our national security, our economy, and our businesses, and it comes at a particularly sensitive time. Will the new governments in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia be our allies, neutral, or facilitators of the threats we face? What will be the outcome of the violence in Libya and Syria? The uncertainty in these countries poses an opportunity and a risk for both America and its enemies.
Much of the attention in confronting al-Qaeda has been focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The military and political efforts have largely contained the core of al-Qaeda in these areas and limited its ability to threaten other parts of the world. At the same time, however, al-Qaeda franchises have sprung up on the Arabian Peninsula and in the Maghreb region of Northern Africa.
To combat the franchise threat, we solidified relationships with Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. As the threat environment expanded to include the Islamic Maghreb, we enhanced relationships with long-time friends such as Morocco and Tunisia. More recently, we established relationships with former nemeses such as Algeria and, yes, even Moammar Qaddafi in Libya. It was decided that stronger bilateral relationships were in both sides’ security interests. We overlooked anti-democratic policies and human-rights abuses in many of these countries. The common bond was the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and it led us to work together to confront al-Qaeda and violent extremism.
It worked. I remember meeting with Qaddafi on three different occasions in the last eight years, when he outlined in detail Libya’s activities to combat radicalism. I heard similar statements in my meetings with leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and other countries. For example, Yemen was cooperating to combat the likes of Anwar Awlaki and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps the al-Qaeda franchise most focused on attacking the U.S. homeland, and the originating point for the Christmas Day airplane-bombing plot. Bottom line, America had a strategy for its national security that involved maintaining stability and security throughout the region.
The operative word was “security”; other issues would take a back seat. It was a strategy followed and implemented for years by both Republican and Democratic administrations. That strategy is now shattered. Governments in Tunisia and Egypt have been overthrown — with almost tacit U.S. support. What will happen in Yemen, Libya, and Syria is uncertain, but the point of no return may have passed. Is it now in our best interests that these regimes also be replaced?
The death of bin Laden provides a unique opportunity for the Obama administration to articulate a new national-security strategy for the Middle East. The threats to our security remain certain, but the nature of the governments that will emerge from the rubble in the region is anything but. After the massive upheaval in the region, will the United States again have an effective national-security strategy that involves key allies there, or will we face the chilling proposition of having to go it alone? It will be a long time of uncertainty for America’s economy and business interests before we get an answer to this question. We should all hope that the Obama administration will be successful in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again in a way that reflects our interests. Otherwise, we risk watching the Arab Spring become America’s winter of discontent.
— Pete Hoekstra, a former Michigan congressman, served as chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now president of Hoekstra Global Services, a national-security consulting firm.