Can we at least agree that reports of al-Qaeda’s death have been greatly exaggerated? You’ll recall that Peter Bergen, a director at the New America Foundation and the national-security analyst for CNN, began pronouncing AQ dead last summer. At the Aspen Institute, he even gave a speech titled “Time to Declare Victory: Al Qaeda Is Defeated.” He defended this thesis repeatedly, including in a debate with me on Wolf Blitzer’s show on CNN.
President Obama has not gone quite that far. Prior to the election, in stump speeches round the country, he said al-Qaeda had been “decimated.” And even in his inaugural address this week he claimed that “a decade of war is now ending.” (He also spoke of “peace in our time” — a phrase made infamous by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Is it possible Obama did not know that? Worse, is it possible that he did?)
The evidence that AQ is alive and lethal is abundant. To cite just a few examples: the French ground war in Mali against AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and associated forces, the hostage-taking in Algeria by self-proclaimed jihadists closely linked to AQ, the surge of AQ-connected fighters in Syria, and, of course, the 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi by AQ-affiliated groups.
I do not stress this to disparage anyone. Nor do I intend to pat on the back those of us who have maintained that AQ and other jihadist groups are neither dead nor dying but rather evolving in ways that merit both study and concern. Serious analysts sometimes arrive at wrong conclusions. But serious analysts acknowledge their errors, attempt to determine what data or misassumptions led them astray, and work to reshape their narrative in conformance with reality. Serious analysts are acutely aware that no strategic mistake is more dangerous than telling yourself you are winning when you are not.
Last weekend, I spoke with someone I’ll identify only as a senior American military official. It required no prompting from me for him to express his frustration over top officials in the Obama administration’s continuing to insist that the global conflict is “receding.” Challenging that notion is difficult because within the administration it is forbidden to speak or write openly about the ideology of those fighting us. To do so, the official said, would be “inflammatory,” requiring discussion of the role of fundamentalist Islamic theology. In a sense — the literal sense — what we have here is a religious taboo.
The irony is glaring: American officials can kill our enemies (mostly with drones). They just can’t analyze, criticize, or challenge the beliefs that motivate them. Fighting a kinetic war is permitted, but waging a cognitive war is prohibited. If we are to avoid defeat, we need to be fighting both.
Closely related to the “AQ is dead” thesis is the “Muslim Brotherhood is moderate” thesis. The most recent contradictory evidence: videos of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi three years ago, when he was a leader of the MB, urging parents to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them, for Zionists, for Jews. The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshipping him.” In addition, he called Jews and Israelis “the descendants of apes and pigs.”
Here in Israel, where I’m spending a few days reporting, few people were surprised by those remarks. And, to be fair, vicious and even genocidal Jew-hatred has echoed throughout the Middle East at least since World War II, when Arab lands were barraged by Nazi propaganda (as meticulously documented by historian Jeffrey Herf) — and within secular as much as Islamist regimes. That fact, however, can hardly be reassuring.
Among the reasons for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s (narrow) reelection victory this week: A majority of Israelis have come to the conclusion that at this moment no Palestinian who wields power is willing to negotiate with them, much less make peace with them. That situation will not change as long as so many Arabs and Muslims deny Israelis both their history (Israelis are, unquestionably, living in a part of their ancient homeland) and their humanity (which is what is intended when Morsi talks of “apes and pigs”).
Perhaps you’ll object that Morsi has not broken Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and that he helped broker a ceasefire in the most recent battle between Hamas and Israel. I would respond: Morsi is not stupid. He is not prepared to win a war against Israel today or tomorrow. He is desperately in need of financial aid from the U.S. He is putting his interests ahead of his values — for now.
At the same time, he’s working to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, the factions that rule Gaza and the West Bank respectively, and to create a united Palestinian government. Hamas, of course, is committed to the elimination of Israel — and to the elimination of as many Israelis as possible. Hamas is not planning to moderate that position. On the contrary, it expects Palestinian president and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to more openly support “resistance,” which means the use of terrorism and other violent means to weaken and eventually annihilate Israel. (Abbas recently told a Lebanese television station that before World War II, the Nazis and the Zionists collaborated.)
Can we at least agree that reports of the death of the peace process have not been exaggerated — and that Israelis’ constructing apartment buildings in and around Jerusalem, their capital, is not the reason why?
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.