The United States is winning the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, Islamic extremists are winning the peace. A CBS News poll released last week revealed that just as many Americans think the United States and its allies are winning the war against terrorism as think the terrorists are winning - 42 percent in both cases.
It is hard to see how the coalition could be losing. Al Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups are mere shadows of what they were 10 years ago. The United States has maintained the initiative and kept the bad guys on the run. Where they used to have a global network to raise money, recruit, train and deploy terrorists on deadly missions against western interests, now their network is in ruins and they have to spend most of their time worrying about how to stay alive. The death of Osama bin Laden demonstrated that even their most important leaders are not safe from American justice.
One old expression has it that so long as the insurgent is surviving he is winning. By that logic the only way to win a war against terrorism is to defeat it everywhere, for all time, which is impossible. Terrorism is a weapon used by extremists who seek change through violence. These types of people will always be with us, in one form or another, and we must always be on guard against them. From the terrorists’ point of view, victory means one thing, achieving power. It does not mean a lifetime hunkered down in basements and caves wondering when the fatal missile strike will come.
While the struggle against violent Islamic terrorists is going very well, the Obama administration does not even seem to recognize the growing threat from nonviolent Islamic extremism. To the contrary, it has hailed the rise of groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as something of a virtue, and is planning for their participation in future governments in Cairo. Other Islamist groups are maneuvering for power in Tunisia and Libya, and al Qaeda operatives raised their flag briefly over a Benghazi courthouse.
The White House thought it was making a profound point when it claimed that the relatively nonviolent overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt discredited the al Qaeda model of violent change. Current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, himself an Egyptian, quickly corrected this critical misunderstanding, saying that from al Qaeda’s point of view it did not matter whether an Islamist victory came through violence or not. The only important thing was the end state, the imposition of hardline Shariah-based laws and policies.
The Obama administration believes it is perfectly acceptable for post-Arab Spring countries to reorganize on strict Koranic lines, provided they did so through peaceable means. Perhaps the national security staff is unaware that all dictatorships would prefer to gain power that way if they could, rather than through using violence. The operative model is the 1979 Iranian revolution, which initially was not strictly Islamic in character, but was co-opted by Muslim extremists led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian experience illustrated another point the White House needs to understand, which is that extremism is never actually nonviolent, because once in power the radicals proceed to commit horrific acts of terror on their own people to maintain their grip.
Thus while the United States may one day defeat Islamic terrorism, it is not lifting a finger to contest other forms of Muslim extremism. America could wind up declaring victory over terrorism in a Middle East that has reshaped itself in al Qaeda’s image.