Al Qaeda and Iran are cheering on the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, so why does the Obama administration think the Islamic extremists are losing?
On Tuesday at a Pentagon press briefing, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates claimed, “The protests elsewhere that are leading to reforms for a number of governments are an extraordinary setback for al Qaeda.” He reasons that the transitions of power contradict “al Qaeda’s claim that the only way to get rid of authoritarian governments is through extremist violence.” Supposedly, the Islamic regime in Iran is facing a setback because the professional conduct of the armies in Tunisia and Egypt “contrast vividly with the savage repression that the Iranians have taken against anyone who dares to demonstrate in their country.”
It’s strange the Defense Department would think a destabilized Middle East is not in the interest of two of the primary actors who have been attempting for years to create just this kind of instability. Al Qaeda’s Islamist message has focused on violence because the regimes they’ve been seeking to overthrow - most importantly the Saudi monarchy - have been too strong to undermine in any other way. That these regimes are suddenly facing varying degrees of public protest does not work against al Qaeda’s radical “hope and change” agenda, but rather brings it that much closer to being realized.
The Obama administration mistakenly fixates on the “violent” aspect of violent Islamic extremism as though the terrorists consider violence an end in itself. However, the terrorists don’t want to remain terrorists; they want to assume power. Osama bin Laden said it would be preferable if everyone who opposes him, especially the Americans, would simply convert to Islam so that differences could be worked out peaceably under a Muslim-to-Muslim framework. Mr. Gates’ comment raises the question whether he understands that terrorism is simply a means to an end, and that opportunistic extremists will utilize whatever tools are available. Chaos is an extremist’s best friend.
Another question is whether the Obama administration opposes Islamic extremism per se, or only that which is violent. The instability in the Middle East is presenting unprecedented opportunities for radical Muslim groups to pursue their political objectives. The radical Muslim Brotherhood has gained increased traction in Egypt, encouraged by Obama administration statements that seem to endorse - and perhaps require - their participation in the new Egyptian government. In Tunisia, the previously banned radical Ennahda, or Awakening movement, has been legalized and its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, returned from exile. Al Qaeda has declared an emirate in Libya, and in other countries radical groups are energized. None of this favors American interests.
Iran is also a big winner in the region. As Sunni Arab countries become less stable and weaker, the mullahs grow relatively stronger. Iranian agents of influence and proxy groups, particularly in Bahrain and Yemen, are fanning the flames of turmoil. That Saudi Arabia thought it necessary to send tanks to Shiite-majority Bahrain to help keep order shows the seriousness of the situation. The House of Saud understands that one of Tehran’s most cherished long-term goals is to gain control of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Iran also is becoming more assertive in areas in which it already has substantial influence, such as Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. That Iran was emboldened enough to send two warships through the Suez Canal - the first time since the Shah ruled in Tehran - should give Mr. Gates pause before putting Iran in the “loser state” category.
It’s far too early in the game for the Obama administration to begin patting itself on the back about its handling of the Middle East turmoil. Contrary to Mr. Obama’s claims, he is not on the right side of history. As U.S.-friendly regimes fall and oil prices continue to climb, it’s no wonder that commentators are calling this Jimmy Carter’s second term.