Obama’s Decision To Focus On Al Qaeda Matters

In probably the most predictable piece yet written on the subject, Charles Krauthammer declares the death of Osama bin Laden a huge victory and vindication of George W. Bush and the War on Terror. Getting bin Laden, writes Krauthammer, “was made possible precisely by the vast, warlike infrastructure that the Bush administration created post-9/11, a fierce regime of capture and interrogation, of dropped bombs and commando strikes. That regime, of course, followed the more conventional war that brought down the Taliban, scattered and decimated al-Qaeda and made bin Laden a fugitive.”

“Without all of this,” Krauthammer insists, “the bin Laden operation could never have happened.” Amid this shaking of pom-poms, Krauthammer even manages to slip in the singularly most unconvincing defense of the Iraq war in existence:

After its rout from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda chose the troubled waters of Iraq as the central front in its war on America — and suffered a stunning defeat, made particularly humiliating when its fellow Sunni Arabs rose up to join the infidel Americans in subduing it.

The truth, of course, is that the Bush administration, not Al Qaeda, chose to make Iraq a front in the war on terror. It turned out to be huge, debilitating distraction in the war against Al Qaeda. (And sorry Chuck, but the fact that the Bush administration’s incompetence in Iraq created an opportunity for Al Qaeda to alienate Muslims by murdering hundreds of them does not count as a point in Bush’s favor. Suggesting that it does is morally perverse.)

Taking a completely opposing view from Krauthammer, Michael Hirsch writes, “Behind Obama’s takedown of the Qaida leader this week lies a profound discontinuity between administrations — a major strategic shift in how to deal with terrorists”:

From his first great public moment when, as a state senator, he called Iraq a “dumb war,” Obama indicated that he thought that George W. Bush had badly misconceived the challenge of 9/11. And very quickly upon taking office as president, Obama reoriented the war back to where, in the view of many experts, it always belonged. He discarded the idea of a “global war on terror” that conflated all terror threats from al-Qaida to Hamas to Hezbollah. Obama replaced it with a covert, laserlike focus on al-Qaida and its spawn.

This reorientation was part of Obama’s reset of America’s relations with the world. Bush, having gradually expanded his definition of the war to include all Islamic “extremists,” had condemned the United States to a kind of permanent war, one that Americans had to fight all but alone because no one else agreed on such a broadly defined enemy. (Hez­bollah and Hamas, for example, arguably had legitimate political aims that al-Qaida did not, which is one reason they distanced themselves from bin Laden.) In Obama’s view, only by focusing narrowly on true transnational terrorism, and winning back all of the natural allies that the United States had lost over the previous decade, could he achieve America’s goal of uniting the world around the goal of extinguishing al-Qaida.

Obama’s decision to abandon the conceit of an undifferentiated Islamofascist enemy (a delusion that still animates most of his neocon critics) and zero in on Al Qaeda is hugely important. By casting Osama bin Laden and his ideology as an existential threat to the United States, one requiring the invasion and occupation of various countries in the Middle East, Bush’s approach elevated the status of Al Qaeda, whereas Obama’s treatment of the group as bunch of delusional, if still dangerous, goons has diminished it. By treating Al Qaeda as just one head on the Islamofascist hydra, Bush needlessly complexified the challenge the group represents. By refusing to treat all Islamist trends and movements as part of some terrorist monolith, Obama has clarified it.

Having said that, I think Hirsch understates the continuities between the administration, which clearly exist, and are troubling. I don’t endorse everything Josh Foust writes here (crediting Bush for the Iraq withdrawal is somewhat misleading, considering Bush was dragged into signing a withdrawal agreement Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki referenced to Obama; I’d also argue that a greatly strengthened international consensus on the Iranian nuclear issue is an important success), but I think he raises some important questions about the administration’s failure to articulate a coherent set of principles under which its foreign policy is operating. Hopefully the passing of Osama bin Laden, and the political space it has provided the Obama administration, creates an opportunity to do that.