Completely Opposite Perspectives on the ‘War on Terror’

Toward the end of my first semester at Mizzou, I attended a very thought-provoking lecture hosted by the Peace Studies program. The speaker, Hina Shamsi, who directs the ACLU’s National Security project, addressed the question of whether terrorism should be treated as an enforcement issue rather than a war. She advocated for an anti-terrorism strategy consistent with the Constitution, international law and basic human rights.

On the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, many political commentators appropriately reflected not only upon the extraordinary heroism and terrible loss of that day, but also on the United States response to the first attack by a foreign entity upon our soil in decades.

To fully understand the events following Sept. 11, 2001, it’s important to evaluate the goals of al-Qaeda and the American response. The attacks launched us into two wars, led to the passage of a bill considered by many civil liberties advocates to be a gross trampling of Constitutional rights and restructured the US defense and intelligence communities.

At one end of the spectrum we have Barry Rubin, a terrorism expert and director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel asking “Who’s Really Winning the War On Terrorism?”

What’s most important of all is to remember that terrorism is a tactic to achieve a goal.  The goal is that of Islamist revolution. There might not be a single Arabic-speaking country where Islamists aren’t in a stronger position now than they were on September 11, 2001.

On the completely opposite side: Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies contemporary Islamic movements and blogs about events in the Middle East. He asks “Do the Arabs value Democracy more than We do?

The September 11 attacks have been revealed as a last gasp of a fading, cult-like twentieth-century vision, not as the wave of the future. They were the equivalent of the frenetic dashing to and fro of a chicken already beheaded. Al-Qaeda’s core assumptions have been refuted by subsequent events and above all in 2011 by the Arab Spring.

How did these two respected scholars reach completely different conclusions about the continuing threat of al-Qaeda and radical Islam? The core disagreement (on this issue) between Cole and Rubin is about the Arab Spring. Cole has been exceedingly optimistic about the potential for democracy to emerge, writing:

First, it has been shown that dictators such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia can be overthrown by peaceful crowd action, emulating Gandhi and Martin Luther King… Second, it has been demonstrated that the leading edge in political change in the Arab world is relatively secular youth who support labor unions and dignity for working people– i.e. that the most effective revolutionaries are a kind of Arab New Left, not small cells of fundamentalist terrorists.

Rubin, on the other hand, sees the Arab revolutions as nothing but a threat to Israel’s security and an opening for Islamist groups with ties to terrorists to seize power.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a pro-terrorist group, and Salafist organizations often willing to use terrorism (a few of which are close to al-Qaeda) are far stronger in Egypt and might dominate the country politically. The Muslim Brotherhood is also stronger in Syria, though its precise influence over the opposition is hard to gauge.

Where is terrorism weaker? Other than Algeria, where it was defeated in a bloody civil war, it is hard to find any such examples…

While Rubin acknowledges that al-Qaeda itself has been dramatically weakened, he faults the US government for ignoring the significant threat by posed by other terrorist organizations because it “basically defines anything that isn’t al-Qaeda as not being a threat.”

al-Qaeda is not dead yet. Its ally, the Taliban, is making a comeback in Afghanistan and has spread to Pakistan. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates still carry out attacks in Iraq, Morocco, and Algeria. It now has small but deadly forces in the Gaza Strip. And it plays a major role in Yemen and Somalia, not to mention its terrorist affiliates in Asia

I would argue that the long list of foreign terrorist organizations advertised by the State Department begs to differ that the US ignores threats from groups that aren’t al-Qaeda. Walter Russell Mead proposes that the Obama administration has largely continued the war on terror with little noticeable change in strategy from George W. Bush. That’s arguable, of course, and Clay Risen has a good roundup of thoughts about Obama’s doctrine (or lack thereof) over at the New York Times. Obama has authorized drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The number of strikes by drones doubled in 2010 to 114 and will continue to expand, according to the WSJ.

There is another huge disconnect. Where Rubin sees the US as not doing enough in the war on terror and mocks the way the current administration doesn’t call it a war, Cole believes that the Bush administration manipulated the attacks to reassert American dominance abroad and trample upon civil liberties. Cole was such a vocal critic of the Bush doctrine that the administration actually asked the CIA to spy on him in order to discredit him.

Ultimately, Cole is far more optimistic about the future of the world, ending by noting that while the wars may have destroyed domestic civil liberties:

The American people, however, are resilient and strong. The American system of government is flexible. If we are supine and abject, our children will not be. Already, federal government intrusion into our lives is being questioned on the right and the left alike. With hard work and a bit of luck, perhaps over the course of a generation, we can get our Bill of Rights back.

Rubin, citing the examples of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hizballah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, ends with this:

So are things much better a decade after the September 11 attacks? Aside from the very important aspect of avoiding a huge successful terror attack on the United States, the answer is “no.”

So the two pieces aren’t quite about the same thing, as Cole focuses on democracy and civil liberties while Rubin narrows in on security alone. The juxtaposition is important though, as it demonstrates the classic trade-off between security and liberty.

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