The long campaign of 2011-12 is straggling toward the finish line. Without Sandy's impetus it may not have made it -- or so it seems to the jaded. In this torrent of words, an innocent observer might assume that all the momentous issues facing the nation would have been subject to searching analysis and debate. That is naive. We are reminded of that distressing reality by the two candidates' ignoring of the startling revelation that the Obama administration has well advanced plans for an enlargement and extension of the "war on terror" into the indefinite future. A series of authoritative stories in the Washington Post is the source.
They detail how the United States is putting in place the ingredients of a global strategy to identify and to take preventive action against any group or individual who is judged as posing a potential threat to the U.S. or its interests. There is no limit to the geographical scope. Similarly, the conception of a threat is extremely broad. It is the same as that incorporated into a number of previous documents. Anyone who provides aid or comfort to any entity that demonstrates hostility toward America, or to one that funds such an entity, anyone who by word or deed generates support for such a group, is a valid target. Violence prone Islamic groups who call for action against the American enemy -- à la al Qaeda and its affiliates -- are core concern and the most readily identifiable. However, the policies that constitute this new "war on terror" explicitly go far beyond that in the broad definition of the "enemy" and in the methods envisaged to crush it.
The war against al Qaeda is turning into a war against Islamic fundamentalism -- in most of its forms and manifestations. In other words, the prevailing thinking is that any fundamentalist group could morph into a jihadist entity and/or affiliate itself with one and/or provide indirect support for one. It now is American policy to prevent that chain from developing -- in addition to preventing hostile action itself. By this process of logical regression the world inhabited by untold numbers of fundamentalist Muslims has become the "danger." The implication is that until that world is remade, the United States is bound to contend by all means necessary to neutralize it.
The strategy is the brainchild of Barack Obama and his entire foreign policy team. The White House terrorism chief John Brennan is its designated master builder. There is every reason to expect that it would be adopted by a Romney administration. For it conforms closely to his own views and those of his hand picked, ultra hawkish advisors. Most of them are veterans of the Bush administration.
The plan envisages a running war on numerous fronts that has no visible termination point or measure of success. It will involve covert operations (CIA & Special Forces), some not so covert operations, a proliferation of drone strikes, political interventions on a sustained basis, and whatever else our masters in the Homeland Security universe can dream up. The resulting mayhem (for which Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, et. al. are precursors) will be widespread and at times intense. Benghazi likely will be repeated -- perhaps on a larger scale. For we are wading ever deeper into the internal affairs of foreign countries across a vast span of the globe with a faulty GPS and no clear destination. Moreover, the missions are either coercive or entail subordinating prudent diplomacy to the audacious conviction that we have the means, and the necessity, to determine how alien peoples organize their political life and the creeds they live by.
Hence, Secretary Clinton has just announced that Washington is bending itself to the daunting task of orchestrating the formation of a fresh coordinating body for the Syrian opposition. This despite the awkward truth that none of the significant factions has asked us to do so and we are jettisoning the Western oriented coordinating body which, whatever its shortcomings, is the only group sympathetic to the United States. We seemingly have learned nothing from our misadventures elsewhere in the greater Middle East.
There are three elementary but critical flaws to this emerging "Operation Evermore" which have eluded the administration and also the foreign policy community more broadly from whom we have heard not one noteworthy skeptical comment. The central error is the casting together of the diverse movements as one finds under the label Islamic fundamentalist. Any sensible approach toward comprehending the elusive phenomenon we call Islamic fundamentalism would first get a fix on what practical meaning any sect or movement has. We must begin by parsing the term. At the literal level, 'Islamist' refers to any formation that identifies itself as drawing on Muslim tradition. That is to say, they are not avowedly secular as was the Ba'ath Party at its origins.
Salafism refers to those who promote a literal reading of the Koran and ancillary texts, the organizing of society on the principles and practices laid down in sharia law, and uniting the Believers of the ummah in a manifest spiritual community. An essential complementary element of Salafists is the rejection of foreign influences and 'modernity'. F. B. Ali underscores that "This often translates into opposition to foreigners, foreign powers and Muslims believed to be influenced by or allied to foreigners. Some Salafis (and Wahhabis) take this opposition further by engaging in Jihad against foreign 'infidels' which in today's popular usage means a struggle that involves violence. They "are properly termed Jihadis. Thus, all Jihadis are usually Salafis, but not all Salafis are Jihadis." The House of Saud are salafists; Osama bin Laden was a jihadi. Saudi leaders at times see the Kingdom's political advantage in enabling or even encouraging Jihadist action -- as they did in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. That is a tactical judgment largely free of theological content.
The second flaw in "Operation Forevermore" is its exaggeration of the chances of succeeding. Beyond our dismal record of the past decade, there is the improbable project of shaping the internal dynamics of turbulent societies where we are viewed with animosity by many and distrust by almost all the rest of the population. To official Washington, though, the entire world is Honduras.
Third, this inevitably will provoke various types of violent reaction -- over there and perhaps over here, i.e. turning parochial fundamentalists into anti-American terrorists. In the process, we will have paid a hefty price in terms of diminished influence on a host of other important issues ranging from Indo-Pakistan tensions to Iran. As a consequence, America will be less safe and less respected, and less able to help orient an interdependent world of diffuse power and many players..
The great intellectual, as well as practical policy challenge is figuring out an alternative to our current impulsive assertiveness. "Operation Evermore" is peculiarly American in its audacity and single-mindedness. It makes the further claim of advancing eternal American values, interests and indispensability. In truth, though, we would be better served by dedicating ourselves to curbing our instinct to interfere and intervene, by accepting a more modest sense of what we can achieve, and by qualifying the belief in our intrinsic virtue.
We cannot hope to set ourselves on that course so long as aspirants for the White House seek to establish their credentials by flexing biceps tattooed with an avenging American eagle on one arm and a unfurled flag on the other.