07/28/2014 11:04 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

The Fruits of Delusion

Many people live in worlds of delusion -- at least part of the time in regard to part of the reality they inhabit. Self-conscious awareness of what we are doing and why we are doing it is a relative rarity. Habitual behavior is the norm. The natural discrepancy between the unconscious premises of our actions and the actuality of things, of choices and points of orientation does not prevent us following a fairly logical path as we travel through time. There are occasions, though, when that gap widens to such a degree that we are operating in the realm of delusion. That can have serious consequences. It is an especially dangerous state of affairs when the same delusions afflict an entire society and, more specifically, its political class. The United States has existed in such a state of collective delusion since 9/11.

The "terrorism era" was formed in response to trauma. We shaped our understanding of threats to our well-being in a setting that was uncongenial to sober reasoning. The resulting worldview has endured due to calculated manipulation by our leaders exploiting the emotional vulnerabilities of a populace that has experienced diffuse anxiety, i.e. dread, and which has been unable to outgrow it. Part of the reason for that immaturity stems from deep seated traits of the American experience -- ones that leave us unprepared to deal with uncertainty and irresolution. The sense of lost control cuts deep into the American psyche because the national creed has always stressed that America and Americans are masters of their fate - at least that they can and should be masters.

Let us look first at the multiple delusions that are the hallmark of American thinking about its place in the world in the "terrorism era" and the basis for how we act at home and abroad. Then we are better placed to turn to the taproots of those delusions and the ease with which we succumb to them.

The overarching delusion is that America is under siege from terrorists who are devoted to doing us grievous harm. They are poised to act -- able to strike shattering blows unless we exhibit equal devotion in protecting ourselves. That strategy entails offensive methods to seek out and to destroy our enemies as well as an elaborate system of defensive safeguards. Those people are religious fanatics driven by their fundamentalist Islamic faith to attack us. The menace is multiform; they are proliferating. Concentrated in the Greater Middle East, they have spread around the world - including into the United States. The danger is akin to that presented by a deadly strain of bacteria that adapts itself to different climes. Sustained vigilance and preemptive action on the same scale is our only salvation.

The reality is far more banal. Perhaps a few hundred would-be/could- be terrorists are out there who possess the intent, the will and discipline to attack the United States directly. As of today they lack the means or the organization to do so. The great error is to confuse that small group with the many more who wish us ill, are hostile to the United States, and share the basic outlook of the dangerous types. Salafist jihadis who pursue their cause by violence are driven by aspirations and objectives that are closer to home. Their goal is to restore the (Arab) Islamic world to its pristine state, to revive the Caliphate, to purge their lands of iniquitous rulers subservient to outsiders, and to build a bastion against the incursions of the modern secular world. The United States is ancillary to this enterprise. Pertinent insofar as it is the source of both the spiritual and political trespass on the ummah. For most of them, the primary target is located in Riyadh, in Amman, in Cairo, and of course among the heretics in Baghdad, Teheran and other shia communities.

In this sense, al-Qaeda was the exception. Its leadership visualized the United States as the critical enabler of the corrupt regimes which needed to be toppled, the provider of military muscle, the political buttress, the temptress. The physical American presence on the soil of Arabia, and surrounding country, was the tangible expression of the kafirs' obstruction of the jihadist mission. Therefore, it had to be forced to draw back through exemplary punishment.

Classic al-Qaeda, though, is a shadow of its former self. Never a large organization, it has dwindled in its enforced exile among the high valleys of the Hindu Kush. Most of the original leadership has been decimated, its physical assets of limited consequence even locally, its expertise restricted, its former hosts see them as a bargaining chip in pursuit of their own diminished objectives, and hence their reach greatly abbreviated. The name lives on, along with the mystique. They also retain links to persons in the Gulf who remain ready to finance some elements of their cause. But the al-Qaeda of our sweaty nightmares simply does not exist. It now is a franchise operation.

Similarly inspired groups welcome the brand name. It helps draw recruits, it endows prestige, it attracts benefactors. Thus, we see al-Qaeda franchises in Yemen, North Africa/Sahara, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere. None of them are a serious threat to the United States; their preoccupations and enemies are local. Today, the most powerful jihadist force is the Islamic Syria and al-Shem (ISIS). This relatively new arrival on the scene is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a leading force in the insurrection against the American occupation of Iraq. It did not exist prior to 2003. It is a creature of the United States' invasion -- the most striking evidence of how counter-productive the kinetic "war on terror" has been.

ISIS was not founded by classic al-Qaeda. It is home grown. Indeed, it is now divorced from the entire al-Qaeda movement due to sharp disagreements about methods and direction. Denounced publicly by Dr. al-Zawahiri, ISIS is an autonomous entity with ambitions analogous to those of al-Qaeda. However, it is fighting its war for the establishment of a transnational Islamic state in place. That is its obsession - not attacks on the United States.

The American foreign policy community finds it difficult to come to terms with the variety of jihadist organizations, their disputes, and their inner directed passions. They almost seem to feel offended that the United States is not foremost on their minds. The "war on terror" was inspired by the mission to make America safe from the nefarious intentions of jihadist Islam. The notion that those movements are not really about the United States but rather about the Islamic world requires a differentiation that we have been slow to grasp. Understandably so - for a number of reasons. It complicates the field of action. Thereby, it demands far more nuanced strategies than Washington is comfortable with. It also demands knowledge in depth of places and cultures wholly alien to most who presume to direct our foreign policies. It demands, too, more refined skills that equally are in short supply. Finally, it calls into questions the delusion that the country faces a unitary threat, an organized and identifiable evil that we can we locate, target and eliminate. That in turn means a war against an uncertain threat as much intangible as tangible. In good part, a war against phantoms of our own imagining.

The simplistic response is to insist on perpetuating the delusion - the delusion that the "war on terror" has a clear objective, a clear strategy and a definite measure of success. So we cavalierly have lumped together all jihadist groups that spout the fundamentalist line and demonstrate a propensity for violence. Their origins, their capabilities, their actual aims, their circumstances - all are deemed of secondary importance. Moreover, there is a blurry line between those extant groups that engage in violence and salafist groups that share their philosophy and ultimate goals but have not taken up arms against existing governments and/or their western backers. Following the reasoning of our terrorist warriors, we cannot be sure whether and when the latter will morph into the former. Therefore, they rightly should be defined as a potential terrorist threat. And since the American mission is to reduce the terrorist threat to near zero, for now and in the future, they too should be the object of our attentions. That attention may take various forms: encouraging suppression by local governments, financing opposing groups, some measure of "nation-building" that will foster contentment without sharia law and a Caliphate, or - if they get uppity - drones and Special Forces.

In effect, targets have been designated using loose criteria whose only two virtues are to spare us mental effort and to provide work for the outsized forces we have mobilized for the all inclusive "war on terror." For the GWOT has become an industry, an industry that embraces the Pentagon, the State Department, the intelligence agencies, the think tanks and -- not least -- an army of consultants which drain tens of billions from the bloated budgets of the public agencies mandated to conduct the GWOT.

Thus is created the context in which a myriad of secondary delusions are spawned. They have to do with the conduct of the war on terror. One delusion is the belief that coercive physical force is the key to suppressing "terrorist" groups. Even the much ballyhooed, never seriously implemented COIN, is overshadowed by the selective use of military force and the latent potential for more extensive/intensive use. In every locale where have carried the GWOT, we have employed military means disproportionate to the objective. It is essential to stress "objective" rather than "victory" since the point of the exercise is primarily to create conditions favorable to our interests not just to kill the "enemy." The only place where kinetic action has been used successfully to reach an objective was in Afghanistan in 2001 when we unseated the Taliban, and chased out the al-Qaeda leadership to remote locations. Everywhere else we have failed. No matter; we keep our faith in coercive force even as we continue to fail.