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Can Obama’s Shift on Terror Succeed?


But a few days in office and already US President Barack Obama has moved to undo some of the most nefarious monsters former president George W. Bush unleashed in his “war on terrorism.” This included, on Thursday, the signing of executive orders calling for the closure, within no more than a year, of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facilities and other secret prisons, an end to questionable interrogation techniques used by the CIA (such as “waterboarding”) and a rapid drawdown of US forces from Iraq.

These early moves are cause for celebration and optimism, and Obama should be commended for making them so early after entering the White House. He promised change, and so far seems to mean it.

Still, aside from the drawdown in Iraq, Obama’s executive orders are insufficient, and more will have to be done if the US’ image internationally — and by rebound its security — is to be rehabilitated. So far, it is impossible to say if the Obama administration will be willing to, let alone capable of, accomplishing this.

The reason why more will have to be done is as follows. Positive as the closure of the abhorrent Guantanamo Bay prison and an end to CIA-sanctioned torture are, they remain tactical moves. In other words, Gitmo and interrogation were tactical instruments in the “war on terror,” and though their existence had a negative impact at the strategic level (e.g., the country’s reputation), they were not the reason why terrorism was unleashed against the US and its allies in the first place. As such, absent other moves, their removal alone will not be enough to end the whole mess.

What is called for — and let us hope that the Obama Cabinet will find it within its power and imagination to do so — is a strategic readjustment, of which the accelerated drawdown from Iraq is but a first, albeit important, step. Without doubt, the center of gravity remains the role of the US in the Middle East, and it is there that a fundamental shift in policy will be necessary. It is also there, not surprisingly, that Obama’s efforts could founder.

First and foremost is US support for Israel, which for decades has angered the Muslim world and discredited it in the eyes of potential peacemakers in the region. As long as Washington continues to condone Israel’s sporadic wars of “self defense” — be it in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere — and to equip it with the means to wage war against its much-weaker opponents, effectively blessing the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, the US will remain a fraud in the Muslim world and the source of their collective misery and resentment.

Given the strength of the Israeli lobby in Washington, religious support for the state and longstanding US defense commitments to Israel, bringing about change in its relationship with the Jewish state — which would imply becoming a truly honest broker in the “peace process” and the meting out of criticism against Israel whenever criticism is warranted — will be a formidable task. Given Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pronouncements on Israel, there is reason to doubt such changes will be effected. But they are sine qua non. By doing this, the US would substantially improve its security and simultaneously discredit many of the radical organizations, from al-Qaeda on, that target it and the West with terror by undercutting their argument. Only when the US becomes an honest broker, one that seeks justice and legality, will a lasting solution be possible for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The beautiful logic of this is that both the US and Israel would become more secure in doing so, and they would soon find that the majority of Muslims — including Palestinians — would support police action against the holdovers who irrationally continue to seek the destruction of Israel (as opposed to the great majority at present who use or support violence to fight occupation or the continuation of Apartheid-like living conditions).

Beyond Israel and Palestine, the US must also qualify, if not end altogether, its support for many of the repressive regimes — again in the Muslim world — that continue to be listed as “allies” by Washington. This includes Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Algeria, to name a few. As long as Washington continues to look the other way when one of its allies represses its population, while continuing to provide it with billions of dollars in financial aid for “security,” it will continue to be reviled as the distant cause of suffering for millions of Muslims.

Lastly, the US must engage Iran, as it must recognize that the Lebanese Hezbollah is more than simply a “terrorist” organization and rather both a resistance group and part of the Lebanese political scene. On Iran, Obama has hinted that he might be amenable to establishing contact with his counterparts in Tehran, a welcome departure from his predecessor, who made it part of the “Axis of Evil.”

Joined with the abovementioned efforts, a resumption of diplomatic contacts with Iran would undermine populists like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, weaken the conservative clergy and make it likely that reformists such as former president Mohammed Khatami would return to power. It would also help address Iran’s nuclear issue by undercutting the argument that only through a nuclear deterrent could Iran’s safety be ensured. Furthermore, the benefits of an Iran brought in from the cold would immediately be felt in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon, in the form of cooperation rather than the struggle for influence that we see in both countries today.

Underlying all this is the US’ continued reliance on oil, which a shift to renewable energy and alternative sources — also part of Obama’s campaign — would help remedy. For as long as the US remains in unholy union with the goddess of cheap oil, it will act as an empire, create castes and alienate those who find themselves on the wrong side of the equation.

This comprehensive strategic shift is a formidable challenge — perhaps the greatest test of US leadership since the country’s birth. But if one president is to make this happen, Obama might be our best chance, and for the moment at least, the great, great majority of Muslims worldwide are willing to cooperate and to try for a new start. Success would address the many grievances felt in the Muslim world that provide the rationale for anger at and violence against the US and the West. It would help separate the legitimate fighters from the criminals, those who we could truly call terrorists, or nihilists. Of course, even if Obama managed to bring all this about, the world wouldn’t become all rosy overnight, and other challenges, such as the Sunni-Shiite divide, not to mention poverty, lack of education and a struggling economy, would threaten to undermine all that good work. But after eight long years of confrontational US policy and decades of
strategic neglect, Obama seems to offer a glimmer of hope.

Still, anyone who, out of self-interest, wants such an endeavor to fail could easily do so by either launching a major terrorist attack against Western (preferably US) interests, or create conditions that would encourage such an attack, whereupon the wolves would once again fall upon each other, the naysayers would quickly inform Obama that his goodwill had been snubbed, and all the good work that Obama has accomplished in his few days in office would come to naught.

Let’s wait and see. And hope.

J. MICHAEL COLE is a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada and author of Smokescreen: Canadian security intelligence after September 11, 2001. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, where he works as a columnist and editor at the Taipei Times newspaper.

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