Is the Obama administration about to open a third front in Yemen? A visit by Gen. Petraeus to Sana’a this week was a strong sign that the military option is fast becoming the first reaction to a terrorist event. We’re still in Iraq; we’re escalating in Afghanistan; and we’re already crossing the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan in a pursuit of terrorists with a strategy that increasingly looks like a game of whack-a-mole. If the next terror attempt comes from one of the 14 newly-dangerous countries now on the special watch list, will we be dispatching troops, or at least drones, since we like to do things by remote control and keep our casualty rate down? It is hardly comforting that the pundits assure us that ground troops are not needed “for now.”
An anti-terrorism policy that lacks a political component is a dead end. But even Obama’s brilliant speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony didn’t quite paper over the gap between his initial rhetoric and the combative strategy he has embraced. And invoking World War II surely didn’t address the litany of failed imperial interventions in Afghanistan that stretches back to Great Britain in the 1920s through the Soviets in the 1970s.
While many Americans have joined our allies in becoming disappointed with President Obama, we can assume that those on the fence, including many moderate Muslims who hoped to see a real change in U.S. policy, are downright disillusioned. We’re backing off closing Guantanamo. We’re in another Muslim country and debating intruding on yet another. At this point in time, there is little reason for them expect real change in U.S. policy in the Middle East. True, we’re no longer torturing captives for information. But the ambitious plans to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict –a very real cause of rage used by both the Islamic radicals and oppressive governments –has disappeared from Obama’s priority list in a flurry of contradictory statements and retrenchments.
At the same time we keep redefining who we’re fighting. A a decade ago, the theory was that suicide bombers were disillusioned, uneducated young men with no future. Now they’re the sons of wealthy Nigerian entrepreneurs and the graduates of prestigious British universities. In the end, we fall back on the American knee-jerk instinct. Categorize and cauterize. After 9/11, it was young Muslim men of Arab descent; some U.S. citizens joked that they were victims of FWM (Flying While Muslim), repeatedly pulled out of line for the so-called random checks that yielded no box cutters and no shoe bombs. Now it will be Cubans and Syrians and Algerians and Nigerians and Somalis.
There is no wall tall enough, no barrier perfect enough, to guarantee us perfect safety. Chances are that a competent terrorist will get through one day, no matter how well we learn to “connect the dots.” Then we’ll go chasing after another mole with our sizeable mallet. Until we develop a policy that wins hearts and minds in the Middle East and in the broader Muslim world the Abdulmullatabs will continue to bloom –and not just from those 14 countries on the watch list.