Any hopes for the Obama administration winding down its drone strikes and Global War on Terrorism policy framework and concentrating on domestic priorities are in danger of being suddenly derailed, for reasons that are unclear. The immediate reason for the panic, heavily classified, was an intercepted communication between Al Qaeda “central” and an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen, followed by the sudden closure of 19 US embassies and consulates. No terrorism materialized, but the closings created a sense of high alert and imminent danger. Top US officials warned of a new Al Qaeda threat.
No doubt the recent clamor about terrorist threats served to deflect public and congressional attention away from the growing political effort to curb drone strikes and sharply reform the secret surveillance state. Because of the public’s growing fatigue with the emphasis of the Global War on Terrorism model in place since 9/11, the possibility of domestic reform is at hand, including a refocused attention on immigrant rights, ending stop-and-frisk and protecting social programs.
The recent panic is not simply fabricated by a conspiracy, however. In the real world, President Barack Obama’s long-standing claim that he has “decimated” Al Qaeda, a claim that served him well in the 2012 elections, turns out to have been overly optimistic. Intelligence officials warn that Syria is a new haven for global jihadists supporting the Al Nusra Front. Al Qaeda is becoming a powerful force in Iraq, where it did not exist before the US intervention. Libya, after the Western overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi, has become an anarchic Wild West of militias, including those who attacked the US/CIA center in Benghazi. The Libyan adventure also led to armed jihadist sanctuaries from southern Libya to North Africa. Hundreds of militants have broken out of prison recently in Pakistan, Libya and Iraq. A disintegrating Yemen was the scene of nine drone attacks from late July to the present, an escalation not seen in the recent past. The coup in Egypt may lead to insurgency or civil war.
Obama continues to assert that Al Qaeda has been decimated, but has “metastasized” in new and virulent forms, a tacit admission that US security policy has either failed or been reduced to a purely defensive strategy. Neither can Obama mention that US support of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates nor a rogues’ gallery of monarchs is a principal cause of jihadist insurgency.
These strategic failures are being transformed politically into rationales for maintaining the CIA’s covert programs and the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance operations at a time of increasing domestic criticism. Being considered “soft on terrorism” is the equivalent of being “soft on communism” decades ago.
Whether real or coincidental, these developments are a dire threat to the achievement of any meaningful democratic reform in the United States. We are seeing a de facto coalition of “war on terrorism liberals,” similar to the Cold War liberals of yesteryear, trying to achieve domestic gains without challenging the priorities of the surveillance state or military budget. Such efforts perished in the Sixties and are not likely to be viable in the decade ahead.