The Real Reasons for the War on Terror
By Michael S. Rozeff
Obama declared in mid-2013 that a boundless global war on terror was over. What did he mean? The U.S. government doesn’t and can’t extract unlimited resources from Americans to fight any war, its armed forces are limited in size and capabilities, and there are political constraints here and abroad. Consequently, the war on terror never could be and never was “boundless”. This term is sloppy thinking and a straw man. Before Obama, the U.S. had chosen specific targets; and it continues to choose specific targets.
Obama didn’t change much of anything conceptually when he said he’d replace the global war on terror with a “series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” He left the idea, however, that he was reducing the scope of the war. In between the lines he was implying that Iraq and Afghanistan had been targets that were too broad. He’d now go after more specific targets, networks and movements. If those networks happen to pop up in Iraq and Afghanistan and if Obama regards them as threats to America, Obama’s new policy targets them. This superficially explains why the U.S. is again bombing in Iraq, why Obama has increased the American ground forces in Iraq, and why he has extended U.S. attacks to a new country altogether, namely, Syria. The target is the Islamic State. But the real reasons go deeper.
The clear conclusion is that the global war on terror remains an open-ended war. Officially, it remains based on the notion that any movement or force of jihadists or Islamic fundamentalists that the U.S. governments deems a threat to America can be and will be a target of American military force. Unless constraints of politics and military force prevent or limit it, the U.S. will still go anywhere on the globe. Unofficially, the threats that concern the U.S. government are not from Islamic fundamentalists per se but from any potential regional rivals. This is what drives U.S. actions.
As justification for applications of force, the U.S. government will continue to identify any such foreign movement or network of jihadists as a threat to America. Such movements are definitely not threats to America, however. They are surely not direct threats or even remote threats, since they lack any military capabilities of attacking America. They have no aim or motivation to launch even terrorist attacks on America except in retaliation for perceived grievances and actual attacks of the U.S. on the lands and peoples that they seek to control. The U.S. government itself doesn’t regard a caliphate as a serious possibility. If Islamic fundamentalism is not a threat to America except in the case of retaliation on continental America, why then is the U.S. government still prosecuting the war on terror?
In the cases of Iraq and Libya, the U.S. intervened or aggressed using a variety of false rationales, one of which was to free the peoples. It is intervening in other cases (Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali, Yemen) to support the existing weak governments and to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from taking control of the state. The U.S. government regards states that have Islamic fundamentalists in positions of power as threats. There are usually several reasons for choosing to commit American forces in some region (Israel, oil, resources, bases, strategic location, competition with other states, etc.), but one such reason is to prevent the emergence of Islamic fundamentalist states. The underlying reason for this is that the U.S. wants to prevent any kind of regional force from emerging and snuff it out early. It wants to be numero uno and have no rivals. It wants to apply weed-killer early. These Islamic fundamentalist movements are thought of as weeds. The U.S. empire is the lawn. The U.S. wants the world to be greened with its lawn and no other.
John Brennan, who headed DHS and now heads the CIA, made an anti-caliphate statement back in 2009. He made it clear that Washington’s enemy was a movement that strove for global domination in opposition to its own:
“As for the ‘war on terrorism,’ Mr. Brennan said the [Obama] administration is not going to say that ‘because “terrorism” is but a tactic — a means to an end, which in al Qaeda’s [sic] case is global domination by an Islamic caliphate.’”
Brennan also ruled out using the word “jihadists” because of the idea that jihad has a peaceful meaning in Islam’s religious doctrines. And, by the way, since IS is not al-Qaeda, the 2001 AUMF is not applicable. Obama’s attacks on IS are unconstitutional, in case anyone still cares.
But the important thing here is that 4 years before the emergence of IS and its quest for an Islamic caliphate, the U.S. government recognized this quest as a threat. Terrorism is now officially recognized as a tactic. The U.S. government now has an aim, one of many aims, of preventing Islamic states from emerging and/or being incorporated into a larger entity, an Islamic caliphate. The U.S. is attempting to thwart this by military means. Why? The U.S. wants control over these regions. In addition, the U.S., as in the case of Iran, seems to fear that an Islamic caliphate would become a nuclear power and be willing to use nuclear weapons. The U.S. wants no regional rivals. At the same time, it regards a caliphate as a trivial possibility or a junior varsity. Such a threat is very remote, but it has been made somewhat less remote by the actions of the U.S. government in the war on terror. The U.S. has stimulated recruitment for IS and given it an enemy.
It cannot be said that the U.S. government fully knows what it is doing or that all of its parts or leaders are pulling together in one direction. It cannot be said that the U.S. has focused on the anti-caliphate aim single-mindedly. If it were so focused, it would have treated Syria and Iran very differently than it has. Although Brennan may have articulated this aim years ago, this doesn’t mean that it pervades the halls of Washington or is being used as a guide to its latest attacks in far-off regions. In fact, there are those who think that Obama has been promoting an Islamic caliphate intentionally.
The U.S. government has the broader aim of preventing regional rivals. Accordingly, it temporizes. It stays in the game of empire while shifting according to circumstances. It plays this game badly at times, and this obscures what its deepest aim is.
Furthermore, Washington sows confusion. Brennan himself in 2011 muddied the waters with this statement:
“Our strategy is also shaped by deeper understanding of al Qaeda’s goals, strategy, and tactics over the past decade. I’m not talking about al Qaeda’s grandiose vision of global domination through a violent Islamic caliphate. That vision is absurd, and we are not going to organize our counter-terrorism policies against a feckless delusion that is never going to happen. We are not going to elevate these thugs and their murderous aspirations into something larger than they are.”
So, in 2009 the government wasn’t going to fight terrorism per se, or those who used this tactic, but it would fight al-Qaeda whose aim was an Islamic caliphate. But two years later, its counter-terrorism policies would not pay attention to that aim, which now Brennan called a “delusion”. If not, then around what would U.S. counter-terrorism policies be directed? Washington seems to want two contradictory things at the same time. It wants to be anti-Iran and anti-caliphate, but Iran is anti-caliphate. As the U.S. goes more toward using mujahideen against Syria, it strengthens the caliphate forces. If it fights the caliphate forces in Iraq, it strengthens Iran’s political position in Iraq.
The confusion goes away when we realize that what Washington wants is simple: no regional rivals at all. It is against both Iran and a caliphate, and it will shift its focus so as to keep both of them down. Still, working these two aims at the same time is bound to be confusing since weakening one rival raises the other.
Because of this confusion in its aims and because of its trivialization of a caliphate, Washington was more than willing to arm anti-Assad forces that later became or were already pro-caliphate forces. In other words, the anti-Iran and pro-Israel faction in the U.S. government predominated in the anti-Syria push. They found an ally in Obama, just as they previously had in Bush. The anti-Iran current in Washington runs very strong, and taking down Syria is a component of that. Washington under-estimated the appeal of a caliphate and it over-estimated its ability to control the anti-Assad forces. Washington now is faced with a burgeoning pro-caliphate movement.
Bush or Obama didn’t aim to encourage or foster an Islamic caliphate. They created the IS problem by attempting to use non-American forces to weaken Syria and Iran. It is the attempt to hold down two rivals, Iran and an IS type caliphate, that has bred confusion. In each case in which the U.S. has attacked in a new region, be it Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen or Libya in order to maintain its dominance, it has stoked resisting pro-caliphate forces. These are starting to coalesce across borders.
The U.S. government’s foreign policy has been effectively pro-terrorist under both Bush and Obama. In the name of a war on terrorism and threats on America, they have created more terrorists than ever and more such threats. This has the effect of strengthening the government domestically and that too is an aim they’ve embraced. They inherited situations in which past actions of the U.S. government had already stoked al-Qaeda’s quest for a restored caliphate. They then contributed mightily to the emergence of an even stronger movement, IS, by their own aggressions.