Fifteen years ago this fall, Americans awoke to a shocking image: the destroyer USS Cole listed hard to port halfway around the world in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, its hull smoldering, 17 of its sailors dead, with 39 more wounded. Al-Qaida, barely known to most Americans, despite the deadly bombings of two American embassies, had struck again.
Today, of course, al-Qaida and its successors are well-known, and the rickety government of Yemen has fallen, punctuating a full month and more of terrorist atrocities: loosely inspired attacks in Canada and the United States, continued war, kidnapping and death in Syria, wholesale massacre in Pakistan and Nigeria, and of course, the attacks in Paris and now Tripoli. Closer to home there is outrage in Congress and glossing over hard facts by the White House.
So, what to make of all this? After two decades, there are at least three lessons to be gleaned.
The first is to understand that this is not a conflict between Islam and the West; it is a war within the Arab world for power and resources and against the West controlling that outcome.
Failing to understand that is to commit the second blunder, giving al-Qaida and its successors what they want: a cycle of repression and more war.
Finally, and frustratingly, what was billed four years ago as the Arab Spring is really the Arab Inferno. And all America and Europe are prepared to do – indeed can do – is contain the fire.
First, the passage of time is revealing. Americans in uniforms have been in the Middle East in large numbers for some 40 years, taking over the historic role of the British, namely safeguarding oil. Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait about 25 years ago, Americans have been involved – to one degree or another – in a largely continuous state of armed conflict. The ensuing Iraq War, over a decade later, was a horrific, blundering aberration of what had been a long but low-grade conflict against one nation or another in the name of strategic balance.
But it was the so-called Arab Spring, four years ago, that destroyed the tottering nationalist regimes and plunged the whole region into the hell of its current chaos. Bloated, corrupt and justly reviled nationalist dictatorships tumbled of their own weight with no coherent political ideology set to take their places. Islamist extremism – not Islam – rushed into this vacuum and soon began to compete for not only power but also oil, the currency of wealth throughout most of the region; in Iraq, for example, leather is the No. 2 industry.
A political ideology more akin to Hitler’s Nazism in its nihilism than Islam, the religion, Islamist extremism was forged by decades of repression, fueled by decades of privation and represented conflict and death itself as preferable to a hopeless life in the Arab underclass. In the Arab Spring of 2010, it was a proven political weapon. It had been turned successfully on the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Iraq. So, it was employed against outsiders and Arabs alike.
Now, only Tunisia and the brittle monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have avoided the conflagration. And yet, it is stupefying that at this very juncture conservative politicians in the United States and Europe are on the verge of making a potentially deadly mistake in conflating Islam, the religion, with violent Islamism, the political ideology. More than 1.6 billion people are adherents to Islam and most of them – about 1 billion – live in Asia. The largest Islamic population calls Indonesia home. Yet we are not at war in Asia. Conflating the two – religious belief and political ideology – risks alienating still more people and strengthening violent radicals of the Arab world.
In this country, making that mistake lumps in innocent people from around the world in a violent, political ideology. In Europe, such a mistake will only deepen the isolation of Europeans with Arab roots. The trick is to exhaust terrorism as a strategy before it exhausts us.
After all, only about a third of the world’s Islamic population lives in the Arab world. Yet it is here, in the Arab world, that we find tension, conflict and systemic violence. Calling the Paris attacks Islamic is about as accurate as calling the old car bombings of Northern Ireland Catholic. The arithmetic of populations alone proves that Islam itself is not at war with Europe and America and we are not at war with it. Instead, and unstated by our governments, we are entangled in a long, nearly invisible struggle to contain the fire in the Arab world and over what political order arises from its ashes.
In this country, for example, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has been among those to claim that radical Islam is at war with America. That is at best wrong or at worst a lie. To lump even fundamentalists – not to mention sideswiping all who follow the Koran – in with ideologues is to open the door to isolating and scorning even Indonesians, Malaysians, Indians, Turks and others who are friends and allies.
In Europe, cracking down on already isolated and disaffected populations of the Arab diaspora is to invite precisely what al-Qaida and the Islamic State fervently hope: creating a bigger pool of European recruits from the Arab diaspora. Indeed, the continued provocations are ruses to either prompt a crack down broadly on Muslims or draw America and Europe into another land war. Either would, ironically, be the classic case of giving in to the terrorists.
President Barack Obama has been right not to overreact but it is abundantly clear that his administration, too, is either wrong or untruthful about both the status and nature of the conflict. The president has personally and publicly claimed that al-Qaida was in tatters, that the Islamic State was second-rate and that Yemen was a bright spot; all false. The administration has vowed the destruction of the Islamic State, but as long as no significant ground forces are involved, that is laughable – and no, the Free Syrian Army does not count.
Realistically, in wars of terrorism all that can be done is whittle away at the tentacles until the other side is exhausted and no longer sees terrorism as a useful means toward its political ends. Unfortunately, this creates unintended consequences alongside incremental successes. Allies become enemies. Big terrorist groups splinter. Captured terrorists become assets. Imprisoned ones become leaders once freed and martyrs once killed.
Today, the very fact that Europeans and Americans have come and gone from Syria’s civil war is baffling, and precious few are arrested. This represents a threat to everyday Americans and Europeans, but likely a secret boon to their intelligence agencies. Such is the perverse logic of wars involving terrorism and its tactics.
And it works both ways. At one time or another, al-Qaida and the Islamic State have seemed invulnerable. But they are not; they are as mortal as the old Irish Republican Army or the Palestine Liberation Organization. And it’s a fair guess to say that recent events, particularly in Paris, have hardened the resolve of Europeans and Americans. In that sense, both al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula and the Islamic State have blundered significantly.
For everyday Arab people caught in the inferno, this all adds up to a tragic fact: No one is coming to rescue them. America will no more rescue the suffering Syrians than it did desperate Libyans, the oppressed Egyptians or the war-ravaged Iraqis.
In this sense, the dissolution of power in the Arab world is tragically similar, on a larger scale, to the dissolution of Yugoslavia; there Americans and Europeans tried only to contain war, intervene at the edges and let it burn itself out, a process that claimed 10 horrific years and over 260,000 lives.
This year will only mark the fourth year since the Arab Inferno began. And the only thing America will likely really do is just contain the fire.
Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and contributor to The New York Times. He is also the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.” Follow him on Twitter@richard85parker.