The Obama Doctrine, the War on Terror and Freedom's Future

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Benjamin Mueller's picture

The Obama Doctrine, the War on Terror and Freedom's Future

The recent revelations surrounding Barack Obama's approach to national security have enjoyed only a brief spell in the headlines before being supplanted by more topical developments: the fraying of the EU, Egypt's election of an Islamist government, more nefariousness from the financial industry: the list goes on - and this is just from the past few weeks.

We live in tumultuous times. Global power structures are shifting; new orders are replacing the old. The worst economic crisis since the 1930s has devastated the public finances of most of the NATO bloc, political priorities have been overturned dramatically. Amidst all this, Islamic terrorism seems like a relic of the Noughties, a passing phenomenon that left its dreadful mark on New York, Madrid, London and many other places, and is now receding into irrelevance.

This is an inevitable side-effect of the successes of global anti-terror efforts during the last decade. Al-Qaeda has been hammered relentlessly in the Afpak region, bin Laden lies at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and plots against Western targets have been disrupted repeatedly. However, none of this means that the War on Terror is over. The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism is too tightly interwoven with the fabric of globalisation for it to be purged through Special Ops missions alone. This is fundamentally not an issue of violence, but of Weltanschauung. The aggressive rejection of liberal pluralism has morphed and shifted, but not disappeared. The failed Fedex plot and Umar 'Captain Underpants' Farouk's somewhat comical attempt at martyrdom are visible reminders thereof.

Obama's change in course, away from a 'boots on the ground' approach towards human intelligence with targeted assassinations from the air, as well as limited surgical strikes executed by Special Forces, merits further investigation. The Obama Doctrine represents an attempt to make the Al-Qaeda campaign 'smarter' and cheaper, relying less on manpower and more on technology. By extension, this replaces the Bush-Blair vision of engaging in nation-building to target the sources of terrorism at their roots. In view of the West's indebtedness, this is fiscally prudent. But it does raise the unpleasant the question of whether all we can ever hope for is containing Al-Qaeda rather than destroying it.

All this is connected to the fundamental issue at stake in this war, which is primarily a struggle of competing ideas and societal visions. Eliminating Al-Qaeda's command structure will not terminate the conflict. Sayeed Qutb, father of the Muslim Brotherhood and eminence grise of Islamist terrorism, became most influential long after his execution in 1966, as his writings inspired a generation of jihadis still with us today.

The Obama Doctrine also raises the issue of the legality of drone strikes. During the past weeks, Obama's critics have decried the lawlessness of his approach to the fight against Al-Qaeda. But none have formulated a credible alternative. Although easy to forget, habeas corpus is a man-made construction – not a god-given right. The notion of due process arose out of the desire of Enlightenment thinkers to afford rights to all men. What was left unresolved is the question of how to deal with those who fundamentally reject this vision of a liberal society (which makes the irony all the more frustrating that where it suits them, Islamists are happy to resort to the European Convention of Human rights to fight their case).

To simply declare a priori that due process applies to everyone, everywhere is an intellectually self-satisfying position which wilfully ignores the acute moral dilemmas brought about by the War on Terror. This remains a fight against non-state actors who want to kill civilians using asymmetric, unconventional and indiscriminate means. Islamists wear no uniform and swear allegiance to no country, only to an ideology of hate. It is futile to try and apply the Geneva Conventions to such individuals. But the status quo, too, is unsatisfying: Guantanamo continues to blight the West's moral conscience. How should we deal with people who combine criminality with war-like destruction? Military tribunals, although a fudge at best, seem like the only way out of this quandary.

Most significantly, however, we need to understand that 9/11 was just the prelude to an anti-Enlightenment backlash which shows no signs of abating. The collapse of the Soviet Union cut off the biggest head of the Hydra that is Illiberalism, but its demise spawned new enemies of liberty. What unites actors as disparate as Al-Qaeda, Hugo Chavez, Hamas, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Un and the Chinese Politburo is their basic dismissal of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of mankind. The idea that men and women are equal before the law, and that governments must answer to their citizenry, not vice versa, abhors them all.

As things stand, some of these actors are being weakened; others are thriving. But before we understand that what is at stake is no less than the future of freedom, there is no way we can formulate an adequate response to the challenges that are yet to come. Grim days for Liberalism lie ahead.