Let me follow up on a point from my Monday Thread below: what exactly does it mean if al Qaeda decides that it doesn’t need the Republicans anymore? What is this phase two that Kevin Drum mentioned?
Recall that al Qaeda’s overall mission statement doesn’t specifically involve killing Americans. Like most terrorist groups Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s outfit has an agenda that relates more to their local environment than to the people they attack. It may serve America’s self-absorption to think the evil men attacked us for our freedoms or some such pap but it just ain’t so. Ultimately al Qaeda’s endgame serves Bin Laden’s pseudo-messianic fantasies about uniting the Arab middle east under a populist, fundamentalist banner. A Greater Caliphate. Bin Laden’s primary problem is the British partition of the mideast, which functions exactly as designed by keeping any potential Ottoman empire bottled up in conflicts between more than a dozen competing nation-states.
Al Qaeda plans a modern domino effect – knock down secularist regimes like Syria, Egypt and Iraq, destabilize the region and revolutionize or co-opt fundamentalist states like Saudi Arabia. Foment chaos and then, absent credible opposition from the recently-departed local governments, offer people an alternative. The appeal potentially has legs – by virtue of its oil reserves alone a unified mideast would instantly become answerable to nobody on the world stage. After Iraq (again, which ministry did we guard from looters?) the image of western states obsessed with and dependent on Arab oil will not be lost on many. Right now the idea of a fundamentalist state only appeals to so many in the mideast, but al Qaeda learned a critical lesson from Afghanistan. Give people a taste of chaos and they will eagerly give order a chance, even order with significant trade-offs.
The persistence of key Arab states has frustrated al Qaeda more than anything. And almost every time the single most important factor is support from the US. I will leave out the strategic wisdom of these arrangements, not every foreign policy decision gives you options that you like. Wheels within wheels. But from al Qaeda’s perspective the big US prop behind Hosni Murbarak, the Sauds and Jordan definitely poses a problem.
What to do? Look to Afghanistan and before that, Vietnam. A ragtag band can’t defeat a superpower but they can make it bleed until it decides to go away. Underneath the rhetoric, Al Qaeda attacked America and kept attacking America because they wanted to draw us into another Afghan war. Bleed the US while using the conflict to inflame Muslim sentiment us until we no longer have the will (Vietnam) or the resources (Afghanistan) to go on.
The sad irony of the last five years is that al Qaeda gambled and lost. Their attack offended more Muslims than expected and their military position in Afghanistan folded like a house of cards. Then, unbelievably, with bin Laden’s outfit on the ropes Bush gave them exactly what they wanted.
What happens next? In my understanding, nothing as far as America is concerned. Notwithstanding mutations like Zarqawi’s former organization, which view killing (Americans, Shiites, whatever) as an end in itself, the terrorists got what they needed from us. Assuming that the old Al Qaeda has any influence relative to the strategy-blind mutations the folks who probably should worry are US-backed regimes like the al-Sauds and Murbarak. There are the guys who will soon turn to us in the face of a growing insurgency and find no help forthcoming. And, ultimately, Israel.