Rank-ordering the lies of President Obama is a daunting task. But high on any sound list, though absent from most actual ones, is Obama’s claim that al Qaeda has been “decimated” and is “on the path to defeat.”
This claim was ripped to shreds yesterday at an AEI conference called “Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda.” You can watch that event here and I encourage you to do so.
I’ll discuss the “better strategy” later. For now, I want to focus on al Qaeda’s ascendency and President Obama’s willful failure to deal with our most dangerous and lethal enemy.
According to panelist Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies and a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, al Qaeda is present and active in twice as many countries as it was six years ago (i.e., near the end of the Bush administration). Moreover, al Qaeda is not even “on the path to defeat” in Pakistan, where the Obama administration has concentrated its efforts. To the contrary, according to Hoffman it is resurgent there, having succeeded in recruiting well-educated, middle-class Pakistanis.
Meanwhile in Syria, al Qaeda fighters are enjoying their greatest successes since at least 2006, before the Bush administration’s surge routed them in Anbar province where, by the way, al Qaeda is also resurgent. Obama engineered a self-inflicted defeat in Iraq. And he refused to provide meaningful assistance to non-al Qaeda rebels in Syria, thus paving the way for al Qaeda’s dominant position in the rebellion.
Underlying the Obama administration’s failed approach to al Qaeda is its absurd, politically-driven definition of that organization. Mary Habeck, a visiting scholar at AEI and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, attempted to find that definition. It wasn’t easy. Team Obama, though talking frequently about al Qaeda, has been reluctant to declare publicly what it understands that term to mean. It prefers to hide the ball.
The Obama administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism deems the threat posed by al Qaeda to emanate from al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents. But what is al Qaeda?
As near as Habeck can tell, the administration applies a definition that tracks the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) which gave President Bush the authority to wage war against al Qaeda and still defines the limits of presidential authority in this fight. Under that definition, al Qaeda would consist of “those nations, organizations, or persons [determined to have] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. . . .”
Under this definition, and only this definition, Obama can honestly claim that al Qaeda has been decimated. It can also justify its primary strategy for dealing with al Qaeda — a war of attrition against specific individuals.
But the definition is absurd — sort of like defining the New York Yankees as Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and the rest of the 2001 team. Only Jeter remains from that team, but the Yankees soldier on.
Like the Yankees, al Qaeda has replenished its ranks, including its leadership. Given the levels of violence it has perpetrated in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and given the numerous al Qaeda terrorist plots that are continually being uncovered in Europe and the Middle East, it makes no sense to view al Qaeda as consisting of the men who planned 9/11 and the people who affiliate with or adhere to that particular crew. Most of these men are gone but their successors soldier on, and with increasing success.
Absurd as it is, Team Obama’s definition of al Qaeda is useful to the president. It enables him to claim victory over al Qaeda and, accordingly, to deescalate the fight with an eye towards withdrawing from it. The political utility of claiming victory was obvious during the 2012 election campaign. The political utility of withdrawal is also clear; Americans are tired of the fight.
Unfortunately, al Qaeda is not war weary. It is stronger than it’s been in years and arguably stronger than ever. The report of its near demise is, I would argue, the most dangerous lie of Obama.