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Is the Arab League failing to fight the phantom enemy?

Treating the problem of terrorism more holistically at the region-wide level might just help ameliorate the many crises presently buffeting the region today

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Published: Updated:

Most summits come and go, causing barely a ripple on the international waters. They usually have some high-minded theme that is supposed to thematically unite the gathering—global warming, non-proliferation, helping along the global economy and human rights issues are stock choices—but generally precious little is practically accomplished to take on such intractable policy issues. Yesterday’s Arab League summit in Mauritania was such a case.

At best, summits function as a networking exercise, allowing regional figures to hobnob, spending time getting to know one another, which might prove handy if leaders have to make quick decisions about some future crisis. Summits tend to be about setting the stage for cooperation in the future, rather than dealing with the present.

Part of the problem with the Arab League meeting in Mauritania was the general theme to be discussed, terrorism, is so vague and open to so many interpretations the word has practically lost any real meaning. Last year’s ambitious plans to establish a joint Arab League military force have stalled, precisely because of the vagueness of what it would be use to do, and against whom.

Further, in the specific last minute absence of Egypt’s President Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, the strategic heavyweights of the Arab world, the meeting in Mauritania was poised to accomplish little, certainly nothing so ambitious as crafting a common regional prescription for combatting this scourge.

First the bad news

One of the reasons terrorism is so hard to combat is because many people cannot even agree on its meaning, as it has become little more than a political epithet. As they used to say in Ireland, at the height of ‘The Troubles,’ “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” If terrorism only means acts of violence perpetrated by people we don’t really like, it has become so subjective a term as to have lost all true meaning at all. This makes crafting a policy to take on this intellectual phantom practically impossible.

Treating the problem of terrorism more holistically at the region-wide level might just help ameliorate the many crises presently buffeting the region today

Dr. John C. Hulsman

The worry in a clunky organisation like the 22-member state Arab League, which represents the whole of the region, is that an already diverse and numerous group of countries will simply be unable to decide who are the terrorists out there, the order of priority they should be dealt with, and the common strategy for doing so. In choosing this nebulous theme at last year’s Arab League meeting in Egypt, its members took a significant intellectual gamble that the summit in Mauritania would amount to nothing.

Then the worse

Worse, the bad news is that the other basic factor generally determining the success or failure of summitry—how highly placed are the assembled delegates within their countries—must make outside analysts highly pessimistic that the Arab League members can soon craft a common position to deal with terrorism. The right people were simply not in the room to craft a deal in taking on terrorism region-wide that just might stick, even if such a deal had been on offer, which it was not.

However, for all that it amounts to little, the Mauritanian intellectual theme of the moment actually snugly fits the world we find ourselves in. There is little doubt the Middle East is on fire: From Libya to Syria, Iraq to Palestine, Turkey to Sinai. One of the few common threads running through this seeming chaos is that there is a terrorist element in all these all-consuming problems.

Treating the problem of terrorism more holistically at the region-wide level might just help ameliorate the many crises presently buffeting the region today. Surely it is safe to intellectually say that looking at these various crises in isolation has failed to work. That makes the summit in Mauritania that rarest of birds; a intellectually substantive effort. Its failure is all the more galling.

Perhaps there is a silver lining

It is also surely true that while terrorist networks in the region have internationalised themselves, becoming more flexible and supple, able to traverse regional and national boundaries with increasing ease, those states combatting the scourge have had a harder time keeping up with this increasing transnational approach.

Simply by placing a greater and sustained focus on the problem, the Arab League summit might jar loose greater regional cooperation, allowing for the increased intelligence sharing across the region that is the unsexy but vital way the dramatic rise in terrorist activity can be best fought. For this lowly practical reason, the seeming failure of the summit in Mauritania might just amount to more than meets the eye.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.