Want to defeat al-Qaeda? Start with Tunisia

President Obama’s State of the Union speech devoted precious little time to the Middle East, the Arab Spring, or the Muslim world

Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul
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President Obama’s State of the Union speech devoted precious little time to the Middle East, the Arab Spring, or the Muslim world, beyond the typical trinity. There is Israel, there is Iran [or whatever brownish bogeyman the decade calls for], and there is al-Qaeda. Everything must be related back to one of these three, or it has no place. Bonus points for all three; here’s looking at you Syria. The president, whose drones now fly over and fire into numerous Muslim-majority countries—and only those countries, has nothing to say of consequence to the same. They are, too, his drones. He said so himself. (Don’t believe me? Read the full speech here.)

When things didn’t work out in Iraq and Afghanistan, though what that was supposed to look like is anyone’s guess, a country the span of a continent turned inward. Or elsewhere. That’s a constant theme in American history. Except this time there is so much humming and hawing, masking a non-strategy whose purpose is unknown even to its principal proponents and whose effects are equally concealed from us. Heaven forbid we connect the dots. This is why we don’t call it a war. The more militants that are killed, the more emerge, who then need to be killed, and then they’re killed, and more emerge.

Also, we’ve put an end to the active voice.

In Afghanistan, President Obama tells us that “a small force of Americans could remain,” albeit with “narrow” operational parameters. Helping train Afghan forces, first and foremost; second and equally critically, fighting what’s left of al-Qaeda. “Danger remains,” Obama warned gravely, for while “al-Qaeda’s core leadership [is] on a path to defeat”—more obtuse language could hardly be imagined—“al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world.” Does President Obama not wonder how one can simultaneously be on a path to defeat yet taking root elsewhere?

Obama’s vague and allusive language constitutes the verbal roundabouts he is happy to have us circle around and around. The president says, for example, that extremist movements exist in “Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali,” and makes reference to Syria’s possible use as a staging ground for terrorists; how is it that a group whose core leadership gives off a mortuary air—they’re corpses or on the way there—seems simultaneously to be metastasizing so effectively? When your war has no clear goalposts, you can win and lose, have the upper hand and be vulnerable. And when you refuse to admit the scale or severity of this conflict’s consequences, you exempt yourself from having to make connections. Or take decisive stands.

Tunisia is the most important country in the Arab world right now. Period. It is the most courageous, the most forward-looking, the most promising

Haroon Moghul

Obama is right to forbid America from “large-scale deployments,” though he oddly suggests that these “may ultimately feed extremism”—talk about being afraid to make a point; the emphasis is sadly mine. As for drones, he announces an “impos[ition]” of “prudent limits on the use of drones.” Which are what, exactly? Who comes up with them? What outside body has oversight? Can the American people expect any level of transparency?

Never mind the return of the personal pronoun, the wrath of the active voice. “I”—Obama puts the limits down. He and himself alone?

But this was neither the meat nor the potatoes of the speech. Not even a side dish. The only real reference to a Muslim country that did not have anything to do with terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, or Israel, was to Tunisia, for its democracy—which Obama says America will be supporting, though it gets clumped in with Burma. (Syria gets a nod, but that’s so much salt in the noncommittal wound.) First the absurdity: America supported dictatorship in Tunisia. America had little if anything to do with Myanmar’s affairs.

The most important country in the Arab world

Too, Tunisia is the most important country in the Arab world right now. Period. It is the most courageous, the most forward-looking, the most promising, and what help does it receive? While democracy is reversed in Egypt, and stymied elsewhere, the Tunisians are pursuing a fascinating path forward. Yet we watch from afar. And bomb from above. Real courage would have been taking sides in the Arab Spring, supporting agendas for change, and having the wherewithal—the guts, the optimism, the vision, the commitment beyond rhetorical exercises and fancy speechifying—to see the process through.

Ultimately this will be Obama’s greatest failure - Tunisia. What started there was rolled back to there. On his watch. A great convulsion shook the Middle East and North Africa, and the same man who went to Cairo to speak of new beginnings is near the end of his second term, and what? You might say he droned on and on, and the world changed, and when finally there might be a chance for his promise to become more than merest potential, he went and found himself a new kind of droning. The inability to connect the cancerous spread of al-Qaeda to the failure of an Arab and Muslim social contract, specifically, is not born of ignorance, but deliberateness.
He knows better. Surely.

The reason extremists succeed in finding nooks and crannies to break wide open is because there is no compelling social contract in so many of these countries. Between extremism and authoritarianism, what hope is there for a reasonable and centrist politics. The Islamists who tried competing in Egypt were gunned down. The Syrians who protested peacefully were abandoned. Tunisia is one of the few places trying to change this dynamic, to offer something new in place of the old, and they stand abandoned.


Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He's a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly. His essay, "Prom InshAllah," is featured in Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy (Beacon 2014). Follow him on Twitter @hsmoghul.

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