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Can the United States Save Itself in the Middle East?

Last month, the New America Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) sponsored a conference in Washington, entitled “Cutting the Fuse: Moving beyond the War on Terror.”  The conference was sparked by the publication of a new book by CPOST’s director, Robert Pape, and James Feldman, entitled Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It (University of Chicago Press, 2010).  The book — as well as the conference it prompted — offers important if also politically inconvenient insights for U.S. policymakers seeking to revive America’s declining strategic position in the Middle East.

Cutting the Fuse extends what is already a well-established body of work by Bob Pape assessing the root causes of suicide terrorism and drawing the implications of that analysis for U.S. policy in the Middle East.  In his 2005 book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Bob analyzed a massive data base of suicide attacks perpetrated around the world between 1980 and 2003 to demonstrate that (in Pape’s words) “what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

This insight is particularly relevant to the terrorist campaign that Al-Qa’ida launched against American interests in the 1990s, a campaign which culminated in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the American homeland.  It is politically easy to argue that Al-Qa’ida struck the United States because they “hate” our “values,” embodied in practices like religious toleration and letting women drive.  But, in reality, Al-Qa’ida couldn’t care less about what Americans do in their own homeland.  Al-Qa’ida is, among other things, a virulently anti-Shia movement.  With regard to the United States, what Al-Qa’ida cares about is American occupation of Muslim lands.  And, in the 1990s, what Al-Qa’ida cared about was what it characterized as American occupation of the Arabian peninsula — the Muslim holy land, the birthplace of Islam and the site of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina — as a consequence of Washington’s decision to retain substantial U.S. military forces on the ground in Saudi Arabia after the war to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.  Pape’s early work draws a discomfiting but clear line between that decision and the 9/11 attacks.

To continue with this line of analysis, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Middle East — like pretty much the entire rest of the world — had no problem with a vigorous American response, including a robust military component, aimed at killing Al-Qa’ida and unseating the Taliban from power in Kabul.  As we and others have written and discussed, the Islamic Republic of Iran supported the United States in pursuing these objectives.  But the invasion of Iraq and prolonged occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have been deeply damaging to the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East.  That America purports to carry out these occupations and the atrocities associated with them in the name of bringing democracy to populations that have long suffered under authoritarian rule is not a message that resonates with regional audiences.

The invasion of Iraq and prolonged occupations of Afghanistan as well as Iraq have also been profoundly detrimental to America’s counter-terrorism goals in the broader Middle East.  In a 2003 memo, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously asked, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?”  By this point, nine years into America’s self-described “global war on terror,” the accumulated hard evidence is overwhelming that the answer to Secretary Rumsfeld’s question is, “No.”

In their new book, Cutting the Fuse, Pape and Feldman examine a comprehensive data set on suicide attacks perpetrated between 2004 and the present to show that (as they put it) “far from declining, anti-American-inspired terrorism — particularly suicide terrorism — is more frequent today than before 9/11 and even before the invasion of Iraq. . . .  The more we’ve gone over there, the more they’ve wanted to come over here — and the absence of another 9/11 is due more to extensive American domestic security measures, immigration controls, intelligence, and pure luck than to lack of intent or planning by our enemies.”

Thus, the major military campaigns mounted by the United States under the rubric of the “global war on terror” have turned out to be grossly counter-productive for achieving the ostensible goals of those campaigns.  (One of the many interesting findings in the data assembled by Pape and Feldman is that there are no known cases of suicide terrorism perpetrated by anyone from Iran.  Another is that, since Israel withdrew its occupation force from its self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, the number of suicide attacks carried out by individuals affiliated with Hizballah is — zero.)

Pape’s chief policy argument is that the United States needs to stop being an on-the-ground occupier in the Middle East and return to its previous “offshore balancer” role in the region, operating from an “over the horizon” military posture.  At the Washington, DC conference prompted by the publication of Cutting the Fuse, Flynt argued that such a shift in the U.S. military posture is essential, but is only one step in what needs to be a broader “reset” of American policy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.  He appeared on a panel with Kori Schake (former member of the George W. Bush Administration’s NSC staff, adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, and a professor at the U.S. Military Academy) and Seth Jones (a Chicago-trained Ph.D. who is an adviser to the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command).  Video of the panel can be viewed below.  Flynt’s presentation starts at 19:35 into the video, and runs for just over 16 minutes.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 9 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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