The eight years of the Obama administration and the less than a year of the Biden White House have clearly shown that U.S. national security and the larger international security structure of the free world have gone into decline because of a strategic double miss. Between 2009 and 2021, even to a certain degree under Trump bureaucrats, the United States failed to contain and reverse the two most direct threats against America, its allies, and the population of the Middle East, namely the Iranian regime on the one hand and the Islamist network on the other hand.
For over thirty years, since the end of the Cold War and the fading of the Soviet menace, two well-organized, well-funded, and strategically determined forces – originally emerging from the Greater Middle East – have challenged Washington, resisted it, maneuvered it, disoriented it and, despite constant American military superiority in the battlefield, and though not great nor superpowers themselves, have constantly eluded American containment. The two hostile powers have been able – with strategic patience and effective lobbying – to defeat the most powerful democracy on earth.
But the most sensational of these two terror achievements was the reality that both networks have succeeded, despite ground setbacks, to use the soft power of U.S. democracy to score political victories slice by slice despite the “lightyear” advances of the country of Uncle Sam. It was, in fact, Americans who made it possible for the two forces to eventually win the three-decade-long contest. It was lobbying in Washington and influence in the American classroom that interdicted American wins against the two networks. Mighty American efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Gulf, and even vis a vis Iran itself, were undermined by mollification of U.S. national decision-making to complete the campaigns politically, diplomatically, and psychologically.
Cold War Understanding
During the cold war, a firm American determination to confront the Soviet Union and strong messaging for decades reassured the peoples behind the Iron Curtain that there was a Free World waiting for them and committed to their liberties. These were the pillars with which the U.S. won the contest against the Soviet bloc. The U.S. deployed its best resources worldwide to contain the Red Empire, but it was American determination and unwavering discourse that unleashed the moral and psychological powers of the oppressed populations in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to rise and encourage the peoples of Romania, East Germany, Bulgaria, the Baltic republics – and eventually even the tired Russian society – to reject the legacy of Bolshevism, Stalinism, and the Soviet police state and force glasnost and perestroika on Moscow. The Soviet Communist Party collapsed, and the world changed in 1991.
But as soon as one global threat collapsed, the next threat immediately emerged, forcefully and devastatingly. The Iran regime and the global Jihadists – with their wide panoply of movements, regimes, networked organizations, and even lone wolves – struggled for twenty years to weaken, wound, and eventually topple American power not only in the greater Middle East, but also in its homeland.
Attacks Against America
Hence, from a geopolitical perspective and via national security and foreign policy lenses, fundamental questions must now be asked after the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. We have had benchmark after benchmark changed the story of the war on terror: From the first attack on New York in 1993, to the double attack on our embassies in East Africa in 1998, to the USS Cole attack in 2000 in Aden, to the close to 50 Jihadi attacks on U.S. soil before the 2001 culmination; from the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to multiple counterterrorism operations in the region and worldwide, to the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And then there was the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover. In the parallel jihadi realm, however, even more questions remain unanswered, from the U.S. confrontation with Iran and its militias in the Middle East (from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen).
Over the two last decades, the two battlefields may have had major differences in appearance, but both also had a common trait: The United States won every military contest against the enemy, yet in the end lost the political contest to both. This year’s tragic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the American return to the Iran deal are just two major illustrations of why and how Washington lost these conflicts.
The Conflict with the Jihadists
The strikes of 9/11 were not the beginning of a war but a bloody signature by the Jihadists that they were open and unrepenting about a war they have been waging against the power they deemed the most dangerous to their very old project: the reestablishment of a fighting Caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, al-Qaeda and its later offshoots, such as ISIS, were themselves born out of multi-layered Islamist ideologies and movements harkening back to, at least, the early 20th century. The global Salafists who surfaced in Arab, Middle Eastern, and Asian politics after the collapse of the Ottoman empire (the last official Caliphate after WWI) vehemently called for the return of the “empire.” They cannot see a world without a Khilafa, and they reject the norms and essence of international law as the highest set of legal authority in the world. Among their ideological families were the Egypt-born Muslim Brotherhood which rose in the mid-1920s. The Ikhwan movement was urban, disciplined, and ideologically intense. Though the goal is the rise of a Caliphate, the strategies can be very malleable, adopting all tactics and camouflage needed to seize power within countries – or controlling the ground to control governments.
The “Islamists,” the political root of the “Jihadists,” have operated in two forms. One is political, such as the tactics of the Ikhwan in the Middle East and the Deobandis in south Asia. The other is military, or terrorist, and operates under al-Qaeda and the various Salafi combat groups.
During the Cold War, the larger web of Islamists-Jihadists considered the Soviet Union and the Communists to be the highest priority for elimination. They accepted an interim partnership with the United States across the region and in Afghanistan. The Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and Jihadists even cooperated with Washington, seen as the lesser “Kafir” (infidel) danger. With the collapse of the USSR, at the Khartoum conference of 1991-1992, the Islamist web split in two. One bloc aimed to seize Arab Muslim governments while the other chose to hit U.S. targets directly, starting with the 1993 New York terror act, the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole attack, and then the 9/11 al-Qaeda massacre of thousands of citizens and visitors in New York, DC, and Pennsylvania.
During the two decades of the American “War on Terror,” the Islamist-Jihadi cartels widened their operations and campaigns against the United States and its allies. During the 2000s, the Jihadists multiplied their terror acts on U.S. soil and against Western countries and other allies. In 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to seize multiple countries during the so-called “Arab Spring,” opening spaces for Jihadi activities in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. In 2014, ISIS (an offshoot of al-Qaeda) grabbed large swaths of Iraq and Syria, prompting a US military return to the region.
Declarations of War
The international Jihadist movement, represented since the early 1990s by al-Qaeda, had issued two declarations of war against the United States. The first in 1996 was issued by Osama Bin Laden after the Taliban takeover of Kabul. In it, AQ announced it was waging war “against the infidels, the United States and the Jews.” For the first time, America was openly and clearly named an enemy by the global Jihadist movement – just as the first fundamentalist Jihadi regime was established by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The second declaration of war in 1998 was in the form of a public announcement by bin Laden aired by al Jazeera, based in Qatar. In that declaration, Osama bin Laden threatened direct attacks on American soil if the United State did not withdraw its troops “from Muslim lands.”
Both declarations were ignored by the Clinton administration. It was only after 9/11 that the U.S. responded when President Bush announced an American led war on terror in Congress on October 7.
Afghanistan and Iraq
The American liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban and the dismantling of al-Qaeda in the fall of 2001 opened a long phase of occupation which, beyond the removal of the Taliban from power, aimed at empowering the Afghan people, army, and government to confront and contain the Jihadists. It took two decades for such construction of the state to produce a fledgling yet still operational Afghan democracy despite corruption and slow advances. Strategically, multiple administrations committed to helping rebuild an Afghanistan that would be part of the anti-Jihadi alliance. One of the major solutions for helping societies threatened by Jihadist terror was to deradicalize the sectors of the population that might be indoctrinated by the Islamists and thus allow for a survival of the Jihadist movements. The core of such a process is the school curriculum.
One failure of American efforts was the refusal by the Obama bureaucracies (due to Muslim Brotherhood lobbying) to unleash an ideological response in society, thus prolonging the war. The Trump administration’s short term did not allow such a war of ideas to be successful despite constant military domination of the enemy.
The U.S. campaign in Iraq against al-Qaeda and its ilk, since 2003, was also militarily successful, but as in Afghanistan, the outreach to the Sunni community failed because of the lack of counter-Jihadi educational strategies under the Obama administration. Then add the withdrawal in 2011 that transferred power to pro-Iran militias and eventually reopened the country to an ISIS blitz in 2014. American military efforts under Obama to contain ISIS, and the greater efforts under Trump starting in 2017, eventually crumbled Daesh. But again, intense lobbying by Iran and the Ikhwan limited U.S. action to tactical operations against the Jihadists.
The Conflict with Iran
The direct confrontation between the United States and the Iran regime is older than the clash with the Jihadists. Going back to the “Islamic revolution” takeover of Iran in 1979, the U.S. embassy hostage crisis, and the subsequent Hezbollah hostage situations in Lebanon during the 1980s, Tehran’s ruling establishment has been very clear in framing America as a “major devil” that needs to be decisively defeated and removed from the region. Its ideologues defined the United States as “evil in its essence,” hence elevating the conflict to an irreversible ideological battle.
During the 1990s, Washington responded with several measures but excluded efforts at removing the Khomeinists from power.
Iran linked with Syria’s Bashar Assad and helped Hezbollah control Lebanon and mass across the border from Israel. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran and Assad waged a sustained terror campaign against U.S. forces until the Obama administration decided to pull out of Iraq, allowing Iran-backed militias to seize the country. That in turn provoked an ISIS war in Iraq and Syria, leading to a U.S. return to Iraq and a presence in East Syria.
During these clashes, under the Obama White House, discussions with Iranian assets were pursued in the hope of a possible partnership with Tehran. The regime took advantage of U.S. rapprochement with the Ayatollahs to expand all azimuths in the region. Seizing on the several civil wars as of 2011, Iran unleashed its militias in Iraq and Syria, backed Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon, and supported the Houthis in Yemen, practically encircling Israel and the Gulf States.
The Iran Deal
The Obama administration negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA, or “the Iran Deal”], an agreement fully to the advantage of the regime, costing Washington its special relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The deal de facto recognized Tehran’s domination of four Arab countries and provided financial relief. It was a strategic mistake in American foreign policy that lasted from its signing in 2014 until 2019 when the Trump administration canceled the agreement and put pressure on the Iranian militias in the region. That in turn encouraged civil societies in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon to revolt against the Iranian diktat in the region throughout the fall of 2019. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 put an end to the revolutions.
With the election of Joe Biden as President, U.S. policy in the Middle East changed again. The new administration readopted the Obama policy and suspended the policies of the Trump White House. The Biden team rejoined the JCPOA negotiations in Vienna, removed some sanctions, and delisted the Houthis as a terror group in Yemen. But this concession failed to moderate Tehran, which simply insisted on greater U.S. concessions. The return to the deal frustrated Israel and our Arab allies as well as the Iranian opposition. A full return to the deal will not only empower the Iranian regime but also further minimize the chances for democratic uprisings in the region.
The Taliban Deal
President Obama called for an historic deal between the U.S. and the Islamists in his speech in Cairo in 2009, and that became the genesis of various partnerships between his administration and the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. Early talks with the Taliban based in Qatar were the foundation of what became the Taliban Deal, a parallel to the Iran Deal. The Trump bureaucracy negotiated with the Taliban a deal that would see a disarming of the militia and a national unity government, which was unlikely because of the unwillingness of the Jihadists to demilitarize. But the Biden team agreed on an Obama approach: to allow the Taliban to seize power and negotiate relations with them after. The exit from Afghanistan, like the exit from Iraq, brought a radical Jihadi regime to power in Kabul – a direct threat to the Afghan population, the region, the Gulf, Israel, Europe, and the United States.
U.S. Posture in the Region
Washington has changed its strategic policies toward the two threats three times in the last 20 years. The Obama team changed posture from the Bush administration by engaging the Iran regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Trump administration ended the Iran Deal and the ISIS Caliphate. The Biden administration is back to the Iran Deal and has implemented a Taliban deal. The Bush “Coalition of the Willing” crushed the terror forces in two countries. The Obama partnership with the Islamists and the Khomeinists facilitated the rise of an axis of Islamists. Trump reversed direction but was deprived of a second term to consolidate. And Biden is rushing back to the Obama agendas. U.S. posture in the region is now shaky because of these dizzying U-turns.
Two significant achievements are at great risk. One is the historic anti-terrorist Arab Coalition assembled in Riyadh in May 2017, now deeply challenged by the two American deals with Iran and the Islamists. Second is the historic Abraham Accords that brought more Arab countries to the Peace Process with Israel but is now equally threatened by an invigorated Iran and a Taliban on steroids.
If the Biden administration maintains its direction in favor of the Iran Deal, it will run the risk of witnessing a major confrontation in the region between Iran and U.S. allies. And if it commits to the Taliban deal, it would be providing a sanctuary in Afghanistan for global Jihadi organizations that would in turn threaten the region, NATO countries, and eventually, again, the U.S. homeland.
Walid Phares, Ph.D., is foreign policy analyst, Co-Secretary General of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group.