There was much irony, confusion and incompetence in President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point earlier this week.
The president said that “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism,” especially from “decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists” who might attack American targets.
Obama particularly mentioned Syria as a dangerous new arena where militants were gathering for training, indoctrination and fighting.
This reflects irony, confusion and incompetence on the part of the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western governments because the continued growth of these militant Islamists, especially the most virulent Salafist-takfiris among them, can be traced directly to recent Anglo-American policies in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world.
Obama may defeat these people, but he should recognize them as his country’s own progeny that was, and still is, midwifed by its policies.
If Obama is really concerned about this, he should convene an honest, dispassionate commission of enquiry into the full consequences of the 2003 war on Iraq that was energetically led by President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
That war, by removing the government and armed forces of the Iraqi state, created a security vacuum in large swaths of the country.
This, in turn, provided the most fertile and welcoming environment for Al-Qaeda militants such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who carried out murderous, sectarian-based warfare against Shiites and fellow Sunnis whom they considered apostates.
Only when Bush and Blair provided Al-Qaeda with this golden opportunity to establish a strong base of operations in the heart of the Arab world did the threat from Salafist-takfiris become operationally indigenized in a territorial base under their control.
They then spread rapidly to Syria and other parts of the region. The Lebanon-Syria-Iraq area has become a single operating unit for them. Experts who study this phenomenon say that at least 15,000 armed and active fighters operate there today, while some put the figure closer to 30,000.
The larger dilemma for the Western powers that now see these radicals as their biggest national security threat is that the Iraq war experience is only one of several measurable ways in which Western policies stoked the birth and growth of these dangerous movements.
The initial birth and expansion of Al-Qaeda occurred earlier, as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the American military presence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia following the 1991 war to liberate Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.
Al-Qaeda has also always capitalized on widespread Arab-Islamic resentment of two other factors that directly involve American policy: support for corrupt, incompetent and often-brutal Arab regimes; and chronic and extreme pro-Israeli policies in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Finally, Obama’s drone-based assassinations across the African-Asian region have created hundreds of fresh recruits for the militants’ cause every week from many countries.
The Arab states and governments themselves, though, bear the major blame for allowing this situation to prevail, because their own brutality, mismanagement, criminality and abuse of power have pushed their citizens into open rebellion.
Popular peaceful or armed revolts have sought to overthrow Arab regimes, and Al-Qaeda and similar movements, especially nonviolent Salafists, have become one of the fastest growing ideological trends in the region.
The direct and sustained role of American, British and other Western states’ foreign policies in creating conditions that have promoted this trend is too obvious to miss.
Now these countries, like ours, also face this new threat of radicalized religious fanatics who kill and create chaos – because chaos and ungoverned zones are the vital foundational element they require to operate, as has happened in parts of Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Mali.
An estimated 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria come from Western and Muslim-majority countries.
Western governments have stepped up their efforts to stem this flow, including the United Kingdom, which has stripped at least 20 men of their citizenship and convicted one Islamist who returned home from Syria of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts.
Many of the militants have said that American, British and other Western states’ foreign policies have motivated their desire to respond by attacking targets in those Western countries.
One such militant was quoted as saying that “attacks are occurring on the soil of Middle Eastern countries. We can only expect a response. Americans are still in Afghanistan.”
So yes, Western leaders should be concerned. The best way for them to reduce this threat is to stop engaging in foreign policy actions that have contributed to creating and nurturing such danger in the first place.
Rami G. Khouri tweets @RamiKhouri.