Producing more enemies than you can kill

No doubt one of the few international issues President Obama will highlight in tonight’s State of the Union speech is the threat of international terrorists associated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. He will cite the American military response in Iraq and Syria as vital to our national interests and claim we are making progress, at least in Iraq.

He is unlikely to acknowledge that the problem is spreading and getting worse. In Libya, there are two parliaments and two governments, one of which has ample extremist backing. In Yemen, rebels have laid siege to the government the Washington relies on for cooperation against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram is wrecking havoc. In Syria, moderates have lost territory and extremists have gained. Taliban violence is up in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Fourteen years ago when the World Trade Center was attacked in New York City Al Qaeda amounted to a few hundred militants hiding out mainly in Afghanistan, with small clandestine cells in Europe and the US. Now estimates of the number of extremists change so rapidly it is hard to know which to cite, but there are surely more than 100 times as many actively engaged in extremist Islamist campaigns or recruitment efforts in close to a dozen countries, including (in addition to the ones cited above) Somalia, Egypt, Niger, Mali, Algeria, Palestine and Tunisia. Counting the numbers of sympathizers in Europe, Russia and the United States is just impossible.

The long war against Islamist extremism is not going well. It can’t, because we are fighting what amounts to an insurgency against the existing state system principally with military means. Drones and air strikes are killing lots of militants, and I am even prepared to believe that the collateral damage to innocents is minimized, whatever that means. But extremist recruitment is more than keeping up with extremist losses. We are making more enemies than we are killing. Insurgencies thrive on that.

The Obama administration is apparently prepared to make things worse, as it now leans towards supporting UN and Russian peace initiatives in Syria that are premised on allowing Bashar al Asad to stay in power. The Islamic State will welcome that, as it will push relative moderates in their direction and weaken the prospects for a democratic transition. Bashar has shown no inclination to fight ISIS and will continue to focus his regime’s efforts against democracy advocates.

President Obama knows what it takes to shrink extremist appeal: states that protect their populations with rule of law and govern inclusively and transparently. This is the opposite of what Bashar al Asad, and his father, have done. But President Obama has no confidence the US or anyone in the international community can build such states in a matter of months or even years. So he does what comes naturally to those whose strongest available means is military power:  he uses it to achieve short-term objectives, knowing that its use is counter-productive in the longer term.

But producing more enemies than you can kill is not a strategy that works forever. The Union is recovering from a devastating economic crisis and can now afford to take a fresh look at its foreign policy priorities. I’ll be with the President when he calls tonight for completion of the big new trade and investment agreement with Europe (TTIP) and its counterpart in the Pacific (TTP). These are good things that can find support on both sides of the aisle, among Democrats and Republicans.

I’ll groan when he calls for a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) but says little or nothing about building the kind of states in the Greater Middle East that are needed to immunize the region against extremism. Support for restoration of autocracy in Egypt and for Gulf monarchies is not a policy that will counter extremism. We are guaranteeing that things are going to get worse before they get better.

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