Guest editorial: Not in our national interest

 During the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union spent vast resources on the non-aligned world. Preeminent in that world were the countries of the Middle East. They were important because they produced much of the world’s crude oil, and control over that resource represented a powerful economic weapon. Both the Soviets and their Western competitors actively sought influence and control in that and Jordanians offer a favorable opinion. In the past 10 years, polls have shown that roughly 75 percent of Muslims have an unfavorable view of the U.S. government, believe the U.S. goal in the region is to weaken and divide Islam, and condemn American attacks that harm civilians. A like majority approve attacks on American troops in the region and favor the goal of getting America to withdraw all its troops from Islamic countries.
And this is in the face of a Muslim population, over 85 percent of which does not support al-Qaida, share its views or approve its methods.
In today’s world, an organized, proficient terrorist organization does not need to hold land for terrorist training and planning. They can plan and carry out operations from any decent-sized metropolis in the Western world. The real dangers reside in the angry minds of self-motivated crazies like those who have recently struck in Canada. They are not military problems. They are problems that can only be contested with intelligence and law enforcement assets.
The simple act of putting American uniforms on the ground in Muslin nations has transformed realities there. Instead of combatting terrorism, we have been forced to challenge and fight those who have wanted to change governance in their countries. Add to that our ongoing use of air power with all its unintended consequences. This has inevitably resulted in local populations supporting their own, whether the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS in Syria/Iraq, rather than the foreign invader and occupier, thus creating insurgencies for us to deal with.
In a post-war, post-colonial Islamic world, we had two preeminent foreign policy goals: the maintenance of stability and control of the oil. In a Cold War setting, in a region where we were constantly contested by the Soviets, that policy made sense because it was in our national interest.
But what about today?
The Arab Spring gave Muslims the hope of self-determination. The problem in the region is not only that there is no history of democracy, but that stability and order have been maintained in the past by repressive governance. And if we are to understand Muslim attitudes toward us, we have to realize that they deeply resent the fact that those repressive governments were maintained in power by U.S. Cold War policies. Unfortunately stability, where it exists today, is still largely dependent on repression.
Add to that our ongoing attitude and policy toward Palestinians, our tolerance of Israeli settlement activities, our military invasions of the region and our precipitous fall from favor in the Islamic world becomes clearer.
And what of oil? With its newfound focus on shale, the United States has now surpassed Saudi Arabia in crude oil production.
The resources that are needed to fight movements like ISIS, Khorasan, Hezbollah and other fundamentalist Muslim groups belong to the countries where they are active. If Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Maghreb and the Gulf states feel threatened, it will and should be up to them to provide the military power needed to combat them. It is not and should not be our fight because it is not in our national interest.
So how can we find a “national interest” in present and future military activity in the Islamic world? The simple answer is that we can’t. It is far wiser that we concentrate on intelligence and special operations — both of which are acknowledged to be the most effective tools against terrorism.
The worst mix in the world is the conventional U.S. military trying to deal with terrorism on foreign soil. It will only, inevitably, make matters worse, morphing terrorism into far more difficult and expensive-to-contest insurgencies, as it already has in the Middle East.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran, Washington and as chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant in the director’s office.

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