Last week, President Obama joked to guests at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner in New York about the upcoming foreign policy debate: “Spoiler Alert: We got [Osama] bin Laden.”
While this is indeed the highlight of the Administration’s foreign policy endeavors, President Obama’s failure to take a comprehensive approach to international terrorism has facilitated the resurgence of the global transnational threat.
The “Arab Spring” had a lot to do with this. As populations rose up against autocracy and overthrew their dictators, countries ended up with weak and/or Islamist governments. This has resulted in a number of unintended consequences for the region.
Since last month’s terrorist attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, the Obama Administration is still trying to get its message right on who is responsible and what happened. What is obvious, however, is Libya’s gaping security vacuum.
Libya’s fledgling government has been unable to disband Islamist militias responsible for numerous attacks against U.S. and British diplomatic personnel. With such a long history of terrorist activity, it is not surprising that Islamists have taken the opportunity to increase their influence. However, it is shocking that the Obama Administration was not prepared to manage or respond to such security threats.
The fall of the Muammar Qadhafi regime also impacted Africa’s Sahel region. Terrorists and their affiliates have occupied northern Mali, and the interim government in Bamako (Mali experienced a coup last March) is too weak to do anything about it independently. Planning for military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is already underway.
The Obama Administration’s response is conflicting. At first, it supported the reinstatement of a central government before any incursion takes place, but in September, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson stated that Mali “should accept the support…of other ECOWAS states.”
The revolution in Syria also provided Islamist extremists with an opportunity to connect with opposition groups desperately in need of arms and resources to topple the Assad regime. As the U.S. and the international community have sat on their hands throughout the crisis, desperation on the part of the opposition has led rebels to partner with nefarious actors, many of whom are foreign fighters. The Administration’s opportunity to influence the opposition has long passed, and if the regime falls, the government that replaces Assad will remember Washington’s indifference.
Apart from the countries affected by the “Arab Spring,” Iraq is also experiencing an al-Qaeda comeback. When President Obama’s election promise came to fruition and U.S. troops withdrew last December, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) return was easily anticipated. Since the withdrawal, Department of Defense data show that AQI has more than doubled its number of fighters since 2011.
Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, AQI attacks have also increased to roughly 140 times per month, up from 75 times last year. And last summer, AQI leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi even went as far to threaten the U.S. homeland, stating, “You will soon witness how attacks will resound in the heart of your land, because our war with you has now started.”
While the Obama Administration cannot control the outcomes of revolutions or government transitions, it can respond proactively by the shaping U.S. relations with new leaders. The Administration can also influence the ways in which these governments respond to American interests, such as terrorism. In the absence of strong international leadership, the U.S. puts American security and allies at risk.
For more information, see A Counterterrorism Strategy for the “Next Wave.”