Al-Qaeda's Olive Branch to Obama
Obama faces regional challenges more complex than boots on the ground.
On the day of our Lord, the 7th of November, 2008, Commander of the Faithful Abu ‘Umar Al-Baghdadi—the Grand Emir of Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq—made an offer to the soon-to-be leader of the free (Christian) world: “Convert (or reconvert) to Islam, maintain pre-WWII neutrality, and we shall spare your people, and peace shall reign in the universe. Hell, we’ll even let you have our oil at reasonable prices!”
I’m paraphrasing Al-Baghdadi’s 22-minute audio message, but that was the gist of his offer to the incoming Commander in Chief.
Al-Baghdadi was probably hoping that Barack Hussein Obama, who was born to a SunniMuslim father, and so, by definition, was born Muslim before being converted involuntarily to Christianity by his mother at age two, still has enough Muslim in him to sympathize with the Muslim cause as per Al-Qaeda’s perverted version. (You’d think that Obama’s choice of Rahm Emanuel, the son of an Israeli Jew, to be White House chief of staff would put that notion to sleep.)
Obama can declare an end to the war in Iraq, but he knows he cannot end the US’s wider commitment to security in the Gulf.
The offer Al-Baghdadi made might have carried some weight had it been made in 2006, when Iraq looked like it was going to hell in a handbasket, or even in 2004, when Al-Qaeda controlled much of the coveted dominion of the Anbar province.
Now, though, Al-Qaeda no longer controls anything in Iraq. Its sporadic attacks only target unarmed innocent civilians, while US military casualties are at the lowest level since the war started in 2003. The Sunni Al-Baghdadi’s belated offer might have been heeded better had it been directed at those who helped “the Great Satan” crush Al-Qaeda’s multi-national freelancers in Iraq: the Shiia-dominated Iraqi government and—most surprisingly— the Grand Ayatollahs of Iran.
Not that he’d get very far with them. Although it has gone largely unnoticed, Iran ordered its militias in Iraq to stop attacking American troops shortly after the US all but cleared Iran of accusations it was developing nuclear weapons in its December, 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. That was part of what I believe was a grand bargain, struck between the Bush administration and the mullahs of Iran, that freed up US troops to crush Al-Qaeda.
But will Obama stick to the secret deal that may have been made by his predecessor? Or will Iran shift course and renew its attacks on US troops, making it more and more difficult for Obama to order a drawdown of American forces without it looking like surrender?
Whether it is recognized or not, Iran is now the main enemy of both the Iraqi people and the United States. In addition to their huge clout in the government, Iranians now directly control five Iraqi provinces in the south. This is why Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s conciliatory, though cautious, post-election message to Obama, and the new president’s response to it in the coming months, take on great importance.
Obama has already said he plans major changes in US policy, with a renewed commitment to finding Osama bin Laden and fighting Al-Qaeda. The Washington Post this week quoted an unnamed Obama advisor as saying the President-elect “wants to explore a more regional strategy in Afghanistan, including the possibility of negotiations with Iran.”
It is ironic that now that Al-Qaeda has been defeated in Iraq, Obama wants to refocus on fighting it, while negotiating with an ascendant Iran, which has emerged as the biggest strategic threat to US interests in the region. True, the Taliban is surging in Afghanistan, but the Taliban is not Al-Qaeda, even if they sometimes agreed on tactics.
Moreover, Afghanistan and Pakistan are far less important to the US, strategically, than Iraq and the Arab Gulf region, which contains 40 percent of the world’s oil reserves. A further decline in American influence in the Gulf will automatically lead to oil-rich Arab states gravitating towards Tehran.
The President-elect is surely aware of the dilemma in Iraq, which is why he stopped calling for full and total American withdrawal and acknowledged that a “residual” force might remain there indefinitely. Obama can declare an end to the war in Iraq, but he knows he cannot end the US’s wider commitment to security in the Gulf.
It no longer matters whether the war in Iraq “should’ve never been waged.” The question now is: do you overturn a doctrine that has survived since Harry Truman, and to which even Jimmy Carter subscribed? Or do you make a move that may have a domino effect and accelerate the erosion of America’s supremacy as the world’s greatest superpower? My guess is that Obama will stick to the doctrine that says no regional power should be allowed to have hegemony over the world’s largest oil reserves.
The biggest irony of all is that after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the American hostage crisis with Tehran, Shia Islam was identified as the number one enemy for America. Today, the Shia are both allies, as in Iraq, and enemies, as in Iran. The Sunnis are US allies in most Arab states, but also enemies, in Al-Qaeda. Perhaps religion had nothing to do with it afterall.
Salameh Nematt is the International Editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington Bureau Chief for Al Hayat International Arab daily, where he reported on U.S. foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the U.S. drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.