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May 04, 2012

This Week In Threat-Mongering
Posted by Michael Cohen

ScreamThis has been a particularly busy week for the threat-mongering industry. It's the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, which puts enormous pressure on threat mongers everywhere to inflate the potential threats from al Qaeda and jihadist terror groups in general.

Last week we saw Seth Jones and Mary Habeck take a stab at claiming al Qaeda is as dangerous as ever; this week David Ignatius went in a different direction, arguing instead that the threat from al Qaeda is materializing in new and insidious ways.

According to Ignatius, "In terms of bin Laden’s broader goal of moving the Islamic world away from Western influence, he has done better than we might like to think."

Huh? Hasn't al Qaeda's uncompromising vision of an Islamic state largely been rejected? Hasn't their unpopularity in the Arab world grown significantly? And outside a few towns in Yemen and some affiliate groups that OBL was unable to control, isn't AQ a fairly weak actor?

Not at all says Ignatius, because instead OBL is making inroads via the democratic process, "Egypt is a case in point: This has been a year of mostly nonviolent democratic revolution. But it has brought to power some Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood groups that share common theological roots with bin Laden. And the al-Qaeda goal of driving the “apostate,” pro-American President Hosni Mubarak from power has been achieved."

Let's ignore for a moment that OBL, as actual AQ expert Will McCants notes, "despised party politics/parliaments." But think of the broader argument that Ignatius is making here. AQ is a deeply nihilist Islamist organization focused largely on attacks against the United States and large-scale terrorist attacks. The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist organization that is largely non-violent and has sought to establish power in Egypt via the political process. From this perspective it's not hard to note that al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood are two different organizations with different tactical approaches to achieving their goals.

Yet by Ignatius's argument, if you've seen one Islamist you've seen them all. In this worldview, AQ shares common goals with Erdogan in Turkey, even Karzai in Afghanistan or practically any Islamic oriented political group in the Arab world - the key difference being that while many of these movements are non-violent and are seeking power via the ballot box, al Qaeda, as Ignatius notes "couldn’t make the transition from violent jihad to nonviolent Islamist politics." Yes, this is something of a crucial distinction.

There is certainly a discussion to be held about the Islamist groups in the Arab world; linking them to a group that killed 3,000 Americans and describing legitimate Islamist political parties as "electoral bin Ladenism" is unhelpful in this regard. 

But it certainly is scary!

Next we have two separate op-eds - first from Michael Auslin of AEI in the Weekly Standard and next from Rep. Randy Forbes in Politico - arguing that we need an even bigger air force. Now I should say, I'm a big fan of the air force, but within limits. Not so much for Auslin and Forbes, the latter of whom argues, "If we weaken our air superiority, our country’s entire war-fighting strategy will be forced to change. We will no longer be able to operate anywhere on the globe without risk."

Left unanswered is the question of why the US should want or need to operate anywhere on the globe without risk, particularly since Forbes doesn't make much effort to identify actual security threats to the United States that would require sustained aerial bombardment. Auslin argues that advances by the Russians and Chinese will make it harder to operate in these particular environments. Indeed, Auslin notes ruefully that more countries are realizing, "to survive an attack on your homeland or forces, deny the United States control of the air."

Again, unanswered is why the United States would want to attack Russia or China.

In the formulation put forward by Auslin so long as other countries are developing their air forces and air defenses to prevent US attack, the United States must continue to build an even larger air force to counteract those advances just in case there comes a day in the future when the US decides it wants to go to war with said countries. So from this formulation the US can never stop building aircraft; if we do there will be a mine shaft, er, air power gap.

To be sure, there is a compelling argument to be made for maintaining an advanced air force and modernizing the US fleet, but the arguments put forward by Auslin and Forbes lead in only one direction - constant, unceasing air force construction to combat unnamed foreign threats.

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