Clifford May - Reports of al-Qaida's death greatly exaggerated

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TEL AVIV, Israel -- Can we at least agree that reports of al-Qaida's death have been greatly exaggerated?

You'll recall that Peter Bergen, a director at the New America Foundation and a national security analyst for CNN, began pronouncing al-Qaida dead last summer. At the Aspen Institute, he even gave a speech titled: "Time to Declare Victory: Al Qaeda Is Defeated." He defended this thesis repeatedly, including in a debate with me on the "Situation Room," Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN.

President Barack Obama has not gone quite that far.

Before the election, in stump speeches around the country, he said al-Qaida had been "decimated." And in his inaugural address this week he said, "A decade of war is now ending." He also spoke of "peace in our time" -- often interchanged with "peace for our time," a phrase made infamous by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Is it possible Obama did not know that? Worse, is it possible that he did?

The evidence that al-Qaida is alive and lethal is abundant. To cite just a few examples: the French ground war in Mali against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and associated forces, the hostage-taking in Algeria by self-proclaimed jihadists closely linked to al-Qaida, the surge of al-Qaida-connected fighters in Syria and, of course, the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, by al-Qaida-affiliated groups.

I do not stress this to disparage anyone. But serious analysts acknowledge their errors, attempt to determine what data or misassumptions led them astray and work to reshape their narrative in conformance with reality. Serious analysts are acutely aware that no strategic mistake is more dangerous than telling yourself you are winning when you are not.

Last weekend, I spoke with someone I'll identify only as a senior American military official. It required no prompting from me for him to express his frustration over top officials in the Obama administration continuing to insist that the global conflict is "receding." Challenging that notion is difficult because within the current administration it is forbidden to speak or write openly about the ideology of those fighting us. To do so, the official said, would be "inflammatory," requiring a discussion of the role of fundamentalist Islamic theology. In a sense -- the literal sense -- what we have here is a religious taboo.

The irony is glaring: American officials can kill our enemies (mostly with drones). They just can't discuss, criticize or challenge the beliefs that motivate them. Fighting a kinetic war is permitted, but waging a cognitive war is prohibited. To avoid defeat, we really need to be fighting both.

Closely related to the "al-Qaida is dead" thesis is the "Muslim Brotherhood is moderate" thesis. The most recent contradictory evidence: videos of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, three years ago when he was a leader of the Brotherhood, urging parents to "nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them, for Zionists, for Jews ... The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshipping him." In addition, he called Jews and Israelis "the descendants of apes and pigs."

Here in Israel, where I'm spending a few days reporting, few people were surprised by those remarks. Among the reasons for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's (narrow) re-election victory last week: A majority of Israelis have come to the conclusion that at this moment no Palestinian who wields power is willing to make peace with them. In the Middle East, too many Arabs and Muslims deny Israelis both their history (Israelis are, unquestionably, living in a part of their ancient homeland) and their humanity (and that is, unambiguously, what is intended when Morsi talks of "apes and pigs").

Morsi also is working to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, the factions that rule Gaza and the West Bank, respectively, and create a united Palestinian government. Hamas, of course, is committed to the elimination of Israel. It is not planning to moderate that position. It expects Palestinian President -- and Fatah leader -- Mahmoud Abbas to more openly call for "resistance" -- the use of violence to weaken and eventually annihilate Israel. (Abbas recently told a Lebanese television station that before World War II, the Nazis and the Zionists collaborated.)

Can we at least agree that reports of the death of the peace process have not been exaggerated -- and that Israelis constructing apartment buildings in and around Jerusalem is not the reason why?

(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)

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