Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 4, 2013

Al-Qaeda’s Reality Check

During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly claimed that al-Qaeda had been “decimated” and “on the path to defeat.” That makes it a little curious that the State Department is now forced to close temporarily its diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa and to issue a global travel alert to U.S. citizens warning of a potential attack by al-Qaeda.

News of al-Qaeda’s imminent demise was, it seems, greatly exaggerated. In fact, while the terrorist network has suffered substantial losses, including of course the loss of its co-founder, Osama bin Laden, it has displayed dismaying resilience. Far from going out of business, al-Qaeda has spread, via its regional affiliates, to North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the Persian Gulf region (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and Iraq and Syria (al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

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During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly claimed that al-Qaeda had been “decimated” and “on the path to defeat.” That makes it a little curious that the State Department is now forced to close temporarily its diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa and to issue a global travel alert to U.S. citizens warning of a potential attack by al-Qaeda.

News of al-Qaeda’s imminent demise was, it seems, greatly exaggerated. In fact, while the terrorist network has suffered substantial losses, including of course the loss of its co-founder, Osama bin Laden, it has displayed dismaying resilience. Far from going out of business, al-Qaeda has spread, via its regional affiliates, to North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the Persian Gulf region (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and Iraq and Syria (al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The North African affiliate was behind the temporary takeover of northern Mali and, in all likelihood, the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya; the Arabian affiliate has plotted attacks on the American homeland and American interests abroad and made substantial inroads in Yemen; and the Iraq/Syria branch has set off more bombs in Iraq than at any time since 2008 and freed hundreds of its confederates from Abu Ghraib prison, while also emerging as the strongest single force within the Syrian rebel movement.

This is not a threat that is going away; it is actually growing. The turbulence of the Arab Spring is creating fresh opportunities for al-Qaeda to make mischief and, as the travel advisory makes clear, the U.S. and its citizens remain in its crosshairs. That makes it all the more imperative to continue the kind of surveillance programs that Edward Snowden has exposed and many in Congress have turned against.

The latest terror warning about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appears to have been prompted by NSA intercepts of communications among al-Qaeda leaders. The fact that these intercepts leaked is disturbing, but the fact that the intercepts are taking place is heartening. The NSA is not a Big Brother in waiting. It is our first line of defense against a threat that is not going away. Unfortunately, the president’s own happy talk about al-Qaeda’s supposed demise undermines his standing to make the case for continued efforts to fight this menace.

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Update on the Association for Asian American Studies and BDS

Back in April, the Association for Asian American Studies voted unanimously on the last day of its national conference to back the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. This move was cause for wonder and disgust at more than one level. While the resolution helpfully points out that many Arabs are “West Asian,” it is hard to swallow without guffawing the claim of Asian American Studies scholars to speak authoritatively of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although Asian American Studies, originating in anti-colonialism and Third-Worldism, has always granted itself a worldwide mandate, it had, up until April, rarely gone public with its claims to academic expertise in absolutely everything. But Israel seems to have that effect on people.

More strikingly, though, as I have noted here and here, the resolution was passed unanimously, without so much as an abstention. While I have been unable to get AAAS president Mary Yu Danico to divulge how many were present for the vote, or even how many members the organization she leads has, the official account Professor Danico and the AAAS executive board has given of the discussion that preceded the vote indicates that there was no dissent whatever. Not about the wisdom of academic boycotts. Not about the prudence of supporting BDS’s one-state solution. Certainly not about “Israeli racism.” And stunningly, more than three months later, no scholar of Asian American studies has come forward in a blog or an op-ed to question the resolution.

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Back in April, the Association for Asian American Studies voted unanimously on the last day of its national conference to back the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. This move was cause for wonder and disgust at more than one level. While the resolution helpfully points out that many Arabs are “West Asian,” it is hard to swallow without guffawing the claim of Asian American Studies scholars to speak authoritatively of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although Asian American Studies, originating in anti-colonialism and Third-Worldism, has always granted itself a worldwide mandate, it had, up until April, rarely gone public with its claims to academic expertise in absolutely everything. But Israel seems to have that effect on people.

More strikingly, though, as I have noted here and here, the resolution was passed unanimously, without so much as an abstention. While I have been unable to get AAAS president Mary Yu Danico to divulge how many were present for the vote, or even how many members the organization she leads has, the official account Professor Danico and the AAAS executive board has given of the discussion that preceded the vote indicates that there was no dissent whatever. Not about the wisdom of academic boycotts. Not about the prudence of supporting BDS’s one-state solution. Certainly not about “Israeli racism.” And stunningly, more than three months later, no scholar of Asian American studies has come forward in a blog or an op-ed to question the resolution.

In one of relatively few public statements in response to the controversy, David Palumbo Liu of Stanford University complained that it was dirty pool to criticize the AAAS in a “mainstream journal,” in which one might get a “wider and assumedly more sympathetic audience.” Palumbo Liu states well what has been the AAAS strategy up until now: avoid publicity. One thing you start to notice in stories about this affair is that representatives of the AAAS are never available for comment.

I am therefore relieved that my fellow Stuyvesant High School alum, Congresswoman Grace Meng, has compelled the AAAS to take notice of its critics. Meng, who represents New York’s 6th Congressional District, wrote in a letter to AAAS that “the characterization of Israeli actions as ‘racist’ is inaccurate, inflammatory, and inconsistent with the views of the vast majority of Americans and Asian-Americans. It does not serve the cause of peace; rather, it serves to galvanize those who oppose peace.” While Algemeiner reported on Meng’s letter in late July, it has otherwise gone virtually unnoticed (indeed, I have been unable to obtain a copy of the letter).

Evidently prompted by Representative Meng’s criticism, Mary Yu Danico has posted a statement on the website of AAAS. Danico complains of “hostile-threatening emails from non AAAS members,” that have led her to remove not only the names of the signatories of the resolution but also the names of the members of AAAS’s board from a statement in support of the resolution. While threatening e-mails should be taken seriously, it is remarkable that Professor Danico thinks that, having stood behind what purported to be a bold statement in support of the Palestinian cause, she now thinks she can erase the board’s forthright and unapologetic support for the resolution. It is the board, and not the signatories to the resolution, who parroted the demonstrably false claim that Israel has been immune from governmental criticism and the even more preposterous assertion that there is no debate about Israel’s actions at the level of civil society.

Still, Professor Danico laments the “misunderstanding among our AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community members.” Some even think she led the effort to pass the resolution, rather than merely being the first signatory in the subsequent statement in full support of it.

The reference to the AAPI community, as opposed to the community of Asian American Studies scholars, is significant and heartening. What it means is that members of that community, like Representative Meng, have decided not to stand by and let an organization which purports to speak for their interests embarrass them.

While Professor Danico argues that the resolution is irreversible, it is finally, thanks to external pressure, becoming “increasingly clear” to her that there is a need to have a session regarding “The Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” at the next AAAS conference. She hopes to “engage in conversations with our AAPI community leaders who have ties with both parties involved to organize a session that will yield respectful and healthy dialogue at the 2014 meeting.” It is a good thing that she is talking to people outside of the Association. Maybe this year, at least, support for virulent anti-Israeli propaganda will not be unanimous.

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