On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with the new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo and declared, “It’s clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting into place a democratic government.” If so, neither “democratic” nor “clear” mean what they once did.  Since taking power Morsi has ignored the violation of women’s and Christians’ rights, and his Muslim Brotherhood comrades have been drafting a constitution meant to elevate Islamists above all other Egyptians.

Critics of the Iraq War liked to say that ballots don’t equal democracy. Today a Muslim Brotherhood leader speaks the word “democracy” and its existence is taken as self-evident. The incredulity of the Bush years and the hypno-suggestibility of the moment are manifestations of the same popular wish: to extricate America from ideological battles in foreign lands.

This is an understandable sentiment that long predates our confrontation with political Islam. John Quincy Adams said that the United States should be the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all . . . , the champion and vindicator only of her own.” That formulation prefigured the human-rights approach of Barack Obama, who Lawrence Haas describes aptly in his new book, Sound the Trumpet, as “a rhetorical idealist but an operational realist.”

The paradox has served him poorly.  Obama the rhetorical idealist wished Iranians well (just barely) in the summer of 2009, while Obama the operational realist pursued a diplomatic relationship with Tehran. Basij forces soon crushed protestors in the streets. Tunisia was wished well and today the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, has filed a bill to criminalize blasphemy. Obama saluted Egyptians before the Muslim Brotherhood took control of their country. And the rhetorical idealist praised Syrian rebels for a year and a half while the operational realist tried to outsource matters to the UN and Moscow. The result? A recent New York Times Headline declares, “As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role.”

Only in Libya, where our European allies dragged us into action, is there (for now) no Islamist party in charge. The extent to which that’s a function of the prevailing chaos remains to be seen.

Most problematic is the bon voyage wished Iraq last December. In 2009, the rhetorical idealist praised Iraq’s democracy and described the American effort there as an “extraordinary achievement.” He was right. Troops in Iraq not only gave their lives fighting for the creation of the sole functioning Arab democracy; they fought al-Qaeda into irrelevance and near total defeat. But the operational realist left no American presence behind to secure our accomplishments. Today, the Henry Jackson Society’s Robin Simcox accurately calls the land of al-Qaeda’s undoing a “new front” in the War on Terror. Since the U.S. left, the al-Qaeda connected group Islamic State of Iraq has launched a bombing campaign so intense that officials are preemptively surrendering by stepping down.

In Afghanistan, a more managed reversal is underway. The rhetorical idealist bragged, “we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum.” But the operational realist sends envoys to treat with them in hopes of a peace deal before the United States leaves the country. When the U.S. exits Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban will be free to do as they please. This is fortuitous timing for their old friends the Arab jihadists. As Islamist parties take political power in the Middle East, their terrorist branches can resume residence on the staging grounds of 9/11.

Let us acknowledge the enormity now unfolding and also pay heed to historical context. This is not merely a regional rise in Islamist power. It is the dawn of a great Islamist comeback. The ten years since 9/11 were spent problematically but successfully dousing the flames of jihad.  The past four have seen an inrush of oxygen.

It’s hard to overestimate how emboldened Islamists must feel. In propitious events they see divine endorsement. What are increased drone strikes and the death of Osama bin laden compared to a new historical epoch? A recent State Department report touts a “12% decline in [terrorist] attacks from 2010 [to 2011]” and claims the killing of bin Laden and other terrorists “puts the [Al Qaeda] network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.” The State Department has faith in statistics; Islamists think in terms of history. It’s why we’re shortsighted and they’re patient. The oxygen has been granted. The fire will grow.

Our options for countering the Islamist comeback were limited, yes, but not nonexistent. The U.S. could have robustly supported the Iranian democrats who asked for American help; allied with Arab liberals instead of courting Arab dictators; funneled weapons and money to parties that we’d have come to know; and tied foreign aid and trade to regimes’ human rights policies. If you think such things would have made no difference consider that even with the Muslim Brotherhood’s monopoly on organization Morsi won less than 52% of the runoff vote.

Obama could have used our leverage in Iraq to keep the country on course with a relatively small number of American troops stationed there after the war. And he could have made good on his campaign promise to win in Afghanistan. A comeback is accomplished by one side but always facilitated by the other. In the gap between American rhetoric and American action Islamists staged a revival.

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