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Learning From History

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The ability of al Qaeda to so threaten a wide expanse of the U.S. diplomatic mission as to force the closing of our diplomatic posts in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia is truly remarkable. This is especially so given the president’s constant refrain that as the result of his efforts, al Qaeda is on the run and in steep decline. Indeed, one tally has it that Mr. Obama has publicly touted al Qaeda’s demise some thirty-two times since the Benghazi attack last September 11.

This episode certainly demonstrates much about the president’s credibility when it comes to his foreign policy. But in a larger sense, it speaks to something that is usually explored all too gingerly, if at all: What exactly is the place of terrorist groups in the Third World?

In fairness to the president, he is not necessarily wrong when he says the al Qaeda infrastructure that produced the logistically complicated attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 has been substantially diminished. But it is also quite evident that a dispersed group, more or less loosely connected and able to avoid detection, can be just as dangerous.

In any event, it seems we are still learning the lessons of the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. After years of enormous expenditures of blood and treasure, the U.S. was unable to achieve anything approaching clear victory against indigenous ragtag military forces that seemed able to disappear into the general populace at will only to surface the next day to fight again.

Third World insurgencies have long been viewed as things separate and apart from the indigenous populations. In truth the insurgents are part and parcel of those populations, even if most individuals do not participate in the violence. Until we recognize that fundamental truth, America will continue to be drawn into wars on the premise that our military strength can eliminate an extraneous threat.

Support for the Vietnam War, already on the decline, cratered when the Vietnamese communists mounted their 1968 Tet Offensive. Militarily, Tet was a disaster for the communists, but it demonstrated their resiliency and broad reach, which served to dishearten most Americans.

Similarly, the broad threat to our diplomatic presence in parts of the world is disheartening but should also tell us that the threats do not depend on terrorist infrastructure alone.

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