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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
Counter-terrorism and Arab revolt
The West should not fear recent uprisings, as they address legitimate grievances.
Last Modified: 28 Feb 2011 12:15
Arabs themselves are overthrowing dictators, hurting Osama Bin Laden's rhetoric that people in the Middle East are beholden to oppressive outside forces, argues a former CIA official [GALLO/GETTY]

The fires were still smoldering in Tunisia, and violent clashes with Egyptian security forces were just beginning when I got a call from a journalist friend, the first of many such calls from reporters covering the "national security" beat in the US. "Your stomach must be in a knot," he said.

For a second, I had no idea what he meant. Far from being upset, I was overtaken with the euphoria felt by many at the sight of North African Arabs, among whom I had lived for many years, finally bestirring themselves to throw off the authoritarian shackles which had held them in thrall for so long. 

This was something I had anticipated as an imminent development beginning literally over 20 years before, and had long since begun to despair of ever seeing in my lifetime. But now, at last, here it was beginning. 

Such bravery, such discipline – in a word, such nobility – expressed by ordinary citizens in countries for which I had developed a strong affection over many years filled me with what I can only describe as a reflective pride.

But then, just as quickly, it dawned on me:  Ah, of course. As a longtime practitioner and promoter of US counter-terrorism policy, mustn't I be dismayed at the prospective loss of the allies and partners upon whose cooperation we had relied for so many years? It was a perfectly understandable presumption, and a perfectly reasonable question. And the answer, quite simply, was "no". 

My satisfaction in seeing the start of the democratic uprising now spreading with almost unimaginable speed across the Arab world was occasioned not just by my empathy for the Arabs, but upon a fundamental grasp of the true interests of my own people. 

Faustian bargins

The fact of the matter is that for those seized by the long-term struggle to deal with the scourge of terrorism in the Islamic world, the "Arab revolt" is the best possible news; and for the terrorists themselves, it is the worst that could happen.

For an American to begin to understand why, it is necessary to understand the inherent contradiction which has lain at the heart of the Faustian bargain upon which American counter-terrorism policy in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds has been built. 

Make no mistake: It is a Faustian bargain which I, myself, have embraced. Those who must take actual responsibility for the lives of those whom they have sworn to protect –  must live in the world as it is, and not as they would have it. 

In war, one must seize the help of allies where one can find them. The fact that western powers were forced to cooperate with Stalin during World War II did not make him or his regime any less odious; and the fact that the democracies subsequently had little choice but to acquiesce in their eastern ally's enslavement of Eastern Europe did not afford much comfort to the enslaved. 

A minimum requirement of decency, however, is that when one makes a bargain with the devil, one at least takes account of the moral cost in doing so.

Broader solutions

In the case of the so-called war on terror, however, the contradiction has gone even further than that. All those engaged in the struggle have recognised that mere tactical success – capturing or killing terrorists – cannot bring about a lasting solution to the problem. 

The solution to the problem of Islamically-inspired terrorism can only be provided by Muslims themselves. The long-term challenge is not posed by the terrorists – they can always be dealt with, and their Takfiri-inspired madness carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. 

The real challenge is in the latent sympathy which exists among Muslim populations for those who are at least willing to stand up for the downtrodden, the humiliated, and the dispossessed – even if their methods or their ultimate goals carry little appeal. 

It is this broad-based sympathy among some – and the ambivalence felt by many others -- which makes it difficult to isolate and eradicate those maniacally devoted to hatred and destruction, and which provides them a ready pool of new recruits.

If there is a counter to the underlying appeal of terrorism, then, it is in providing an alternative means of redressing the legitimate grievances which the terrorists exploit for their purposes. If those grievances include injustice, humiliation, and brutal repression by western-backed regimes, then the best means of countering and isolating the extremists lies in appeals to international justice, social empowerment and democratic reform. 

If the West were actually to engage in a war of ideas, to try to address the fundamental causes of resort to terrorism, it would begin by addressing its policies in these areas.

Policy over public relations

I vividly recall attending a White House meeting in 2005, organised specifically to discuss the so-called "War of Ideas," and means of countering the "terrorist narrative". 

As the senior official responsible for countering terrorism overseas, I recall having earnestly explained the importance of policy over public relations, making the case that our problems with the Muslim world were not based on some colossal misunderstanding which could be rectified with a clever public relations campaign. 

I pointed out the centrality of democratic reform for what we were trying to do, and cited the inevitable tensions which we would have to acknowledge and to manage if we were to push forward President Bush’s "freedom agenda" while trying somehow to maintain cooperative intelligence relationships with the very same repressive regimes which our democratisation policies would have to be designed, in effect, to undermine.

I recall just as vividly the blank stares with which these statements were greeted. As I look back on it now, it seems clear that the stares I solicited did not mask incomprehension: What they conveyed was active hostility. 

In the Bush White House it was forbidden to speak of "root causes" of terrorism, as this would suggest some degree of legitimacy on the part of those who should only be thought of as mindless killers. 

And as for Faustian bargains, well, no one was willing to concede that we had made one, much less attempt to manage it. It didn’t take many such encounters to demonstrate that effective US engagement in a war of ideas in the Muslim world was a non-starter. 

'War of ideas' 

To the extent that any such attempts have been made, they have been confined to bland attempts at public relations, focusing on messages that are distinctly beside the point, reflected in photos of smiling Muslim-Americans extolling the religious tolerance of their adopted country. 

And as bad as the George W. Bush administration may have been in this respect, the Obama administration, the President's smooth rhetoric notwithstanding, has arguably up to now been worse.

In fact, any American effort to engage in a "war of ideas" in the Muslim world, even if effectively waged, could and would have been of only marginal importance. 

The real counter-narrative to that of the terrorists is being seen now, in the streets of Sfax, Kasserine, Alexandria, Port Said, Benghazi and Zawiyah. 

There, and throughout the Middle East, ordinary citizens are revealing the lie which lurks at the heart of the terrorist appeal. That narrative suggests that the Muslims are condemned to a life of injustice and humiliation, that their fate is controlled by unaccountable forces, and that among those are the repressive regimes which could not exist without the support of western oppressors.

Rebuking Bin Laden

What the Arabs are demonstrating now is that they can, in fact, be the masters of their own fate; that they themselves carry the means of redressing the injustices and humiliations that have been visited upon them. 

True democratic empowerment is the best means by which the message and the tactics of the Takfiris can be rendered irrelevant.  And what is most compelling is that the Arabs and the Muslims are not being empowered by others:  They are empowering themselves.

The struggle is by no means over. Indeed, it has only fairly begun. Its logic remains to be played out in other parts of the region. 

And indeed, its promise could yet be betrayed:  Revolutions are often hijacked, and the noble sentiments behind them often suborned by opportunists who do not share the values which gave them rise. 

Still and all, it is morning again in the Arab world, redolent with the promise not just of a democratic future, but one liberated from the spectre and the fear of terrorism. 

The Osama Bin Ladens and the Ayman Zawahiris have much to fear in the current course of events. They are being relegated, precisely by those whom they would pretend lead, to the dustbin of history.

Robert L. Grenier is Chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Mr. Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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