The new threat facing the democratic world is even more dangerous than al-Qaeda. The Islamic State, which has taken hold in Syria and Iraq, is richer, better equipped and more attuned to modern communications technology. Its operational basis is much larger than Osama bin Laden’s was and it can count on hundreds of combatants born in the West who have gone to fight in Syria. They are perfectly mobile, thanks to their British, French or Canadian passports and their native knowledge of English or French, and some of them will eventually return to the West to pursue their lethal activities.
The chickens truly have come home to roost, for this tragic development is partly the West’s own doing. One would have have hoped that the foolish temptation of military intervention in sensitive foreign situations would have been snuffed out by the 2003 U.S. invasion in Iraq, which destroyed a prosperous country and led to a Shia regime that has opened the door to the Sunni extremist Islamic State. Unfortunately, it was not.
Eight years later, French president Nicolas Sarkozy (soon joined by other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, including Canada) launched a quixotic air attack on Libya with the avowed aim of toppling Moammar Gadhafi – a dictator who had renounced terrorism a decade before and posed no threat to the world. The motivation for the attack was even flimsier than George W. Bush’s arguments to justify the invasion of Iraq – Mr. Gadhafi had threatened a group of armed rebels based in Benghazi with bloody retaliation.
The NATO operation caused Libya to implode. The country, a collection of clans and tribes held together by an authoritarian regime, became a no-go zone fraught with heavily armed militias – a basket case on its way to becoming a failed state. With the pillaging of Mr. Gadhafi’s deep stock of arms, Libya has become a gold mine for various stripes of terrorists. The whole region has been destabilized. The French army is now stuck in the Sahel, trying to prevent the spread of AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb).
U.S. President Barack Obama was a reluctant partner in the attack on Libya and (fortunately) refused to intervene in Syria, despite the pleas of Responsibility to Protect adherents, a loose alliance of right-wing hawks and left-wing humanitarians who believe that toppling foreign dictators is the good thing to do, regardless of the consequences. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama did take sides in the Syrian conflict by harshly condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while supporting the so-called “moderate opposition” – a small, ineffective group of liberals who were bound from Day 1 to be pushed aside by the Islamists. And France was at it again, delivering arms to the “moderate” opposition, with the risk that those arms would fall into extremist hands, as they probably did.
These moves only served to lengthen the deadly conflict, and helped the Islamic State emerge as the strongest opposition force. Even today, Mr. Obama can’t bring himself to accept the secular Assad regime’s offer to help the U.S. Air Force fight the Islamists, even though that would be the logical thing to do.
The world wouldn’t be a perfect place if Mr. Assad had quickly won the Syrian war and if Mr. Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein were still ruling Libya and Iraq. But it wouldn’t be as dangerous a place as it is today – and much less blood would have been shed in the process.