Discussions continue on correcting an arguably failing strategy against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Recently the UN Syrian peace talks began, quickly stalled and then agreed on a ceasefire. However, we are seeing ongoing violent breaches. With all of the press that Syria and ISIL get, we should not forget about the several other failed governments in that region which pose an equal national security and foreign policy threat. Much of the western world is now attempting to correct the mistakes made because of the poor decisions, or indecisions, of this administration.
The choice was made in the U.S. in 2008 to focus predominantly on domestic agendas and dabble in foreign policy. The result: now more of our attention, resources and national treasure must be spent correcting this mistake. America withdrew its troops and attention from the fights it was engaged in, hoping to perhaps cut our losses, but this administration learned very quickly that it is not that easy. It also learned that merely dabbling in world affairs has serious effects that can domino out of control.
Take for instance the Arab Spring. In December 2010 a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia named Mohammed Bouazizi publicly immolated himself, in protest of an oppressive Tunisian regime and a poor economy. This was the credited event that sparked what became known as the Arab Spring. That incident and the local Tunisian reaction incited protests and riots across Tunisia and quickly spread to other countries.
From Egypt in January 2011 to Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya in February to Syria in March 2011, it seemed that no long-standing regime was going to be safe from the anger of the people. Since then, Tunisia and others among these countries have cast away their old leaders and have attempted to institute new governments. The Libyan people, with the help of a Western coalition, killed Col. Gaddafi and toppled that regime. In Egypt the people deposed their leadership and have since seen multiple political iterations, continuing to transform today.
As with many other countries involved with the Arab Spring, in Tunisia the economic grievances were among the main flashpoints. Tunisia’s unemployment was nearly 20% in a country of 10 million people and nearly 50% of the population was under the age of 30. The people were essentially in a race against poverty, fighting bad odds. Since the uprising, their economic fate has teetered, possibly influenced by global oil and food prices, increasing slowdown in the economy, threats to the tourism industry, and further stress on the country’s banks.
Recent reporting indicates that the political unrest and economic problems have not improved. Organized protests resumed in late January 2016 despite the best efforts of the current government to increase security and reinvigorate the economy. Unemployment has remained high and will likely stay that way due to extremely low economic growth.
The security situation in Tunisia is also politicized, causing the interim government to struggle on implementing meaningful and lasting reforms that strike a balance between the need for security and demands for liberty. Terrorist networks like Al Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and associated group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AAS-T) pose a great threat to the Tunisian government, as well as western interests inside the country, and may fill any gap created by the lack of a strong system of government.
With a nervous, fledgling government, already accused of killing and injuring Tunisians during recent protests, the situation is primed for AQIM or AAS-T to continue to pressure a delicate situation with future attacks. There are no credible indications that either terrorist organization has aspirations for setting up a government of its own. However, a tumultuous environment, where the U.S. and other western countries can be forced out due to lack of security, allows for improved terrorist freedom of movement – similar to Libya.
As with Benghazi on 11 September 2012, where we lost Ambassador Chris Stephens and three other brave Americans, the intelligence agencies are faced with serious, if not specific threat streams and potential for an attack. The political atmosphere and civil unrest in places like Tunisia are ripe for an attack on a yet another U.S. Embassy, with major regional repercussions on western interests and terrorist organizations’ respective brands.
Foreign Policy and defense will remain an incredibly important topic during this presidential election. As in countries like Tunisia, the current policies and focus of this administration have not made the U.S., our allies, or interests abroad any safer than eight years ago. Electing another inexperienced president focused solely on domestic issues, when they are the leader of the most powerful and influential nation on earth, will only make matters worse. There is too much at stake for the U.S. to continue taking a back seat in the world. Think of who might jump into the vacuum and you’re presented with a cast of ethically dubious choices.