It shouldn’t come as any surprise that al-Qaida has managed to lose the battle for hearts and minds in the Arab world at a faster pace than we have. Indiscriminate bloodbaths are likely to do that, especially when it comes from what’s supposed to be the home team. More importantly, an operational philosophy that appeals predominantly to sociopaths will always have a hard time advancing a convincing societal program. Dan Drezner has got a useful rundown (complete with lengthy citations) of the emerging discussion.
To the extent that the Iraq War provided al-Qaida with a broad playing field to employ their repugnant tactics within the Muslim world, it contributed to this phenomenon. But that would be an ancillary outcome, offset by the fact that the Iraq insurgency is now considered to be a legitimate jihad, even if AQI’s conduct of it isn’t. Also, the removal of American resources from Afghanistan facilitated al-Qaida’s operational reconstitution in the Pakistani badlands.
The point is that this was an inherently predictable outcome that illustrates the degree to which our reaction to the terrorist threat was exagerrated. Had we focused on isolating al-Qaida operationally in Afghanistan, we could have achieved a better outcome with a smaller investment and less collateral damage to our own influence. That would have meant trusting that a combination of American leadership, global opinion and the multilateral non-proliferation mechanisms would function properly. Figuring out why, in fact, we didn’t have that trust in the system that we helped to build and secure is as useful an exercise as any of the foreign policy debates currently taking place.