April 20, 2004 - I've been asking myself, as this political year grows increasingly intense, just what is the point of difference between the two sides of the Iraq debate and how one might best understand it. There is no doubt that things are very complicated in Iraq. Many questions remain unanswered: Was this war a foolish adventure by a trigger-happy president who was duped by his advisors? Or did it indeed fit into a credible national security strategy?
As to the war itself, we do not know yet how it will turn out. Even wars eventually won often begin badly. Perhaps if we had the same wall-to-wall coverage of World War II that we have of wars today, we would have pulled out long before we had a chance to complete it.
Those who oppose the war and are vehemently anti-Bush seem to see this war as a conflict between two countries, an unnecessary conflict that could have been avoided. The frequent comparisons to Vietnam strongly suggest this. (The other day, on the television program The Capitol Gang, panelist Margaret Carlson slipped and almost said "Vietnam" when she really meant to say "Iraq.") In Vietnam we fought in a war contained within a fairly small region, from which we could disengage with little consequence. The "Domino Theory," which tried to give that war a larger significance, was essentially discredited.
The other view (which I happen to share) is based on the perception that this war does not involve Iraq only. Iraq is part of a larger constellation of failed Arab states whose implosion has not only affected themselves but their neighbors as well. The governments of these states are unpopular and repressive. To distract the people's attention from problems at home, these governments resort to exporting terrorism abroad. These states include Iraq, Syria, Iran (even though it is not an Arab state), and Saudi Arabia. All of these have been major exporters of terrorism.
Clearly, we cannot go to war with all of them. And even if we could, we had no immediate basis for doing so. Iraq was different. Saddam went too far when he invaded Kuwait in 1991. He demonstrated that he was a serious threat to his neighbors, not just Kuwait but also Israel and Saudi Arabia. To leave the latter exposed to the threat of an Iraqi invasion was unthinkable. So we went to war in 1991 and kicked Saddam out of Kuwait.
After that we had credible intelligence - which to this day has not been discredited - that in violation of his postwar agreements Saddam had plans to pursue WMD programs. We also knew he had stockpiles of such weapons. He had used them on his own people. He also never accounted for their destruction, if in fact he did destroy them. It was reasonable to conclude that he still had them. And even if he did not, his intention to resume his WMD programs once America demobilized and sanctions were lifted was never seriously in doubt. The weapons inspectors themselves conceded the danger was growing that Iraq would become a marketplace for WMD that could fall into the hands of terrorists. Saddam flouted U.N. resolutions and refused to cooperate with the inspections process. He appeared almost to be inviting a war.
Given our assessment of the threat Saddam posed, which he did nothing to dispel, war seemed inevitable. But there is more. Unlike his opponents, who liken Iraq to Vietnam, Bush saw Saddam's belligerence as having significance far beyond Iraq. Resentment towards the West has been building for years throughout the Arab world. Arab countries have watched their systems fail, their culture in decline, their populations disaffected. They see a rapidly growing younger generation, too many trained in Islamic studies rather than practical skills, and not enough jobs waiting. While we desperately ask "Why do they hate us?" these countries are projecting their resentment outward, against Israel, against the United States, against the West in general, to avoid the burden of self-examination and to distract the people from their real problems at home. These states' failures are increasingly affecting the rest of the world, and we can no longer afford to ignore them.
We now see an increasing convergence of Arab nationalism and religious extremism. Once again, Israel has been the laboratory experiment predicting what the rest of the world eventually will look like. The Arab-Jewish struggle was originally more ethnic than religious. As radical Islam continued to assert itself, that conflict has become infected with religious fanaticism. The secular Arab governments and the religious extremists, often at odds with each other, are united in one thing: Israel's destruction. And so a band of Muslim states stretching from Syria to Iran has been supporting anti-Israel terrorism.
The obvious temptation is to say, this is Israel's problem, we are not going to resist these terrorists just to fight for Israel. And that is precisely what the terrorists want us to think. That is why they keep referring to Israel when proclaiming their violent intentions.
The 1991 Gulf War had nothing to do with Israel, yet Saddam attacked Israel anyway.
The 2001 attack on the United States had nothing to do with Israel. It was planned during an optimistic time in the peace process, when it seemed that Oslo and Camp David were finally going to result in a Palestinian state.
The recent attack in Madrid also had nothing to do with Israel. And it had nothing to do with Iraq. It did have to do with the war that Arab nationalists and Islamic extremists are launching against the West.
Investigations in Spain have revealed that the attack on Madrid, which killed 200 and injured over a thousand, was planned in November 2002. This was before the current war in Iraq even began. Yet the terrorists used Spain's support of that war as a pretext after the fact. This tactic was intended to divide the Western alliance, and it succeeded. Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero, whose election was one result of the attack, has announced he will withdraw his country's troops from Iraq as quickly as possible.
Iraq was not the reason for the attack in Madrid. After the plotters blew themselves up in their Madrid apartment, a videotape was found in which they referred to Spain as Andalucía (al-Andaluz), the name by which it was known to the Muslim Moors who once occupied it. And at least one other, similar attack was thwarted, an attack that would have taken place under Zapatero, after he pledged to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, resurgent Arab nationalism and Islamic extremism, are all part of a wider constellation. This war will not end with any one of them. The United States is a target in its own right, and so is Europe. New York City was attacked in 1993 and in 2001, before the present war in Iraq - but after the first one. The terrorism exported by Iraq (under Saddam), Iran, and Syria - and inflamed by the terrorist ideology born and spread in Saudi Arabia - was never going to stop with Israel. By authorizing the present war in Iraq, Bush took a step towards breaking up that terrorist constellation.
It was a calculated risk, but not an unreasonable one given our intelligence and perception of the wider situation. In a recent interview Condoleezza Rice expressed it this way (2):
Now, we are having a debate. Some people think that the response to 9/11, to that act of war that was committed against us, to the people who tried to decapitate us on that day and shut down our financial system, that the response to that ought to be limited war. We'll win in Afghanistan, we'll kill bin Laden, and we'll return to defensive position.
This president believes that it's a broad war, that you not only have to deal with Afghanistan, but you've got to deal with the circumstances in the Middle East that have created Al Qaida, created the ideologies of hatred that are driving them, that you've got to have peaceful and stable Iraq as a lynchpin of a different kind of Middle East.
This is the crucial point. If those are correct who believe that Iraq was a self-contained problem that had nothing to do with the rising tide of Arab resentment towards the West, then President Bush was wrong to go into Iraq. But if those are correct who believe that Iraqi aggression cannot be separated from the changing currents in the Middle East and that it would eventually have produced a crisis, then Bush may have had little choice.
The majority of Iraqis want neither a Saddam-like dictatorship nor an Islamic theocracy. If they can indeed learn to govern themselves, it would be a tremendous achievement that might begin to influence the Middle East in a positive direction. But this would threaten the surrounding states, who are trying to make sure it never happens. Iranian infiltration is becoming a serious issue. It is working not only against the U.S., but against the Iraqi people. What we are now witnessing is nothing less than the struggle between reaction and modernity in the Muslim world. We have to give our support to the struggle towards modernity.
The two sides of the Iraq war debate are based on two fundamentally different perceptions. And because of this difference, the two sides are unable to speak to each other. Perhaps understanding this difference will clarify the debate - and make the motives of this American administration clearer.
(1) Transcript: José María Aznar on 'Fox News Sunday'. Fox News, April 18, 2994.
(2) Transcript: Rice on 'Fox News Sunday'. Fox News, April 18, 2994.
Peace with Realism