Lenin, Hitler, Bin Laden — and Iraq

In his speech yesterday before the Military Officers Association of America, President Bush focused on Osama bin Laden’s speeches and writings. “We know what the terrorists intend to do because they’ve told us,” Bush told the assembled crowd, “and we need to take their words seriously.”

For the president’s part, bin Laden’s words affirm that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. “For al Qaeda,” the president explained, “Iraq is not a distraction from their war on America – it is the central battlefield where the outcome of this struggle will be decided.”

We know of Al Qaeda’s intentions – to expel the Americans from Iraq, and then to establish a Caliphate there – but what do we know of their capacity for achieving such ends? History is littered with the names of kooks and fanatics who aspired to global world domination. In relatively recent times, Americans remember cult leaders such as David Koresh, and perhaps even Jim Jones, but the vast majority of these individuals merit barely a footnote in textbooks.

The president wishes us to focus on the exceptions, on the evil, tyrannical few who have managed to translate their grandiose intentions into reality. He pointed to Lenin, and to Hitler, men who laid out their plans in clear view, in published writings and in speeches, but who were all but ignored until after they had seized the reins of power.

President Bush further contends that bin Laden has much in common with Lenin and Hitler, and that “History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake.”

We must not underestimate bin Laden, but we would be foolish to fight a war on his terms. We must especially avoid the apocalyptic conclusion that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq will have the effect of handing all of Iraq over to Al Qaeda on a silver platter. For what differentiates the Lenins and Hitlers of the world from countless other megalomaniacal fanatics was their unique ability to marry their evil designs to the power and resilience of a modern state, complete with an industrial base and a functioning military.

As Justin Logan and I wrote last year, the claims that bin Laden can and will create such a super state in Iraq are absurd on their face. The Kurds will not tolerate Al Qaeda in their midst. Neither will the Shiites, including many of the factional leaders and militia groups that are outspoken in their hostility to the United States. Even many Sunni Arabs, the minority who have lost the most since Saddam Hussein was removed from power, are loathe to make common cause with the murderous jihadists perpetrating indiscriminate violence against innocent Iraqis.

Rather than empowering potential allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, the continuing U.S. military presence is discouraging Iraqis from stepping forward because it feeds into bin Laden’s cynical narrative – that the Western nations, with the United States in the lead, seek to humiliate and dominate Iraqis, and all the Arab peoples. Absent a formal pledge to leave, ideally by some date certain, President Bush’s repeated assertions to the contrary are seen as nothing more than rhetoric, in contrast to the proximate, physical reality of nearly 140,000 U.S. troops on sacred Arab lands.

The occupation is counterproductive in the war against Al Qaeda, but it is also ineffective in its other stated aims. Nearly three and a half years since American forces went into Iraq, the U.S. military presence has not delivered on the promise of establishing a stable and unified Iraq. And for those who say Americans must be more patient, that monumental change takes time, perhaps even generations, it is not too much to expect that the trend lines would at least be moving in the right direction.

But they are not. Three nationwide elections in 2005 have not delivered stability, nor have they contributed to it. If anything, the political process in Iraq has empowered some of the most radical elements in Iraqi society. The ethnic militias and the death squads have used the political process to infiltrate the Iraqi Interior and Health ministries, among others, and have subverted the good faith efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to establish order.

With no definitive milestones on the horizon – there are no nationwide elections scheduled for Iraq until 2009 – the occupation grinds on indefinitely. Beyond the sickening drip-drip-drip of American casualties, there is the torrent of violence against Iraqis, particularly sectarian killings of Iraqi vs. Iraqi. From this maelstrom of bloodshed, the president can offer only more of the same. “The road ahead is going to be difficult, and it will require more sacrifice.”

That it is, and that it will be.