Commentary

Anti-War? Anti-Which War?

In the six days since Ned Lamont made Joseph Lieberman only the fourth incumbent senator since 1980 to lose a primary election, Republicans have thrilled at the prospect of running against a Democratic Party seen as weak on terrorism. The rhetorical barrage began within hours of Lamont’s victory, when Vice President Cheney suggested that it might encourage “the al-Qaida types” who want to “break the will of the American people.” Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman warned that Lamont’s victory “reflects an unfortunate embrace of isolationism, defeatism, and a ‘blame America first’ attitude by national Democratic leaders at a time when retreating from the world is particularly dangerous.”

The war of words heated up following the revelation of the British terror plot on Thursday morning. Senator Lieberman came out swinging, claiming that Lamont’s support for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would be “taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England.”

Such remarks are part of a disturbing pattern in which opposition to the disastrous war in Iraq is portrayed as opposition to the war against Al Qaeda. Perhaps the most odious expression of this presumption came courtesy of the Washington Times, which referred to Lieberman’s defeat as a purge by “Taliban Democrats.” The implication that the Democratic Party refused to tolerate dissent on a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was patently false; the implication that Lamont’s supporters sympathized with the Taliban was patently offensive.

But Ann Coulter was not content to merely imply that Democrats were in league with terrorists. When she offends, she prefers to do it directly. The Democratic Party’s “anti-American wing” is “absolutely in the ascendancy right now,” she warned on Fox News the day after Lamont’s primary win.

When Americans who dare to question how the expenditure of over $300 billion in Iraq contributes to victory in the war on terrorism are tarred as “anti-American,” effectively forestalling any reasonable discussion of alternative strategies for destroying those who aspire to kill thousands, it becomes easier to understand why Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are all still at large, and why the terror threat from disaffected British Muslims appears to be growing worse.

We don’t know everything about the people who intended to blow up as many as 10 airliners over the Atlantic, but what we do know – that they are mainly British Muslims of Pakistani descent – reminds us that Pakistan and Afghanistan are still the epicenter of the terror threat. The expenditure of vast resources in Iraq has not prevented the resurgence of the Taliban, and has done nothing to disrupt Al Qaeda’s support network in the border regions, or in Pakistan’s lawless northwest territories.

The tip that launched the investigation of the latest airliner plot came from a member of the British Muslim community who, soon after the London bombings of July 7 last year, reported an acquaintance’s suspicious behavior to the authorities. The war in Iraq made it no easier for British agents to track and apprehend the suspects.

And what of Al Qaeda? We know that the war in Iraq has made it easier for Al Qaeda to recruit followers to its murderous cause. Indeed, the Washington Post reported on Friday that U.S. intelligence officials consider the Iraq war to be “the single most effective recruiting tool for Islamic militants.” That much has been understood for years. The bipartisan 9/11 commission report issued in July 2004 concluded that opposition within the wider Muslim community to the war in Iraq was an impediment to U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

Opponents of the Iraq war should not allow Lieberman or the Republicans to conflate it with the war against Al Qaeda. A more sensible strategy in the war on terror would shift some of the billions being spent in Iraq to the war in Afghanistan, to greater intelligence gathering and more timely cooperation among foreign intelligence services, and to more support for those in the wider Muslim community who wish to purge the violent extremists from their midst.

To his credit, Ned Lamont responded to his critics by reiterating that he was committed to preventing terror attacks on the United States, and he decried attempts to draw political advantage from the foiled terror plot as “offensive.”

Like-minded opponents of the war in Iraq must make a similar stand. The anti-Iraq War movement does not oppose the essential war against the people who killed over 3,000 Americans on 9/11. In fact, it remains focused on the real enemy: those like the attackers thwarted in London, who were planning to kill thousands more.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. In 2004, he chaired the task force that produced the report Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda.