Commentary

Bring It On, and On, and On

This essay originally appeared on Reason.com on August 22, 2005
President George W. Bush has launched a campaign to shore up flagging support for the occupation of Iraq. “Our troops,” he intoned in his weekly radio address Saturday, are fighting “to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy.” Indeed, he added, “if we do not confront these evil men abroad, we will have to face them one day in our own cities and streets.” This continues a theme he laid out in Fort Bragg recently: “We fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand.”

Unfortunately, the dual attacks in London last month clearly showed that the Iraq war has not reduced the terrorist threat.

Too many Americans and Iraqis already have died based on false claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of WMDs and connection to 9/11. No one should die now under the illusion that we are fighting terrorists in Baghdad and Fallujah instead of New York and London.

Terrorists who kill and maim should themselves be killed or captured—whether they are operating in London, Baghdad, or New York. Which is why the administration’s initial response to 9/11—targeting al-Qaeda and overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan—was entirely appropriate.

But battling terrorism should not mean fighting blind or basing policy on delusions. In general, terrorism is a violent tool in a political struggle, where one side is overmatched in conventional terms. Robert Pape, author of the new book, Dying to Win, reviewed 315 suicide bombing attacks between 1983 and 2003 and found that virtually all of them had “a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from the terrorists’ national homeland.”

There are undoubtedly jihadists who simply hate America and its freedoms. A few others might have wild ideas about reestablishing Islamic glory over Western lands. But the evidence suggests that most of the antagonism springs from hatred of U.S. (and allied) government policies.

For instance, before the London bombings a British intelligence assessment leaked to the press found that “events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity.” In a new report Britain’s Chatham House observes that Iraq has given “a boost to the al-Qaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment and fundraising.”

The Israeli Global Research in International Affairs Center reported earlier this year that Iraq “has turned into a magnet for jihadi volunteers.” But not established terrorists. Rather, explained report author Reuven Paz, “the vast majority of Arabs killed in Iraq have never taken part in any terrorist activity prior to their arrival in Iraq.”

Larry Johnson, who served with both the CIA and the State Department’s counterterrorism office, observes, “You now in Iraq have a recruiting ground in which jihadists, people who previously were not willing to go out and embrace the vision of bin Laden” are “now aligning themselves with elements that have declared allegiance to him.”

The British government recently compiled an extensive report entitled “Young Muslims and Extremism,” warning that British-U.S. policies are alienating many Muslims who see them “as having been acts against Islam.” Analysts informed the prime minister that the Iraq war is acting as a “recruiting sergeant” for extremism.

“The battle experience that jihadists gain in Iraq,” Paz adds, “supplies the Islamist adherents of the Global Jihad culture with a wealth of first-hand field experience.” Larry Johnson worries that Iraqi insurgents are learning how to build bombs and run military operations.

Even more menacingly, after being trained in the ways of urban warfare, these terrorists are “bleeding out” around the world. Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine reports that scores of Muslim extremists have returned to Europe from Iraq, and all “are equipped with fresh combat experience and filled with ideological indoctrination. It is these men who are considered particularly dangerous.”

The ideology these men absorb is heavily colored by U.S. and British policies. Al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman Zawahiri, recently denounced “aggression against Muslims,” ranging from war to support for corrupt regimes. Osama bin Laden’s earlier phrasing was: “If you bomb our cities, we will bomb yours.” Although condemning the London attacks, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar contended that Muslims have suffered “too much from the American aggression.”

The point is not that their assessments are accurate or U.S. policies are unjustified. Nor should London and Washington precipitously retreat from Iraq and allow terrorist acts to determine national policy. But policymakers must recognize that intervention—particularly the prolonged intervention being planned for Iraq—vastly expands the pool of people willing to listen to, and follow, terrorist demagogues.

Observes Robert Pape: “Since suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation and not Islamic fundamentalism, the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies over there, if you would, is only likely to increase the number of suicide terrorists coming at us… Suicide terrorism is not a supply-limited phenomenon where there are just a few hundred around the world willing to do it because they are religious fanatics. It is a demand-driven phenomenon.”

The Iraq conflict has become a killing field. But not as war supporters expected. It is providing an opportunity for extremists to kill U.S. troops while learning skills that may eventually be employed in Western lands. Whatever the Iraq conflict is accomplishing, it is not making us safer from terrorism. Either President Bush should stop claiming this or we should stop listening to him.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.