Commentary

Nourishing the enemy

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post on April 19, 2004.

America may have learned some new details from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s testimony before the September 11 commission, but it already knew the broad outline of the story: neither the Bush administration nor its predecessor took the al-Qaeda threat seriously enough prior to the attacks.

Former president Bill Clinton’s final national security strategy, issued in December 2000, devoted little attention to the terror group. For her part, Dr Rice was scheduled to give a speech on September 11, making missile defence the lynchpin of the Bush administration’s national security strategy. Thus, George W. Bush, up until the eve of the attacks, was focused on the alleged threat from rogue states, not stateless terror networks.

In each case, the government was preoccupied with fighting the last war. That failure is tragic, albeit understandable. But September 11 should have concentrated minds wonderfully as to the sort of enemy the US is fighting. Responses appropriate to a state-based threat will only rarely be effective against a private, self-organising, adaptable enemy that can operate without state support or central direction.

Having rightfully removed the one regime directly related to the terror threat – the Taleban in Afghanistan – the US administration continued as if the war on terror was a war against states. But it is hard to understand how regime change in Iraq served any important goals. Iraq appears to have had few, if any, genuine al-Qaeda links, much less a plan to sell weapons of mass destruction to anti-US terrorists.

For that reason, the more interesting parts of former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s revelations are not found in the finger-pointing about which administration took terrorism more seriously before September 11. Instead, it is his assessment of the Iraq war, which he says, “delivered to al-Qaeda the greatest recruitment propaganda imaginable”.

Is he right? It is difficult to tell, but there are some indications that America is losing the battle of numbers. On April 1, Cofer Black, the US State Department’s co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, testified before Congress that there are “growing indications that al-Qaeda’s ideology is spreading well beyond the Middle East, particularly its virulent anti-American rhetoric. This greatly complicates our task in stamping out al-Qaeda, and poses a threat in its own right for the foreseeable future.”

A year after the start of the Iraq war, a Pew Research Centre survey revealed that “large majorities in Jordan [70 per cent] and Morocco [66 per cent] believe suicide bombings carried out against Americans and other westerners Iraq are justifiable. Nearly half those in Pakistan [46 per cent] agree.”

That is not to suggest that the on al-Qaeda should be run as a global popularity contest. Far from the US needs to kill or capture those who mean it harm. But anti-American sentiment is the lifeblood of jihad. Needlessly increasing it through unnecessary wars in the Middle East nourishes the enemy and swells its ranks.

The war in Iraq may well have that effect. In an internal memo, leaked in October, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked: “Is our current situation such that ‘the harder we work, the behinder [sic] we get’?” He was not talking of Iraq specifically, but his words perfectly describe America’s dilemma.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute in Washington