Whither Victory?

Although he did not officially declare victory aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush said that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” More importantly, he claimed that “the battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11th 2001.” But how?

Prior to the war, much of the administration’s case for war was based on weapons of mass destruction. And not just a few such weapons. Bush accused Iraq of having enough material “to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax — enough doses to kill several million people … more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin — enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure … as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent.” Secretary of State Colin Powell showed photographs to the U.N. Security Council, giving the impression that the United States knew where Iraq was hiding its weapons of mass destruction.

Although both the United States and United Kingdom are confident they will eventually find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so far no chemical or biological weapons have been discovered. If none are found, the president’s claim that “no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime” will ring hollow.

Plus there is the larger question of how weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to the United States. If the Iraqis had chemical or biological weapons but did not use them to defend their own country against a foreign invader, how and when were they ever going to use such weapons? The possibility that the Iraqis might have destroyed their weapons prior to or during the war only reinforces the notion that they were not much of a threat.

So if weapons of mass destruction were largely much ado about nothing, what about the president’s claim that “we have removed an ally of al Qaeda”? To be sure, bases used by Ansar al-Islam — a radical Islamic group accused by the administration of having ties to al Qaeda — were destroyed in northern Iraq. But those bases could have been destroyed without a full-scale war. They were in Kurdish-controlled territory and could have been bombed with precision weaponry as part of U.S.-led no-fly zone operations.

And the terrorist Abul Abbas, who killed an American in the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, was caught. But it does not establish an Iraqi-al Qaeda linkage. Rather, it shows Iraq was affiliated with Palestinian terror groups that direct their violence primarily against Israel, not the United States.

This much seems clear: Iraq was not a hotbed for al Qaeda operations as was Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

This war was a brilliant military victory that demonstrated unrivalled U.S. capabilities. And the Iraqi people were liberated from a brutal dictator. But the hard truth is that victory in Iraq has little to do with winning the war on terrorism. In fact, it might even make the problem worse. It’s not reassuring that in the wake of U.S. military action in Iraq that the State Department issued a worldwide caution that “the recent events in Iraq may increase the potential threat to U.S. citizens and interests abroad, including by terrorist groups.”

And the continued U.S. presence in Iraq to build a new democracy — while noble and well-intentioned — is also creating anti-American sentiment. Such sentiment, especially in the Arab and Muslim world, where opinions of the United States are low to begin with, is the first step towards hatred, which becomes a steppingstone to violence and then terrorism. U.S. troops have now, just days apart, twice opened fire on and killed Iraqi protestors in Fallujah. And in apparent retaliation, grenades have been lobbed into a U.S. Army compound. Only time and history will tell us if this is the first spark that sets off a much larger fire.

In the end, victory in Iraq is simply a classical military victory in a classical war — that is, a war fought between nation states. But the real enemy in the war on terrorism — the al Qaeda terrorist network operating in over 60 countries around the world — is not a nation state and its army does not wear a uniform. And the irony and paradox is that the U.S. military victory in Iraq could do more to recruit Arabs and Muslims to take up al Qaeda’s jihad against the United States than any of Osama bin Laden’s exhortations.

Charles V. Peña is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.