Has the Iraq war undermined efforts to defeat the jihadis? Maybe, but the Times and Post stories don't come close to making that case. They claim that new terrorists are being enlisted at a growing rate and that America's presence in Iraq has become a major terrorist recruitment tool. That hardly adds up to a weakened war against Al Qaeda and its accomplices. D-Day and the battle of Midway triggered some of the most ferocious fighting of World War II and resulted in tens of thousands of additional Allied casualties. But would anyone say that they undermined the drive to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?Robert Kagan also raised questions about the NIE in yesterday' s Washington Post:
After 9/11, the United States went to war against Islamic totalitarianism; since 2003 that war has focused most dramatically on Iraq. It stands to reason that Iraq is therefore the focal point in the jihadis' war against the West. President Bush has made that point repeatedly, quoting Osama bin Laden's declaration that the war in Iraq is ``the most serious issue today for the whole world " and will end in ``victory and glory or misery and humiliation." Has US military action in Iraq inflamed the global jihad? Undoubtedly. But just imagine how galvanized it would be by a US retreat.
This much we do know: There has been no successful terrorist attack on the United States in the years since 9/11, whereas the years leading up to 9/11 saw one act of terrorism after another, including the bombing of the World Trade Center, the destruction of the US embassies in Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole. The Bush administration must be doing something right -- something the Clinton administration, on whose watch bin Laden and Al Qaeda launched and escalated their terror war, failed to do.
Could 9/11 have been prevented? That in essence was what Chris Wallace asked former President Bill Clinton during his Fox News interview on Sunday: ``Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were president? . . . Why didn't you . . . connect the dots and put them out of business?"
From the ferocity of Clinton's response, you would have thought he'd been accused of using a 22-year-old White House intern for sex. Purple-faced with rage, he blasted Wallace for doing a ``nice little conservative hit job on me." He fumed that he had ``worked hard to try and kill" bin Laden and that ``all the right-wingers" who criticize him for doing too little ``spent the whole time I was president saying, `Why is he so obsessed with bin Laden?' "
But Wallace's question was no ``hit job." No one ever accused Clinton of being too obsessed with bin Laden. On the contrary: The eight years of his presidency, like the first eight months of Bush's, were marked at the top by a tragic inattention to Al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission Report records the exasperated reaction of a State Department counterterrorism officer to Clinton's refusal to retaliate for the bombing of the Cole: ``Does Al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?"
Unfortunately, the answer was yes. Only after 9/11 did the United States muster the will to begin fighting the jihadis in earnest.
Was Iraq the best place to fight them? There are passionate views on both sides of that question, and history will have the final say. What we know for sure today is that we are at war against a deadly enemy, one we must defeat or be defeated by. The war on terrorism is going far better now than it did when our eyes were closed.
For instance, what specifically does it mean to say that the Iraq war has worsened the "terrorism threat"? Presumably, the NIE's authors would admit that this is speculation rather than a statement of fact, since the facts suggest otherwise. Before the Iraq war, the United States suffered a series of terrorist attacks: the bombing and destruction of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States. That doesn't mean the threat has diminished because of the Iraq war, but it does place the burden of proof on those who argue that it has increased.Kagan also notes that the report provides little hard data to support its claims, for example, of Iraq increasing the number of terrorists arrayed against the U.S. Kagan suggests that "a serious evaluation of the effect of the Iraq war would have to address the Bush administration's argument that it is better to fight terrorist recruits in Iraq than in the United States."
Like Jacoby, Kagan says there's legitimate debate on this question, although context is important. Should we not engage an enemy who threatens us? "I would worry about an American foreign policy driven only by fear of how our actions might inspire anger, radicalism and violence in others. As in the past, that should be only one calculation in our judgment of what does and does not make us, and the world, safer."
In an earlier post I discussed how the U.S. can defeat al Qaeda, citing Audrey Kurth Cronin's recent International Security piece.
In that article, Cronin notes that in fact analysts for some time have argued that al Qaeda has been transformed into an insurgency and recruitment movement in Iraq, marked by an alliance between the forces of Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden. Cronin suggests that exploiting the unwelcomed foreign terrorist element in Iraq -- especially the resentments generated by terrorist atrocities against Iraqi civilians -- is one element in a broader strategy of defeating al Qaeda.