Put differently, has George W. Bush’s Iraq policy
done more to help than hurt al-Qaeda, from Bush’s hasty decision to
redirect U.S. military assets from Afghanistan to Iraq while Osama
bin-Laden was still at large, to the loose talks about an American
“crusade,” to supplanting Iraq’s secular government with one favoring
In the 1980s, when I was covering the wars in
Central America, neoconservative theorists liked to call U.S. peace
activists “useful idiots” because their opposition to the hard-line
Reagan administration was seen as unwittingly aiding and abetting
communists and other leftist enemies. In that vein, is Bush now al-Qaeda’s
These questions are relevant today because Bush is
again making clear his determination to “stay the course” in Iraq. He is
rejecting the advice of some military strategists and a few political
leaders that a wiser course might be for the United States to begin a
phased withdrawal from the war-ravaged country.
In a speech in Idaho on Aug. 24, Bush rejected that
idea, saying it would play into the hands of Islamic terrorists who
“want us to retreat.”
“An immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq,
or the broader Middle East, as some have called for, would only embolden
the terrorists and create a staging ground to launch more attacks
against America and free nations,” Bush said. “So long as I’m the
president, we will stay, we will fight, and we will win the war on
Bush also repeated some of his dubious assertions
about the cause of Islamic terrorism. For instance, Bush said, “our
enemies murder because they despise our freedom and our way of life,”
though intelligence experts have long concluded that the dominant goal
of al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists is to drive Western forces and
influence out of the Middle East.
It’s not hatred of “our way of life” that motivates
most Islamic extremists, but rather a perception that the West is
threatening “their way of life.” While there have been violent strikes
against the West, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York
and Washington, Islamic fundamentalists generally see their struggle as
So, when Bush prescribes an offensive strategy –
“to go after the terrorists where they live … until the terrorists have
nowhere to run and nowhere to hide” – his projection of U.S. power into
the Islamic world not only portends a virtually endless war but has the
detrimental effect of reinforcing the arguments that Islamic extremists
use to recruit impressionable young people to terrorism.
For that reason, some observers see the current
dynamic as a vicious cycle – an escalating pattern of tit-for-tat
violence with both sides nursing grievances bathed in blood. More
cynical analysts go further, seeing a symbiotic relationship in which
Bush and bin-Laden – whether wittingly or not – serve each other’s
At home, Bush and his right-wing allies have used
the American fear of Islamic terrorism to consolidate political control.
Among Muslims, bin-Laden and al-Qaeda have exploited their battle
against the world’s superpower to transform themselves from a marginal –
albeit dangerous – organization into an international force attracting
thousands of recruits in the defense of Islam.
For their part, al-Qaeda’s leaders get
international standing as warriors for the faith – rather than their
deserved notoriety as thugs killing innocents – while the Bush
administration gets to reorganize the United States along the
authoritarian lines of a nation at war. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s
Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush
recognized that a targeted assault on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan would be
too remote and too limited for his elevation to the pedestal of heroic
“war president.” Bush quickly turned his gaze toward Iraq, according to
accounts by former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, counter-terrorism
chief Richard Clarke and author Bob Woodward.
So, even though Iraq’s Saddam Hussein wasn’t tied
to Sept. 11, Bush and his neoconservative advisers perceived the
political advantage of expanding the fight against al-Qaeda into a
broader war against U.S. adversaries in the Middle East.
Like a climatic scene from a “Godfather” movie,
Bush and his neocon capos seized on the Sept. 11 attacks as an excuse to
settle the Bush “family accounts,” which included eliminating Hussein,
whom Bush once called “the guy who tried to kill my dad.”
But Bush’s revenge-driven invasion didn’t achieve
the finality that some expected. Though Saddam Hussein was captured and
his two sons were slain, the invasion of Iraq wasn’t the “cakewalk”
among grateful Iraqis that some on Bush’s foreign-policy team had
Rather than accept U.S. occupation, thousands of
Iraqis – especially from the nation’s Sunni minority – picked up guns
and began making bombs to kill Americans. Thousands of foreign jihadists
also slipped into Iraq to battle the Western invaders, often by becoming
Soon, a full-fledged insurgency was underway with
hundreds of American soldiers dying along with thousands of Iraqis, both
civilians and combatants. Amid the chaos, American diplomats were caught
up in the kind of complex “nation-building” that candidate Bush had
vowed to avoid when he was seeking the presidency in 2000.
Yet, even as events in Iraq spun out of control,
Bush and his political advisers found the “war on terror” a useful
device for restructuring the U.S. government, redirecting tax money to
friendly corporations, and reframing the American concept of civil
liberties to give Bush the unbridled power to imprison anyone he deems
an “enemy combatant.”
Bush also could count on legions of right-wing
supporters to denounce domestic critics as “traitors,” obsessed with
“blaming America” and guilty of violating the edict to “support the
troops.” In this poisonous climate, most Democratic politicians and
mainstream pundits shied away from any sustained criticism of Bush’s war
Former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., observed this
phenomenon in an Aug. 24 op-ed column for the Washington Post, entitled
“Who Will Say ‘No More’?”
Hart urged Democratic leaders to admit they were
deceived by Bush into supporting the Iraq War and ask forgiveness from
the military families that have suffered. Then, the Democrats should
give speeches explaining why the conflict is hurting American security,
how the nation must move toward energy independence, and “what we and
our allies can do to dry up the jihadists’ swamp,” Hart wrote.
“The real defeatists today are not those protesting
the war,” Hart continued. “The real defeatists are those in power and
their silent supporters in the opposition party who are reduced to
repeating ‘Stay the course’ even when the course, whatever it now is, is
light years away from the one originally undertaken.
“The truth is we’re way off course. We’ve stumbled
into a hornet’s nest. We’ve weakened ourselves at home and in the world.
We are less secure today than before this war began. Who now has the
courage to say this?” [Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2005]
As Hart noted, many Democratic leaders either have
chosen to finesse the Iraq War by quietly supporting Bush’s policies or
they have tried to outflank him from the Right by demanding that he send
more troops and fight to win.
Only a few senior Democrats, such as Sen. Russ
Feingold of Wisconsin, have ventured so far as to suggest a phased
withdrawal by the end of next year.
A commonly heard Democratic mantra on Iraq is that
“failure is not an option.” But no one in Washington has made a
convincing case that failure is not at least a strong possibility.
Simply declaring that success must occur doesn’t mean it will. [For more
on this wishful thinking, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Iraq
War’s Two Constants.”]
The enduring paradox of the Iraq War is that Bush
and other U.S. leaders insist that the presence of U.S. troops is
necessary to bring political stability to Iraq, yet it is the presence
of those U.S. troops that has become the driving force for both foreign
jihadists and Iraqi insurgents to continue inflicting havoc across Iraq.
There might have been a way out of the paradox if
Sen. John Kerry had won the White House in November 2004 and had
enlisted some non-Western surrogate forces to fill the void as U.S. and
British troops left. But Bush’s second term precluded that possibility.
Since then, Bush has been able to sustain an
anti-withdrawal consensus in Washington by arguing that U.S. troops are
needed to keep Iraq from turning into a “failed state” – like
Afghanistan – and thus a potential base for Islamic terrorists to strike
against the United States and its allies.
“We will not allow the terrorists to establish new
places of refuge in failed states from which they can recruit and train
and plan new attacks on our citizens,” Bush said in his Idaho speech.
But that prediction about Iraq may be just another
of Bush’s worst-case scenarios, not a likely danger. Another scenario
could be that a U.S. withdrawal might improve Iraq’s chances for
stability by removing the chief rallying point for Islamic extremists.
Without the American presence to incite young
Muslims to strap on suicide belts, the foreign terrorist operations in
Iraq might shrivel. Even the Iraqi Sunnis, whose anti-American interests
now overlap with those of the foreign jihadists, might have little
stomach for the civilian-butchering jihadists if the Americans were
gone. The Sunnis might well revert to Hussein’s approach of ruthlessly
repressing Islamic extremists.
In other words, as odd as it might seem, an
American withdrawal could actually contribute to the precise result that
is now the chief U.S. policy goal, preventing Iraq from becoming a haven
That does not mean, of course, the future of Iraq
will be peaceful. The blood shed over the past two-plus years will
almost certainly fuel new rounds of revenge. A civil war among the
Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds also remains a distinct possibility.
But the United States may have to recognize that –
having opened the door to this chaos – it is the wrong party to set
matters right. Sometimes, the best course of action is to step back and
provide encouragement, but leave well enough alone. [See
& the Logic of Withdrawal.”]
Ironically, the key to resolving the Iraqi paradox
might be what many families of American soldiers desperately long for
already, the return of their loved ones safe and sound.
The tragedy of Iraq, however, may be that George W.
Bush will insist on “staying the course,” Democratic leaders won’t dare
contradict him – and the killing will go on.