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How to Avoid World War III

By Robert Parry
September 28, 2006

Often when we write about the Iraq War and the “war on terror,” we receive angry e-mails from George W. Bush’s supporters who insist there is no alternative but to follow the President’s lead in crushing Islamic militants and fighting World War III.

Typical was one e-mail that asserted, “they started it; now we’re going to finish it.”

But I’m never clear who “they” are or exactly what “it” is. If “they” are the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist terrorists of al-Qaeda and “it” is 9/11, U.S. forces could have concentrated on al-Qaeda strongholds along the Afghan-Pakistani border until Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and their followers were captured or killed.

Bush, however, expanded the “they” to include the secular dictatorship of Iraq, the Shiite government of Iran, Syria’s Assad family dynasty, Lebanese Shiite militants of Hezbollah, Palestinian Sunni militants of Hamas, and a hodgepodge of other Islamic radicals around the globe.

So, instead of finishing a winnable war against al-Qaeda, Bush veered off into a diffused struggle against a diverse grouping of Muslim leaders, nations and organizations lumped under a terrorism umbrella.

Bush also has offered no coherent strategy for winning what amounts to a global counterinsurgency war against Islamic militants. Beyond vowing to stay on “the offensive” in Iraq and elsewhere, Bush has promulgated a dubious theory that widespread anti-Americanism can be overcome by imposing “democracy,” through force if needed.

But this “democracy” theory has run aground on the hard reality that Muslim hatred of Bush is so intense that almost whenever citizens get to vote they either act on behalf of narrow sectarian interests (as in Iraq) or they vote for people who have earned popular support by standing up to the United States (as in Iran, Palestine and Lebanon).

That means that the only “reliable” U.S. allies are still the “moderate” autocrats, such as the Saudi royal family, the Jordanian monarchy, or the dictators of Egypt and Pakistan. If the popular will in those countries were respected, the likelihood is that the elected governments would join the “coalition of the hostile” against the United States.

In other words, Bush has no real strategic plan for winning the “war on terror,” short of waging a bloodbath against large segments of the world’s one billion Muslims, a global version of the carnage on display in Iraq since 2003 and in Lebanon during the Israeli war against Hezbollah last summer.

Yet, even a bloodbath strategy along the lines of the Iraq War is certain to fail. As the U.S. intelligence community has recognized, the Iraq War has become a case study in how not to conduct counterinsurgency warfare – as well as an example of how wishful thinking and incompetent military strategies can make a bad situation worse.

Neocon Goal

Still, the neoconservatives who surround Bush have learned little or nothing from these lessons.

They insist that the United States must pursue a “long war” or “World War III” by seeking violent “regime change” in Iran, Syria and any area controlled by militant Islamists. During the Lebanon conflict, Bush was so eager to spread the violence that he reportedly urged Israel to launch an attack against Syria. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Wants Wider War.”]

But these widening circles of violence will surely provoke more attacks on Western targets and then more retaliatory strikes by the United States against a multiplying Islamic enemy, like the chaos in the Disney fable, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

The downward spiral of violence also will be accompanied by a drastic curtailment of constitutional rights in the United States. As the terrorist threat continues to grow, so will the pressure to transform America into a modern-day police state, with arbitrary detention of terrorism suspects and high-technology spying on citizens and non-citizens alike.

This future of endless war and expanding repression represents Bush’s grim vision. But the countervailing question is this: Is there a realistic alternative?

The answer is “yes, but.” There are still routes available that might lead to a more peaceful world that isolates, marginalizes and eventually eradicates terrorist ideologues. But these strategies would require extraordinary bravery, wisdom, patience, humility and tolerance.

Most importantly, Israel and the West would need to reach out to the Muslim world with generosity and understanding, despite continuing terrorist outrages that would cry out for revenge. Jesus’s age-old teachings about “turning the other cheek” would be tested.

This alternative strategy would seek to reduce – not escalate – tensions with Muslims. It would address their legitimate grievances. It might include apologies for past Western wrongdoing. It would try to build positive economic, commercial and political bonds. It would seek to reduce Western dependency on Middle Eastern oil.

Also, given the Bush administration’s strategic intransigence, new international players – such as the European Union or Russia – might have to fill the leadership void in the region. Israel’s Kadima leadership would have to reverse course from its crackdown in Gaza and its bombardment of Lebanon, and start pursuing innovative peace initiatives.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose political star has fallen since the disastrous war in Lebanon, would need to rise to the occasion despite strong opposition from the Israeli right wing.

Olmert might start by seeking a peace treaty with Syria that gives back the Golan Heights; make an overture to Iran offering economic cooperation, such as technological help in building a modern oil refinery; and begin unconditional talks with the elected Hamas leadership in the Palestinian territories.

Though a permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would take time, Israel and international parties could, in the meantime, take action to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people, thus lancing one of the festering boils of animosity in the Middle East.

Another important step back from World War III would come with a phased American withdrawal from Iraq.

Though Iraq would surely continue to suffer civil strife, a U.S. military departure would remove what the U.S. intelligence community has called the “cause celebre” for the jihadist movement and would create a dynamic for Iraqis to go after any remaining foreign al-Qaeda operatives.

As we have noted in the past, one of the major worries of the al-Qaeda leadership – expressed in the so-called “Zawahiri letter” – is that a rapid U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would cause the non-Iraqi jihadists to lay down their arms and go home. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda Letter Belies Bush’s Iraq Claims.”]

Bush-bin Laden Symbiosis

Though Bush presents himself as the tough-guy enemy of bin Laden, Bush’s policies, in reality, often have served al-Qaeda’s interests. For instance, Bush’s decision to divert U.S. military resources from Afghanistan to the Iraq War enabled al-Qaeda’s top leaders to survive and it gave them an issue to exploit in their rebuilding effort.

Indeed, Bush’s policies have dovetailed so perfectly with al-Qaeda’s dream of engaging the West in a worldwide struggle that CIA analysts believe bin Laden took the risk of releasing a videotape only days before Election 2004 to help Bush gain a second term. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “CIA: Osama Helped Bush in ’04.”]

This “Bush-bin Laden symbiosis” is likely to continue until Congress finally asserts its power over making war or until Bush leaves office.

Given Bush’s personality, it seems unthinkable that he would ever admit that he had made a mistake by invading Iraq or that he would order a full troop withdrawal. Nor is he likely to cooperate with peace initiatives by other nations that involve real compromise.

But a Republican defeat in the Nov. 7 elections could at least limit Bush’s ability to interfere with initiatives by other international players who might want to step back from the brink of World War III.

Conversely, another Republican victory might well lock in a future of near-endless war abroad and ever-increasing political repression at home.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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