The decision to fight the wrong war has left our nation less secure

July 13, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Saddam Hussein is behind bars. Osama bin Laden is not. What's wrong with this picture?

A lot of people in London and beyond may be asking that question. Lately, it has been possible for those of us on this side of the ocean to almost forget that our greatest challenge is the global threat of Islamic terrorism. That's because we've been preoccupied by the relentless violence and chaos in Iraq, where we are mired in a war we don't know how to win.

Looking at our current predicament, you almost feel nostalgic for the days when all we had to worry about was how to stop al-Qaida from slaughtering more people on American soil - as if that weren't hard enough.

The bombings in London are a gruesome but unmistakable reminder that the war on terror ought to be Priority 1, Priority 2 and Priority 3. But as long as we're up to our necks in Iraq, terrorism will not get the attention and resources it demands.

We may be distracted by Iraq, but the terrorists are not. If anything, our messy occupation of a Muslim country works to the advantage of Islamic militants by inspiring new recruits every day.

Even in Iraq, the head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has said that despite all the insurgents we have killed, their numbers are growing. If our enemies are multiplying in Iraq, they are bound to be multiplying elsewhere.

President Bush pretends that the war there is part of the global war on terror. In fact, Iraq has reduced that problem to a secondary mission. And we're finding that it's hard to put out the fire in your house when your hand is trapped in the drainpipe.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, few Americans had any illusions about what lay ahead. Given the size, dispersion and viciousness of bin Laden's organization, we all knew that defeating it would be a Herculean task.

But after those airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans didn't shrink from taking it on. Why? For the same reason we declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor: We had no choice.

The enemy had declared war. The security of the nation and the lives of all Americans were at stake. So the nation united behind President Bush's decision to invade Afghanistan.

We achieved some quick successes: toppling the Taliban, midwifing a new government in Afghanistan, capturing or killing hordes of al-Qaida fighters, and sending bin Laden into hiding. But it went almost too well.

The speed of the Taliban's collapse gave the Bush administration the idea that with our military might, we could easily reshape the international landscape to our liking. Instead of keeping its eye on the ball in Afghanistan and other al-Qaida hotbeds, it let itself be distracted by Saddam Hussein.

For more than a decade following the first Persian Gulf war, the United States and its allies had managed to contain him. But suddenly, that wasn't good enough. President Bush decided to liberate Iraq from his rule - and in doing so, he blundered into a long and costly war that has stretched our military to the breaking point.

What we are hearing already in response to the London bombings is that we must not be tempted into appeasement. But it is not appeasement to do now what we should have done before the London bombings - namely, make an early and orderly departure from Iraq. That would not, as conservatives claim, suggest weakness. It would instead demonstrate a new appreciation of the obvious: that we can't marshal all the energies we need for the war on terror while we are bogged down in a conflict that had nothing to do with the war on terror.

We've poured more than $200 billion down the drain in Iraq. If even a small part of that money had been spent on homeland security, Americans would undoubtedly be safer today. U.S. soldiers might have been used to hunt down those enemies who want to carry out atrocities here or in Britain, instead of fighting insurgents who merely want us out of Iraq.

The war on Iraq was never vital to our security. The war on terror is. So why do we keep fighting the former at the expense of the latter?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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