Iraq and terror

October 07, 2005

Terror demands clear thinking. But when President Bush gave what the White House termed a major speech on terror yesterday, what he offered, besides the usual rhetorical flourishes, was muddle and confusion. The United States needs something better than that.

The president started with his usual declaration that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. U.S. troops, he said, are methodically sweeping Iraq, "area by area, city by city," ridding each sector in turn of "enemy forces." This demonstrates a serious misreading of the progress of the war - because insurgents flow back into any sector as soon as American soldiers have gone elsewhere - but it also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the opponent.

Neither insurgents nor terrorists - and there's a big difference between the two - need to hold territory, the way a regular army does, in order to conduct a fight. Americans can spend the next century sweeping out villages and it's unlikely to do much good.

Yet Mr. Bush said the United States can't withdraw from Iraq, because it would turn that country, with its oil riches, over to the likes of Osama bin Laden. And he characterized those opposed to the war as appeasers hoping to placate al-Qaida. To the contrary, it is altogether likely that if the U.S. weren't bogged down trying to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, American forces could be freed up to more effectively seek out and destroy terrorist networks - wherever they take root.

A U.S. withdrawal, especially an abrupt one, would undoubtedly leave Iraq a dangerous place - but that might be a less bad option than stubbornly fighting on and drawing a constant stream of new opponents into the field. Neither is it certain that an Iraq without American troops in it would necessarily be friendly to al-Qaida.

At one point in his speech, Mr. Bush wandered off into an argument in which he compared Islamist extremism to communism. This was peculiar on several counts, but consider just this one point: As Mr. Bush himself acknowledged, communism fell of its own "inherent contradictions." America's policy of containment required patience, but it was spectacularly successful. American failures arose only when Washington veered off into violent confrontation - at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and in Vietnam.

Here is the lesson. Islamist extremism is an ideology, and ideologies cannot be overcome with aircraft carriers and tanks. It is a job that requires diplomacy, cunning, special operations, police work, good deeds and diligence. In the conflict with jihadists, the war in Iraq is a distraction - in fact, it's worse than a distraction, it's an impediment to U.S. victory. The president said that three planned al-Qaida attacks on U.S. soil had been disrupted since 2001, which is heartening news. But at the same time he talked about terrorist acts in London, Bali, Madrid, Casablanca and Beslan as if they somehow justify the war in Iraq. And that's getting it just about backward.

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