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Needless Hand-Wringing in the War on Terror By: Thomas Patrick Carroll
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, February 04, 2004


For those who enjoy worrying, the war against militant Islam offers plenty of opportunity. Will Pakistan’s Musharraf continue to dodge the assassins, or are his days numbered? Do Saudi “progressives” have the political base to come out on top against the Kingdom’s al-Qai’da supporters? Is Afghanistan falling apart? These are real problems, all worth brooding over.

It is therefore remarkable how many critics of the war on terror spend so much time fretting over matters of little consequence.

Most of these pointless worries are here one day and gone the next. Remember all the concern over the fabled Arab Street that was going to rise up with destabilizing fury and violence if the U.S. invaded Iraq? Or the diplomatic reprisals we would suffer for cutting Germany and France out as prime contractors in the post-war reconstruction?

But not all such worries are fleeting. Opponents of the war have come up with a host of pseudo-concerns that have shown amazing staying power, even though they are just as misguided as those about Arab popular opinion or French clout. And many of these worries have been whined about so long and loud, they can actually seem legitimate. Here are the big three.

“We ignore old allies at our peril.”

Although people concerned about Bush’s supposed go-it-alone approach to foreign policy were vocal before 9/11 -- remember the kerfuffle over the Kyoto treaty? -- the war on terror has given these particular worriers a new purpose in life.

Critics point to the formidable array international alliances that America constructed in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the core of which was our relationship with Western Europe, and bemoan their eclipse. Bush stands accused of ignoring Old Europe – mainly Germany, France, and Belgium – and thereby turning his back on partnerships that guaranteed our security for 40 years. This is tragically myopic, say the worriers, and our nation will pay for it.

Like most pseudo-concerns, this one has some truth. We definitely are acting with less regard to the opinions of some of our traditional allies, and this should not be dismissed lightly.

However, we must remember what the old alliances were for. They were designed to fight the Cold War, a role they fulfilled admirably. But the Cold War was a strange and unique “fight.” Our alliances in those days were built to preserve the status quo, not change it. The goal was not to attack and destroy the Soviet Union, but to maintain an immutable balance that would never (we hoped) lead to actual military confrontation. Our Cold War alliances were not intended to effect swift and decisive combat — just the opposite, they were there to make combat unthinkable.

The contrast between the Cold War and the war against the militant Islamists could not be more stark. The last thing America can afford today is to maintain the status quo in the Middle East, for the status quo will inevitably lead to an event that will make 9/11 look like a fender bender. The stagnant, poisonous states of the Middle East — the incubator for Bin Laden and his deadly ilk — must be radically changed, and that is precisely the course America has embarked upon.

None of this means the United States does not need friends and allies, for surely we do. But they are different from the ones we needed in the past. Turkey and Poland are on the assent, as is India. Strange as it seems, the United States is even making common cause with Iran, albeit in a cautious, sub rosa way. And let’s be realistic — the favorable changes we are seeing in the behavior of Libya and Syria, and even the Saudis, far outweigh whatever downside there may be in suffering the disapproval of Dominique de Villepin.

“The law of unintended consequences will be our undoing in Iraq.”

Many worry that our invasion of Iraq has unleashed terrible forces we cannot control. This is not a single concern, really, but a cluster of them. The Kurds might demand independence. The Shia may revolt. The Turks could march into Kirkuk. We have unleashed a tiger, and his ultimate victim may be us.

This is the venerable law of unintended consequences, a basically conservative insight. Great national acts — wars, for example — have myriad results, most of which will surprise us. Of these surprises, many will be harmful and probably uncontrollable. Best not to embark on such adventures, say the worriers, if one can possibly help it.

And sure enough, all sorts of unforeseen things are happening because of Operation Iraqi Freedom, some of them unwelcome. However, there are two points to keep in mind.

First, the “unintended consequences” of the Iraq invasion are, in fact, intended. One of America’s aims is to shake-up the region, to put pressure on complacent autocrats and create a dynamic that will bring (at least the possibility of) constructive change. We know much of it will not be to our liking, and that whatever happens surely will not be among the best of all possible worlds. But the swamp must be drained if an acceptable future is to have any chance whatsoever.

Next, we need to put the unintended consequences of the Iraq invasion into historical context. Let’s take a look at the consequences of World War II, for a start.

The Second World War was fought to defeat totalitarianism and, in fact, the genocidal totalitarianism of Nazi Germany was crushed. But its very defeat created a power vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe, into which Soviet communism expanded. In a sad and symbolic irony, the proximate cause of France and Britain’s 1939 declaration of war on Germany was Hitler’s occupation of Poland — but when the war in Europe ended, Poland had fallen under the heel of Soviet tyranny and would remain there for the next 40 years, along with half of Europe. In East Asia, the war and the ensuing destruction of Japan paved the way for the triumph of Mao’s communist forces in China, as well as the establishment of the communist regime in North Korea, an event that still may have unimaginably horrific consequences if the psychopathic Kim Chong-il decides to go out in a blaze of nuclear glory.

None of this is to say that WWII was somehow not “worth it,” or that the unfortunate consequences that followed obviated the importance and value of our victory over the Axis. On the contrary, America’s decision to fight against Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito was clearly the right thing to do. But in the wake of WWII, the United States was pulled onto the global stage as never before, countless millions lost their freedom and even their lives to communist tyranny, and the world was placed under the threat of nuclear holocaust for almost half a century — all unintended consequences.

Weapons of mass destruction exist. If America’s Islamist enemies acquire WMD, they will use them against us and millions could die. This means, for the next several years at least, we face a threat every bit as grave as that posed by Hitler. For this reason we are fighting a war, and Operation Iraqi Freedom is a pivotal campaign in that war. Yes, the campaign in Iraq is having its effects, some dangerous and unforeseen. But we must not think of them in historical isolation. The unintended consequences of Iraq are not trivial, but we’ve faced worse.

“If we aren’t finding WMD, we aren’t fighting terrorism.”

Almost immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. government made a clear connection between WMD and the threat from al-Qai’da. When the decision was announced that “regime change” in Baghdad would be effected through military means, Saddam’s (supposed) possession of WMD played a major role in the public justification.

So WMD is indisputably important. Without doubt, it does make terrorism more terrifying. But some critics are talking as though the existence of WMD is the sine qua non of any acceptable American military operation in the war on terror.

These critics worry, for example, that the year we have spent in the campaign against the Ba’athists in Iraq is time and effort down the drain, since it turns out Saddam probably no longer held any WMD. They worry that the Iraqi campaign has been a costly detour, pointlessly diverting our attention from other (always unspecified) opportunities for keeping chemical and biological weapons out of the hands of Bin Ladin and his chums. This may have been Howard Dean’s thought when he said the capture of Saddam did nothing to make America safer.

Though such concerns may appear sensible, they aren’t.

To begin with, WMD per se is not a problem. Many countries possess WMD, and we hardly give it a second thought. France and England have several different types of WMD, including nuclear, but even the editors of The Nation don’t loose sleep over it. Other European countries possess chemical or biological weapons, and we are not overly concerned. We aren’t even too worried about Russia’s WMD — we just want Moscow to keep it under control and not let any nukes slip into the black market.

All these countries have one thing in common. For them, WMD would be used only in extreme circumstances, as a last resort, and probably not even then.

With radical Islamists, on the other hand, WMD is the weapon of choice. If al-Qai’da can get a dirty bomb, it will use a dirty bomb.

That means just going after WMD cannot get us where we need to be. If we could get rid of 90% of the world’s WMD — a wildly unrealistic goal — and a small portion of the remaining stockpile found its way into Bin Laden’s hands, we would have utterly failed in our effort to protect the civilized world.

No, the destruction of WMD, by itself, is not the answer. The answer is the destruction of al-Qai’da and the networks of militant Islamists that support it.

And this is what our war on terror, including the crucial invasion and occupation of Iraq, is all about. It is about effecting realignment and reform in the Islamic, and especially the Arab, countries. It is about showing the Syrias and Libyas and Saudi Arabias and Pakistans of this world that their geopolitical calculations need to change. In years past, siding with America’s enemies — sometimes openly, sometimes quietly, sometimes financially, sometimes through violence — may have brought domestic political advantage or regional prestige. But things are different today. Operation Iraqi Freedom has shown that siding with America’s enemies no longer brings good things. Quite the contrary, it visits destruction upon the autocrats who practice it. And very clearly, that message is getting across and being taken to heart.

In the end, fretting about WMD is pointless. It is part of our world. What we should worry about are the people who would use WMD as their weapon of choice. And better than worrying about them, we need to clean out the nests where they breed, and hunt down the remnants as they flee. At the same time, we must do all we can to help move their societies into the community of free and prosperous nations, so they are no longer the breeding grounds of terror.

Come to think of it, that’s just what we are doing. No worries, after all.

Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA, currently on the editorial board of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.


Thomas Patrick Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency and a current member of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin editorial board. He speaks and publishes on espionage, national security, foreign policy, terrorism, counter-intelligence, Turkey, and Islam.


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