In commentary that followed the President's speech last night, there was consternation that President Bush mentioned September 11th. In this morning's editorial, The New York Times writes, "We had hoped [President Bush] would resist the temptation to raise the bloody flag of 9/11 over and over again to justify a war in a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the terrorist attacks.… The president, who is going to be in office for another three and a half years, cannot continue to obsess about self-justification and the need to color Iraq with the memory of 9/11. The nation does not want it and cannot afford it.”
Last night CNN's Paula Zahn asked David Gergen, "Do you think the president overreached with these multiple references to 9/11, when there's been absolutely no linkage established between the actions of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, on that horrible day?" Mr. Gergen responded, "Well, listen, I was troubled and at times offended by the regularity of coming back to 9/11. You know, because we -- as you say, none of the terrorists were linked to Saddam and you know, there's been this myth for a long time, that's just untrue, that Saddam was somehow responsible for 9/11."
Jay Carney of Time put it this way: "there were a lot of distinctions blurred tonight, as has been pointed out, the, you know, the fact that the president once again reintroduced and sort of conflated 9/11, the events of 9/11 with what's happening in Iraq..."
And House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said this: "The president's frequent references to the terrorist attacks of September 11 show the weakness of his arguments. He is willing to exploit the sacred ground of 9/11, knowing that there is no connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq."
I had several thoughts in response to what was said:
1. Neither President Bush nor any member of his foreign policy team has ever said Iraq was linked to the attacks of September 11th. Indeed, on September 17, 2003, in response to a question from a reporter, President Bush said: "No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September 11th." But that does not mean Iraq cannot be understood in the context of a post-9/11 world. The distinction is crucial -- and perhaps it is too nuanced for some to grasp.
The difference between the President and his critics is that the critics see the attacks on September 11th as an isolated event that was confined to Afghanistan and the Taliban. For them, September 11th therefore cannot be brought up in any other context; to do so is to "raise the bloody flag of 9/11." We believe this mindset is both misguided and dangerous. The President saw (and sees) the events of September 11th in a wider context and as the beginning of a broader war on terrorism. Iraq was and remains part of that broader war -- both in terms of the threat it posed and in terms of the role it plays in the long-term task of transforming the Middle East from a cauldron of hatred, resentment, and anti-American violence to a region characterized by democracy, economic growth, and peace.
2. Some people speak as if the terrorists that are now in Iraq are somehow a post-Iraq war creation. But of course Islamic terrorists, and the attacks on September 11th, pre-date the Iraq war. To take just one example: Abu Musab Zarqawi, a key terrorist leader in Iraq, is a Jordanian who was linked to al Qaeda and terrorism long before the Iraq war. In fact, according to a Washington Post profile on Zarqawi, in Jordan he helped start a local Islamic militant group called Jund al-Sham. Years later Jordanian authorities indicted Zarqawi in absentia for his role in the millennium plot in Amman and issued a warrant for his arrest. They tried to persuade Saddam Hussein's government to extradite him, but without success. In 2000 Zarqawi met in Kandahar and Kabul with Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, asking for assistance and money to set up his own terrorist training camp in Afghanistan -- and with the support of al Qaeda, the camp opened and was a magnet for Jordanian terrorists. In mid-2001, Zarqawi returned to Kandahar to ask al Qaeda for $35,000 to finance a plan for his fighters to infiltrate Israel. And Zarqawi fought in Afghanistan against the United States.
In sum: it doesn't appear as if the war to liberate Iraq "radicalized" Mr. Zarqawi; he and many of his associates were quite radical already. And so the point made by the commander in charge of coalition operations in Iraq, General John Vines, holds up: "We either deal with terrorism and this extremism abroad, or we deal with it when it comes to us." The implication that the terrorists in Iraq were all fine, upstanding young fellows selling shoes before the war to liberate Iraq is fanciful.
3. In listening to some commentators, you might think the war to liberate Iraq transformed it from a peaceful, tranquil, Scandinavian-like country into a haven for terrorists. And so you might forget that before the war Iraq was one of seven countries that had been designated by the State Department as state sponsors of international terrorism. You might forget Saddam Hussein’s regime provided sanctuary for Abu Musab Zarqawi, who helped establish a base for al Qaeda affiliates in Baghdad. You might forget that Saddam provided refuge for Abdul Rahman Yasin, a participant in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, probably the first al Qaeda attack on the U.S. homeland. You might forget that in April 2002, Saddam Hussein increased from $10,000 to $25,000 the money offered to families of Palestinian suicide/homicide bombers. Mahmoud Besharat, a representative on the West Bank who handed out the money from Saddam, said at the time, “You would have to ask President Saddam why he is being so generous. But he is a revolutionary and he wants this distinguished struggle, the intifada, to continue." You might forget that in 1993, the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) directed and pursued an assassination attempt, through the use of a powerful car bomb, on former U.S. President George Bush and the Emir of Kuwait. Et cetera.
4. Whether or not one supported the war to liberate Iraq, there is no question that it is (in the words of President Bush) "the latest battlefield in this war [on terrorism]." We know that among the terrorists, there is no real debate. In Iraq, according to Osama bin Laden, "This Third World War is raging... The whole world is watching this war." It will end in "victory and glory, or misery and humiliation."
The words of the President clearly apply to the terrorists like Zarqawi and others, who have decided to make their stand in Iraq: "The war reached our shores on September the 11th, 2001. The terrorists who attacked us -- and the terrorists we face -- murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent. Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression -- by toppling governments, by driving us out of the region, and by exporting terror."
5. What is lost on some people is that we are seeing an important change in terrorist attitudes and psychology. In the past 44 months we have witnessed something unprecedented: Islamic terrorism is now on the defensive. For several decades, terrorists believed history was on their side. This began with the Shiite revolution in Iran in the late 1970s; it continued through the 444-day hostage crisis in 1979; the bombing of U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983; the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center; the killing of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993; the 1998 destruction of two U.S. embassies in Africa; the 2000 attack on the USS Cole; and a decade of allowing Saddam Hussein to subvert, and eventually kick out, U.N. inspectors. In the eyes of terrorists, America was a "paper tiger" -- decadent, demoralized, weak, selfish, cowardly. Here are the words of Osama bin Laden (in 1998):
"We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weaknesses of the American solider, who is ready to wage cold wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than twenty-four hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia.... [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers.... After a few blows, they ran in defeat.... They forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order. [They] left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat."
What made terrorism a "growth industry" was American irresolution and lack of purpose, what Bernard Lewis calls "anxious propitiation" and the radiation of fear. The President has helped shatter those impressions. With the defeat of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's regime, things have changed. American will is no longer in doubt. In the aftermath of the war to liberate Iraq, Zarqawi put it this way: "America ... has no intention of leaving, no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes." The sense of invincibility among the terrorists has been shattered -- and the trajectory of events is now in our favor.
This of course does not mean the danger has passed. America remains a nation at war. We are engaged in a protracted, fierce, and mortal struggle against terrorists and their supporters. They remain brutal, merciless, dangerous, and increasingly desperate. The stakes could not be higher -- and the need for imperishable resolve could not be clearer.
On September 20, 2001, President Bush said this: "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated."
He meant it then; he means it now.