RALEIGH – Imagine this scenario. It is after September 11. The United States has just routed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that offered a base of operations for the al Qaeda network of terrorists bent on subjugating the Muslim world, strangling the free world, and killing as many Americans as it can. Having uprooted the Taliban, U.S. officials catch some al Qaeda leaders and operatives, kill others, and begin to learn about the nature of the terrorist conspiracy around the world.
They learn that al Qaeda is far from being a formal membership organization with a single leader and focus – a sort of Rotary Club for Islamofascist killers. Instead, it is a loose affiliation of terrorists and propagandists that includes multiple power centers and is dispersed throughout the world. It shares financing, intelligence, training activities, and ideological support with both religious and secular organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and groups in Chechnya, Kashimir, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Phillipines, and Europe. In many cases, such as Ansar al-Islam in Northern Iraq, terrorist groups mix both local goals (combat with secular Kurds) and global ones (defeat of Israel, America, and the West). Al Qaeda doesn’t run these organizations – there is no “collaborative operational relationship,” one might say – but it does offer ideas, training, and personnel.
Indeed, it becomes clear that after the fall of the Taliban, operatives with ties to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have found refuge with many such local terror groups. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for example, is a shadowy Jordanian terrorist and al Qaeda trainee who fought against the United States in Afghanistan. He subsequently pops up in Baghdad, where reports suggest he received medical care, and is then traced to the Ansar al-Islam enclave. Other terrorists with ties to al Qaeda are traced to Iran, where credible information has the ruling mullahs not only continuing their financial support to anti-American terrorists operating in Israel and the U.S. but now allowing al Qaeda operatives to hide out there and detailing its terror arm, Hezbollah, to help establish al Qaeda cells in the Near East.
While many different tools must be employed to combat the terrorists — intelligence, arrests and prosecutions in court, and security precautions among them — diplomatic and military pressure on states offering assistance to al Qaeda has to be part of the mix, U.S strategists conclude. It would be impossible to stop every terrorist attack through domestic intelligence and security efforts. Using military force or the threat thereof to deter states from offering safe harbor, information, finances, training, or arms to al Qaeda and its affiliates is critical to disrupting the network and forcing it into the light where it can be tracked, targeted, and destroyed.
Meanwhile, U.S. strategists point out that while al Qaeda may be responsible independently for the 9/11 attacks, other potential terror threats exist to American troops, civilians, and interests. Rather than allowing these gathering threats to materialize and become deadly attacks, strategists argue for a variety of means to dissipate or disrupt them, again including military force. One country presents particular challenges. Its leader funnels money and provides training to anti-American terrorists, including al Qaeda affiliates. One of its ongoing programs trains foreign terrorists in assassination, suicide bombing, and how to hijack airplanes.
Apart from its cooperation with international terrorism, the country’s own intelligence service is reported to be planning bombings of American warships and installations in the Persian Gulf, and has previously attempted to assassinate an American president. Intelligence from other governments suggests that attacks on the U.S. itself are also being planned. At the same time, the intelligence service continues to operate a clandestine system of weapons labs engaged in production of chemical nerve agents, sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard, ricin, aflatoxin, and other bio-weapon constituents. Further demonstrating their intent, the country’s regime researches whether these poisons would change the texture, smell, or appearance of foods and how they might use perfume sprayers or medicine bottles to deliver sarin and sulfur mustard attacks on American or European targets. Another research program seeks to convert the dangerous poison ricin into a liquid stable enough to be delivered as an aerosol in various munitions. All of these research activities exist despite the country having signed armistices and treaties foreswearing them.
While these two parallel activities – cooperation with anti-American terrorists and research into dangerous chemical and biological weapons – have with few exceptions shown no signs of melding together, the potential is terrifying. So are reports that the regime, previously frustrated in its attempts to develop nuclear weapons, may have been seeking African ore to restart a development program. After 9/11, American leaders vow never to let such potentialities become actualities.
They also observe three other larger strategic considerations. First, the country in question is already in material breach of a previous armistice and is thus technically at war with the United States. A costly military presence in neighboring countries, enforcing a blockade and sanctions regime that primarily harms civilians rather than America’s enemies, seems likely to end only with an embarrassing withdrawal, not with victory. Indeed, America’s supposed allies are actually being bribed by the sanctioned regime and either selling or preparing to sell banned products to it. In short, the current military and diplomatic situation is problematic and unsustainable.
Second, the target country lies next door to Iran, which is already partially encircled by American troops and bases in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Iran is a larger and even more dangerous gathering threat, not only supporting anti-American terrorists but also assisting al Qaeda and pursuing an aggressive nuclear program of its own. Further encirclement of Iran will open up more opportunities for infiltration, intelligence, and subversion of the unpopular Islamist regime there. While a military invasion of large and populous Iran will be highly complicated and dangerous, air strikes might eventually be required to deprive the regime of viable nuclear weapons. Proximity will be helpful in that regard.
Finally, the larger strategic point is this: Islamofascist terrorism is bred in tyranny, hate, despair, and profound shame. The Middle East is a region rich in resources, talents, and history. It should be a leader of civilization and economic dynamism, not a backwater. Its political, religious, and intellectual leaders realize this but blame outside influences, including America. Some of them have concluded that the only answer is jihad – ultimately, the reconstitution of an Islamic Caliphate over Muslim lands stretching from Spain and North Africa to Southeast Asia. Al Qaeda and other anti-American terrorists share this general vision of the future despite their differences in nationality, religious sect, immediate goals, and operational details.
Thus, if the long-term strategy against Islamist terrorism is to go beyond amelioration to elimination, then institutions of freedom and representative government must take hold and grow in the Middle East. The same process helped to establish peace and progress in Europe and East Asia during the past half-century – both previously acting as constant sources of tension and conflict. Ultimately, then, the war against Islamofascist terror cannot be won in courtrooms or on battlefields. It has to be won in the hearts and minds of the people who had tragically heard the siren song of terror. They need to hear and heed a different tune.
And so, Operation Iraqi Freedom is launched.
It is false to suggest that any of the pre-war judgments explained above have been disproved by subsequent events and discoveries. Other pre-war suppositions famously have – for example, there appear to have been no stockpiles of chemical weapons in Iraq at the time of the coalition invasion. But each of the above propositions has either been proven by post-war discoveries, including the findings (though not necessarily the summaries of the same) of the 9/11 Commission and the Duelfer Report, or continue to remain likely given the preponderance of the available evidence.
I have purposely left the scarier and more tantalizing pieces of evidence out of the above discussion, so as to show that the case for war can be made without them. But if you want more, you might consult Yossef Bodansky’s Secret History of the Iraq War for an account critical of all sides, most especially the Bush administration, but also reporting new evidence of Saddam Hussein’s aid to al Qaeda; transfer of chemical and biological weapons to Syria, Libya, and elsewhere; and plans for widespread attacks on America and its citizens. Similar information is available in the new books from Gen. Michael DeLong, deputy commander of the Central Command, and Bill Gertz of The Washington Times. If these and other analysts are correct — I honestly don’t know how to evaluate their accuracy — the situation was more dangerous to America before the Iraq invasion than the public knew at the time.
The American and coalition intervention in Iraq was the right war, at the right time. By all means, there remain legitimate grounds for questioning the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war and reconstruction. Rich Lowry’s latest cover story in National Review, entitled “What Went Wrong,” provides some interesting and well-source observations on that score. But don’t let the revisionists, isolationists, and anti-Bush ideologues rewrite history through selective quotation, innuendo, and outright fraud and deceit. Saddam Hussein represented a grave danger to the United States, was a common denominator in the threat of anti-American terrorism and of the use of bio-weapons against us, and was one of the cruelest dictators of the 20th century.
The promise retains its poignancy: Never again.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.