The consensus in the intelligence community is that the war in Iraq has
worsened the threat from radical Islamic violence and hurt US efforts to
combat terrorism. So, at any rate, say The New York Times ("Spy Agencies
Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat") and The Washington Post ("Spy
Agencies Say Iraq War Hurting US Terror Fight"), which reported on the
most recent National Intelligence Estimate in front-page stories on
Sunday. Is it true?
The NIE was a classified document until Tuesday, when President Bush
declassified some of its findings. The Times and Post stories were
written, it appears, by reporters who hadn't read the document they were
characterizing. The papers' headlines were unequivocal, but the stories
themselves never actually quoted the NIE. They merely passed along the
spin and advanced the antiwar agenda of the anonymous sources who
chose this moment to leak secret intelligence for political purposes.
Has the Iraq war undermined efforts to defeat the jihadis? Maybe, but
the Times and Post stories don't come close to making that case. They
claim that new terrorists are being enlisted at a growing rate and that
America's presence in Iraq has become a major terrorist recruitment
tool. Well, yes: If you go to war against fanatics in Iraq, the fanatics
will point to Iraq as a reason for their war. That hardly adds up to a
weakened campaign against al-Qaeda and its accomplices. D-Day and the
battle of Midway triggered some of the most ferocious fighting of World
War II and resulted in tens of thousands of additional Allied
casualties. But would anyone say that they undermined the drive to
defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?
After 9/11, the United States went to war against Islamic
totalitarianism; since 2003 that war has focused most dramatically on
Iraq. It stands to reason that Iraq is therefore the focal point in the
jihadis' war against the West. President Bush has made that point
repeatedly, quoting Osama bin Laden's declaration that the war in Iraq
is "the most serious issue today for the whole world" and will end in
"victory and glory or misery and humiliation." Has US military action in
Iraq inflamed the global jihad? Undoubtedly. But just imagine how
galvanized it would be by a US retreat.
In any case, National Intelligence Estimates are best taken with a grain
or salt. As Andrew Cochran of the Counterterrorism Blog points out, the
1997 NIE on global terrorism the last before the 9/11 attacks
mentioned bin Laden only tangentially as a "terrorist financier" and
made no reference at all to al-Qaeda. The October 2002 NIE, which played
a key role in the decision to go to war in Iraq, bluntly declared that
"Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with
ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will
have a nuclear weapon during this decade." Intelligence agencies are not
But this much we do know: There has been no successful terrorist attack
on the United States in the years since 9/11, whereas the years leading
up to 9/11 saw one act of terrorism after another, including the bombing
of the World Trade Center, the destruction of the US embassies in
Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole. That suggests that the Bush
administration is doing at least something right something the
Clinton administration, on whose watch bin Laden and al-Qaeda launched
and escalated their terror war, failed to do.
Could 9/11 have been prevented? That in essence was what Chris Wallace
asked former President Bill Clinton during his now-notorious Fox News
interview on Sunday: "Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al
Qaeda out of business when you were president? . . . Why didn't you . .
. connect the dots and put them out of business?"
From the ferocity of Clinton's response, you would have thought he'd
been accused of using a 22-year-old White House intern for sex.
Purple-faced with rage, he blasted Wallace for doing a "nice little
conservative hit job on me." He fumed that he had "worked hard to try
and kill" bin Laden and that "all the right-wingers" who criticize him
for doing too little "spent the whole time I was president saying, 'Why
is he so obsessed with bin Laden?' "
But Wallace's question was no "hit job." And no one ever accused Clinton
of being too obsessed with bin Laden. On the contrary: The eight years
of his presidency, like the first eight months of Bush's, were marked at
the top by a tragic inattention to Al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission Report
records the exasperated reaction of a State Department counterterrorism
officer to Clinton's refusal to retaliate for the bombing of the Cole:
"Does Al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?"
Unfortunately, the answer was yes. Only after 9/11 did the United States
muster the will to begin fighting the jihadis in earnest.
Was Iraq the best place to fight them? There are passionate views on
both sides of that question, and history will have the final say. What
we know for sure today is that we are at war against a deadly enemy, one
we must defeat or be defeated by. How goes the war on terrorism? Far
better now than it did when our eyes were closed.