Mission Not Accomplished, George
Benjamin and Simon insist that we're losing the war on terror. New Muslim radicals are being created, some of whom have no connection to al-Queda. They accuse the administration of thinking that the number of days since 9/11 without a terrorist attack inside the U.S. and the number of terrorists killed or captured (shades of the Vietnam "body count") can measure progress--they can't. They also accuse the administration of losing focus, turning its attention to distant potential threats like China. That, they believe, is a consequence of its still being locked into a Cold War mentality which assumes that only countries can attack us and that America's enemies hate us so much that they're willing to put their own differences aside and join force. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, for instance.
Benjamin and Simon believe that the invasion of Iraq has weakened our national security for a number reasons. To begin with, Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorists that's even more fertile than Afghanistan was. Iraq also proved the jihadists' point that a "clash of civilizations" is going on, and that the U.S. intends to destroy Islam. The presence of coalition troops on the ground has given the jihadists a convenient target to attack. Not all insurgents are jihadists, they point out, but their numbers are growing. Ominously, Iraq is attracting a new generation of Islamist fighters, men who are not veterans of the Afghan conflict against the Soviet Union. And the insurgency is helping the jihadists become battle-tested, and is sorting out the next generation of leaders. One of them is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi--more about him in a moment.
Benjamin and Simon sum up the situation in Iraq:
"Iraq has given violent Islamists more than an arena in which to dramatize their cause and bravery: it has provided them with a country-sized training ground and a laboratory for innovating the tactics and operations of the future."
One thousand and seventy-six days after George W. Bush's publicity stunt aboard the Abraham Lincoln, the mission is definitely not accomplished.
The Fallacy of "Fight Them There or Fight Them Here"
The authors debunk one of the Right's favorite justifications for staying in Iraq--namely, the "flypaper theory," which supposes that if we engage the terrorists in the Middle East, we won't have to face them here. Trouble is, there's no fixed limit on the number of Islamic terrorists. In fact, the Iraq invasion, as well as the abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and the post-9/11 roundup of Arabs and Muslims here in America, have persuaded some Islamists to cross the line from anti-Americanism into outright terrorism. And their numbers could continue growing:
"The number of terrorists is growing, as is the pool of people who may be moved to violence, and the means and know-how for carrying out attacks, including catastrophic ones, are becoming more readily available."
The Internet has become terrorists' educational institution of choice: jihadists recruit, teach others how to make bombs and carry out attacks, and spread violent fundamentalists propaganda online. They also know English well enough to translate U.S. military doctrine into Arabic. Meanwhile, our country is so fixated on satellites and space weapons that we can't be bothered with the mundane work of finding people who can translate Arabic into English.
Talk About a Pre-9/11 Mindset"!
Benjamin and Simon point out that when Team Bush arrived in Washington, its top three foreign-policy priorities were (1) space-based missile defense, (2) confronting China, and (3) taking out Saddam Hussein. Notice what isn't on the list? In fact, international terrorism so low a priority that Bush's top foreign-policy advisors didn't address al-Queda until September 4, 2001. By contrast, they'd started planning to oust Saddam within days of taking office. Part of the problem was that top administration officials couldn't believe that non-state actors could stage an attack on the scale of 9/11. Paul Wolfowitz, who was rewarded for his incompetence with a gig at the World Bank, pooh-poohed the threat posed by bin Laden, insisting that he had to have a state sponsor in order to commit terrorist acts here. Even worse, he believed the far-out theory advanced by Laurie Mylroie, that Saddam was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center attack--even though CIA and FBI counter-terrorism experts considered her case not credible.
"Imminent Threat"? What Imminent Threat?
In early 2002, virtually no serious military analyst considered Saddam Hussein an "imminent threat" to the U.S. That was the administration's argument for going to war--remember President Bush's warning of "mushroom clouds"?--no matter what it claims was the reason for going to war.
At the time, experts ranked Iraq no higher than fourth on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Yes, Saddam sponsored terrorists, but they targeted Iran and Israel, not America. He seemed to have gotten the message, "don't mess with the U.S.," in 1993 after Bill Clinton hit Baghdad with cruise missiles in retaliation for his plot to assassinate the first George Bush.
And what about the alleged link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden? Yes, contacts occurred, but the authors chalk that off to standard business practice:
"The Middle Eastern tradition of keeping tabs on all groups, friendly or not, persists, and the U.S. intelligence community was aware of a few meetings between bin Laden's men and Saddam's. Most of these contacts occurred in the first half of the 1990s, before al-Queda's destructiveness had been demonstrated"
As for giving WMD to terrorists, the authors point out that that would violate a basic rule of state-sponsored terrorism: Never get involved with a group that can't be controlled and which might get you into more trouble than you want.
None of this discourages right-wing pundits from insisting, to this day, that (a) Saddam posed an imminent threat to us, (b) he was in league with Osama, and/or (c) Iraq was somehow connected to 9/11. One of the most infamous is Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard, whose article, "Case Closed," is cited by right-wingers as the definitive case for war. Not so fast, say the authors: Hayes cherry-picked his data from the Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group, operated by Doug Feith's office inside the Defense Department. CTEG didn't vet its findings inside the intelligence community but instead sent them directly to the president.
The authors tore apart the Feith-based claims of a connection between Saddam and Osama:
"Proving a report correct, or sufficiently corroborated to be considered plausible, requires a lot more work. Pulling the disparate pieces together and constructing a coherent picture--connecting the dots--requires a mastery of all the material. Raw intelligence has its value, especially for detecting an ongoing terrorist plot. But there is a reason why the intelligence community spends much time and energy putting out "finished product," the reports that evaluate a significant body of information to get the whole picture right. Making a judgment about any ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda on the basis of the sections printed in The Weekly Standard would be like accepting a high school biology student's reading of a CAT scan."
How Zarqawi Got Away
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has become the administration's latest bogeyman in Iraq. What the mainstream media haven't reported is that the U.S. had a chance to take him out before the Iraq war started. At that time, he was at the terrorist camp at Khurmal, a part of Iraq nominally within Kurdish territory not controlled by Kurdish authorities either. The camp was producing ricin, and the U.S. knew it, but did our military didn't wipe out the camp until after the war began. One possible explanation was that the administration wanted to use Zarqawi's presence there as "proof" of a Saddam-al-Queda connection. Another is that it saw Zarqawi as a lower-order threat than Saddam and chose not to deal with him. If either of these explanations is true, it was ineptitude of the first order.
Team Bush's Imperial Hubris
Contrary to what Karl Rove and other administration figures insist, Benjamin and Simon argue that fighting terrorism is primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement function. However, the administration has over-militarized the conflict, Iraq being Exhibit A of how a miliary-force-only strategy can backfire. The authors conclude:
[A]s recent events have shown, only waging war has made for lousy counter-terrorism performance."
Team Bush has made this country more vulnerable to another attack in other ways. It has burned bridges with allies, even though fighting terrorism requires international cooperation. Its disdain for human rights and the rule of law has become a recruiting tool for terrorists. And the Christian Right's domination of the Republican Party certainly hasn't helped; some religious leaders see conflict with Muslims as a means of bringing about the End Times. In fact, the authors conclude the book with a warning: we can fight terrorism with a strategy or with a theology. If we take the latter course, the conflict will be bloodier.
Thanks to Dick Cheney and other administration know-it-alls building their own foreign-policy apparatus, some seriously wrong assumptions about postwar Iraq were accepted as gospel. Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department ignored a lengthy State Department report full of recommendations for postwar Iraq--like first securing the country--and Doug Feith's office made matters worse by hiring people to run Iraq based on their political acceptability, not their competence.
Incredibly, the administration's planning before the invasion did not consider the possibility of radical Islamist activity, when in fact jihadists were looking forward to the occupation and the insurgency against it. The administration bull-headedly insisted that American troops would be greeted as liberators, as Cheney famously claimed on "Meet the Press," and failed to take into account Muslim resentment of Western occupiers.
This was incompetence, pure and simple. Or, as Benjamin and Simon put it:
"They had failed the first test of leadership. They did not know who their real enemy was."
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