There is a truism that states that “Nature abhors a vacuum.” And it is a truism because it is more often true than not, especially in geopolitics. Nothing occurs in a vacuum. No nation is an island, entire of itself. And no event has no repercussions. The Butterfly Effect is environmental theory, but political fact.
The invasion of Afghanistan was a given. The Taliban not only gave shelter, aid, and comfort to Al Qaeda, but they persisted in doing so after 9/11. They wanted concrete, irrefutable proof before they would turn them over to us – and under their legal system, Al Qaeda’s testimony as Muslims was absolutely irrefutable against that of the secular government of the United States. And there was a legal cover for the invasion; the United Nations had never formally recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government, but preferred the Northern Alliance. We backed them in their fight (to a degree that it would be almost fair to call them a “fig leaf” to cover our own attack) and overthrew the Taliban in record time, sending them and Al Qaeda fleeing.
But the war was never against Al Qaeda. They were merely one faction – and so far, the most successful faction — of the overall enemy, one part of the big picture. The war did not begin with their first attack on us, it had been going for some time, and even if every single Al Qaeda member were to be killed or arrested, the war would continue.
The toppling of the Taliban deprived Al Qaeda of their sanctuary, and put them on the defensive for the first time. Since that day, the vast majority of their leadership is dead or imprisoned. True, Bin Laden himself is still missing, but the 9/11 attacks represented the singular high point of their campaign against America – and the dropoff from that peak has been tremendous.
After the immediacy of Al Qaeda had been dealt with, then what? It would have been easy to declare victory and hang it up. But as I said, Al Qaeda was only one facet of the problem. There are numerous other terrorist threats in the world, and to stop at Al Qaeda would be to only leave the question of who would be the next terrorist group to try to top them. And there is no shortage of likely candidates. For example, as of September 10, 2001, Hezbollah (“Party Of Allah”) had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization also had the blood of many Americans on their hands. And that’s just four off the top of my head – a perusal of the State Department’s official list has over 40 groups.
So, now that the immediate threat from Al Qaeda has been neutralized, what do we do next? The first part is to look at a map, and see just where the terrorists tend to come from. After all, it’s better to fight them over there than back here.
We already had a sizable force in Afghanistan, as well as many more around the Persian Gulf. They were there as a consequence of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when we forcibly ejected Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Saddam surrendered in that war, and the terms and circumstances of that surrender required a hefty presence to remind him that we were watching – and wanted to make sure he kept his word.
So, why Saddam? Because he represented a unique confluence of circumstances, all of which made him the logical target for the next campaign in the War On Terror.
First, the legal justification: Saddam had agreed to repeatedly, deliberately, and willfully violated many of those terms. When the losing side of a war refuses to keep up its end of the bargain, than a resumption of hostilities is not only allowed, but arguably is required to remind others in the future the price of not keeping one’s word.
Next, the linkage of Saddam to terrorism. Despite the best efforts of some war critics to rewrite history, no one in the Bush administration linked Saddam to the 9/11 attacks. Personally, I never thought there was much of a chance of it, purely on the basis of pragmatism. This was Al Qaeda’s biggest play yet, and they had to keep knowledge of it as closely held as possible. Saddam was pushing to have the sanctions against him lifted; it very well might have suited his purpose to unmask the plan (possibly through proxies), then use that as leverage to win points with the West.
But the links between Saddam and Al Qaeda, in general, are much more tangible. Christopher Hitchens recently reminded us that President Clinton defended the 1998 cruise missile attack on the Sudan by arguing that the pharmaceutical plant struck was owned by Osama Bin Laden – and was being used to perform chemical weapon research and development on Saddam’s behalf. (There are numerous other examples, but that one will suffice for now.)
But let’s not forget that our war is not with Al Qaeda, but terrorists in general. They are a part of the threat, but hardly the whole threat. Saddam’s support for other terrorist groups is indisputable. He gave shelter to Abu Nidal. He was funding suicide bombers against Israel. He hosted terrorist training camps. So in the simple “us or them” calculus, he was quite firmly with terrorists.
So there, we have a solid case for starting a campaign in Iraq – if we chose to start one. The question remains, should we? In the long run, would such a campaign put us closer to our goal, or serve as a diversion?
Judged solely on its own merits, the issue of Iraq is a simple one. Was is absolutely necessary to invade it? Was it, as many critics say, a “war of choice?” In a vacuum, the answer is simple: yes. The problems with Iraq were not a grave, imminent threat to the United States or our interests, and did not need such a forceful, immediate solution. Hell, even President Bush said so.
But the Iraq situation was not occurring in a vacuum. There were many, many other factors in play, and those factors made it not only the wise choice, but the wisest choice from a broad slate of bad options.
Let’s look at the benefits of removing Saddam’s regime and replacing it with one more compatible with such notions as respect for human rights, the rights of their citizens, their neighbors, and a willingness to become a valued member of the community of nations:
First off, since democracies tend to not be very tolerant of terrorism, we would remove a source of support for that scourge.
Secondly, we would gain access to all the records and documents that Saddam would not have time to destroy that would detail his dealings with terrorists.
Thirdly, we would have the opportunity to test whether or not democracy and Islam were compatible, something that is often called into question. A successful, democratic Iraq could serve as an inspiration for oppressed people throughout the Muslim world – and that’s a LOT of people.
Fourthly, a strong US presence in Iraq – along with our forces in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and in several Gulf states – would serve as a constant reminder to other terrorist-sponsoring nations that we have had no problems in overthrowing two hostile governments, and are right there should we decide to keep going. (Yes, Iran and Syria, I’m talking to you.)
So the potential benefits of overthrowing Saddam were exceptional. That only leaves a couple other troubling questions:
1) While winning the war would be easy, can we win the peace?
2) If winning the peace is possible, is it worth the price?
Those are tough questions, and I don’t have ready answers. Instead, I look at it slightly differently: can we afford to not try?
We’ve tried numerous other approaches to fighting terrorism, and they’ve all worked roughly equally well – that is to say, not at all. We’ve tried negotiations. We’ve tried law enforcement. We’ve tried a bunch of other approaches, and the end result has pretty much been the same: more terrorism. The notion of “virally marketing” democracy in the heart of global terrorism has the advantage of never having been tried before, and is in keeping with our ethics and principles and beliefs.
And if that means we go it alone, or with only a few staunch allies, so what? The majority is not always right. And in the world of international diplomacy, it can be argued that it is wrong at least as long as it is right. The United Nations General Assembly is the closest thing to pure democracy on the global stage, and look at how well that works out: tyrants and petty despots stand beside democratic nations, with each nation having equal voice, regardless of their policies, how they achieve and maintain their power, how they treat their people, and countless other criteria by which sensible, reasonable people judge governments. To the UN, that is all irrelevant.
It also overlooks the brutal element of pragmatism: just how many nations could actually contribute to our cause? The case of Lebanon is providing a real-time example of that problem. Many nations have let their military atrophy to the point where such power projection is far beyond their capabilities. Many of the traditional great powers have “let themselves go” in terms of military might, and simply can’t honor their commitments. Their protestations of principle provide a slender fig leaf for their impotence.
Great Britain and the Anglosphere have proven to be good friends. Tony Blair is paying the price for his agreement with President Bush on Iraq, but Australia still stands strong with us. And while the days when Canadians stormed the beaches of Normandy are long past, they have come through for us when the chips were down. Personally, I will never forget Canadians helping Americans escape Iran after the fall of the Shah, at great personal risk and with the full support of their government, and how Canada opened her arms to tens of thousands of airline passengers on 9/11, when the United States took the unprecedented step of completely shutting down all air travel. And Canada has offered its own soldiers for many peacekeeping missions around the world – while I often disagree with the advisability of such missions, the courage and honor of those Canadians has been amply proven.
The Bible says, in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” and Stan Lee paraphrased that for the core principle of Spider-Man: “with great power comes great responsibility.” The essential truth of both is the same: when one possesses power or influence, that carries with it the burden to use it responsibly. Even refusing to use it is a decision in and of itself, with its own sets of consequences.
The United States, for better or for worse, is the most powerful nation on earth. Every single action or inaction of ours carries with it tremendous consequences. We must use that power responsibly, fairly, and justly. And equally important, we must use at least as much care and thought when we decline to use it. Each choice to act or not to act must be weighed carefully and on its own merits; neither option should be the default. We simply cannot tread lightly on this world.
No, the fighting in Iraq has not gone ideally. But nor has it been anywhere near the disaster the nay-sayers predicted. There were no tens of thousands of US casualties in the toppling of Saddam’s regime. Iraq has a fledgling government, chosen through two well-conducted and highly-successful elections. And the Iraqi military is slowly coming into its own, resuming its pre-war responsibilities – but under a government that it can respect and trust, and not fear.
In the meantime, the United States has a very healthy military presence right in the heart of the terrorist world. Those that seek to kill Americans are presented with a whole lot of them readily at hand – but they are those Americans who are the best-equipped to take the attacks and fight back, often inflicting casualties in whole orders of magnitude greater than they suffer. Further, they are the ones who have chosen to place themselves in harm’s way, to stand between the American people and those who wish us harm.
The so-called “strategy” being espoused by the Democratic leadership, it seems to me, is precisely the worst possible solution. They are pushing for hard deadlines for solid withdrawal from Iraq, telling the enemy just how long they have to hang on until they can claim victory for having “driven” us out of Iraq. The path to victory, as I have said before, is not marked on a calendar, but a checklist.