Special to The Times
The tempting thought that it is now safe to begin withdrawing from Iraq is being dangled in front of the American people this summer. Maybe if the United States and our allies pull out, or pull over, or pull to the side, the Shiite and Sunni moderates — facing destruction — will summon the ability to defeat al-Qaida and Iran's Shiite surrogates and go on to construct a solid peace.
It is more likely, however, that bloodshed of historic proportions will flow. Not hundreds of deaths a week, as now, but hundreds of thousands in a few months, and the depopulation of large areas. Instead of daily news of roadside bombs, prepare yourself for day after day of genocide stories. Shiite will fight Sunni. In the north of Iraq, the Kurds could well come under attack from Turkey, a U.S. ally that justifiably fears the terrorist PKK (People's Workers Party) operating on its border. Emboldened by America's defeat, Iran not only will engage more in Iraq, but also will foment further Hezbollah attacks on Israel. Lebanon is liable to revert to Syrian control. Afghanistan will get shakier as the Taliban base in Pakistan grows. Operating opportunistically through it all will be the global conspiracy of al-Qaida.
Withdrawal now is really a euphemism for surrender. An honest public opinion poll would phrase the question that way. After all, even war supporters want withdrawal — the sooner the better — if it is the product of a credible handover to the Iraqi government. But, defeat described as "withdrawal" will not reduce American casualties in the long run, because the war will spread. Gloating, al-Qaida will turn still more attention to the American homeland. We already are in danger here. How can anyone think we will be less of a target if we fail in Iraq?
"Let them just fight it out among themselves!" one hears. But how is that a moral outcome, especially since it was the U.S. (Congress included) that invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein?
Moreover, if we withdraw too soon, many Iraqis who trusted us and worked with us will vote with their bodies to come to America as refugees. Some politicians may try to keep them out — the way that Gov. Jerry Brown of California tried to keep out the Vietnamese boat people after the fall of Saigon in 1975. But, they will find ways to come, just as the boat people did.
Facing such prospects and recalling U.S. mistakes to date, it is no wonder the public is frustrated. But, the difficult lesson from life is this: When things are bad, they don't always get better. Sometimes they get worse. You think we cannot sustain the present conflict? Imagine how the entitlement mentality in this country will survive once we pull out and discover that real suffering has only just begun. Well before oil hits $200 a barrel, it will be hard to prevent a steep recession. Our present economy can support a war on terror but will strain to sustain even adequate domestic defense after a major downturn.
President Bush definitely has his failings, and we hear about them incessantly, but as commander in chief he has seen one thing clearly since 2001: Defense of America requires war against the terrorists where they can be found, and that crucially includes Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last winter, Bush also had the realism to revise strategies and follow through vigorously. The surge, led by Gen. David Petraeus, shows encouraging signs of progress, especially in Baghdad and the formerly tormented Anbar Province, but it is being held to an impossible schedule. The strategy took six months to implement and it needs more than a few months now to succeed. If, instead, the nation's armed forces are forced to announce a departure while the contest is still in doubt and victory is still possible, resentments may be planted that could poison America's polity for years. That will prove especially so if the American retreat produces increased dangers here at home.
On the other hand, victory is likely if we persevere. It took a decade to defeat terrorism in Malaya (today's Malaysia), and the victory was worth it. Historically, radical manifestations of Islam have burned out after a major defeat or two. Muslim extremism was not invented in our age, though its virulent, largely Western-inspired modern version presents a novel mask. There often have been terror regimes in the Middle East. What works to end them is not negotiation or political deals but, rather, their defeat.
If the peace party in late-19th-century England had held back Gen. Charles Gordon before the Battle of Khartoum, the "Mahdi" (Mohammed Ahmed) of the Sudan would have prevailed and the history of the region would have been rewritten. But, Gordon pressed his attack. Relief troops from England were delayed, Gen. Gordon himself was killed in battle, and Khartoum for a while was lost. But new British and Egyptian troops ultimately prevailed. The would-be Mahdi and his movement were destroyed.
Westerners value negotiation and compromise, but negotiation is not the way to deal with fanatics like al-Qaida. Victory is. Al-Qaida's barbaric and nearly unprecedented attacks on civilian Muslim populations — Sunnis now, as well as Shiites — are costing it support. Few Muslims want to be tyrannized by religious police and terrorized by fanatics. When the latest self-appointed Mahdis are defeated, they also will be forgotten.
Westerners make several other mistakes in assessing the radical Islamist threat. We imagine, for example, that Islamist fanatics are mobilized largely by objections to our foreign or military policy, or by poverty. The movement actually is led by power-hungry ideologues from privileged backgrounds. They are inspired by dreams of world conquest, including destruction of all "infidel" Muslims.
An English defector from al-Qaida recently described the reality for The Daily Mail. When peace advocates blamed Western foreign policy or cultural insensitivity for attacks in New York, Madrid and London, "we used to laugh," Hassan Butt writes. "(T)hey did our propaganda work for us."
What really motivates the terrorists, the defector states, is desire to "bring about a revolutionary worldwide Islamic state" in which Shariah law would be dispensed as in Afghanistan under the Taliban. By distracting themselves from this ideological threat, Western leaders actually make life harder for Muslim moderates, whom the terrorists want to intimidate and silence. In Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world), where the threat was acknowledged and faced, the radicals' power has been greatly reduced.
It is also an incorrect assumption that Iraq is incidental to al-Qaida's ambitions. Osama bin Laden has called Baghdad "the capital of the caliphate," the religious control center he wants to create. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's second-in-command, repeatedly describes establishment of an Iraqi headquarters as a crucial objective.
On the other hand, the war on terror is not only a regional war, either, despite Americans' understandable preoccupation with those countries where our own troops are fighting. Islamist terrorists are at work in India, Turkey, the Philippines, Yemen, Algeria, Denmark, Morocco, the Gulf States, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Italy and many other lands where our role is incidental. America is not conceivably the cause of terror activities in those countries, any more than George W. Bush provoked the radical Islamist attacks that developed in the years before he took office, including the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 and the bombing of our African embassies and the USS Cole.
However, if America is not the only target, it nonetheless falls to us, as the superpower, to lead. If we lose in Iraq, the central front of the war on terror, the people who urged our withdrawal will start to call for an exit from Afghanistan next. That was supposed to be the "good war," wasn't it? Why, even Canada joined. But war fatigue already is being expressed now in Canada, with a clamor in Parliament and the media to remove Canadian forces from Afghanistan. In all this, al-Qaida knows, as al-Zawahiri has written, that Western public opinion is its most promising battlefield.
Instead of calling it quits, such developments show, our government needs to do a much better job of public diplomacy in the world — explaining what's at stake.
Studying history, one reads of the close-call wars of the past, when the outcome was in doubt and public support was fickle — the early years of World War II in Europe; or during the Civil War, when Democrats, witnessing the great cost of "Lincoln's war," wanted the Union to sue for peace; or when Congress, with maddening irresolution, hesitated to fund George Washington's army during the eight-year-long Revolution. Reading of such times, one thinks, why wasn't it clear to people that they had to steel themselves?
Our times will be judged similarly some day, because we are the ones being tested now.Bruce Chapman, former American ambassador to the U.N. organizations in Vienna, is president of Discovery Institute in Seattle.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company