September 27, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Is Iraq war spreading terror?

According to the "flypaper" theory advanced by some proponents of the war in Iraq, the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq attracts terrorists to a military theater where they can more easily be killed. But are there more where they came from? That is the fundamental question. Some U.S. intelligence officials are convinced the war is backfiring by creating more terrorists. That is the position of the formerly anonymous Michael Sheurer, for example. The New York Times (who else?) spilled the beans about a classified National Intelligence Estimate, as reported by the Washington Post. The White House has authorized partial release of the NIE, which is available HERE -- via Glenn Reynolds, who writes:

While we should fire the leakers on general principles, we should probably also fire whoever wrote this -- for producing a meaningless document full of empty bureaucratic twaddle. If the jihadists win, they'll have more prestige! And they will probably use the internets! Do tell. Jesus Christ, if this is the quality of intelligence we're getting, no wonder we haven't won yet.

Indeed, that document is hardly as novel or explosive in content as some claim, merely stating some bland generalizations about ongoing trends and the underlying factors that are believed to be driving them. Like the "Downing Street Memo" that supposedly debunked the Bush administration rationale for war, it consists of opinions by one set of experts. In other words, it is not the final word on the matter.

So what is the correct answer? If those intelligence analysts simply mean to say that military means are not sufficient to defeat the terrorist threat, there is no question about that. But if they are saying that removing an overtly hostile and dangerous regime yielded a negative net strategic outcome for us, I simply do not get it. Even if Iraq descends further into civil war, sponsored by the mullahs in Iran, how does that make use less safe? There is simply no way for human intelligence to unravel such a puzzle. In fact, the very way of posing the question makes a direct answer impossible, because there is no valid alternative against which to compare likely outcomes.

On a more basic level, one might say that the war in Iraq is "causing more terrorism" in the same trivial sense that U.S. involvement in both World Wars "caused" more extreme military action by Germany. War is like an arm wrestling match in which increased effort by one side elicits increased effort by the other side, in a cycle that escalates and repeats itself until one side gives up. That's the way it always has been, and it's probably the way it always will be. So there is not as much reason to worry about an "increased" terrorism threat as most people think: It was a question of whether we would confront the Arab-Islamic extremists early on, or wait until the means and willpower of the Western world had been sapped, too weak to defend itself any more. I choose the former.

I think it probably would be correct to say that the war in Iraq would be undermining our security if the war in that country is allowed to drag on inconclusively for years on end. If, on the other hand, the United States could muster the resolve and resources needed to hunt down terrorist insurgents in Iraq, punish those who harbor them, and provide a clear sense of security for the fence-sitting bureaucrats and businessmen in Iraq, then the military enterprise would succeed and we would be safer, almost by definition. That is a huge "if," however. Until the November elections are over, it is very unlikely that President Bush will send any signals about wanting to devote a greater effort to winning the war. (Shhhh! We don't want to frighten voters just as gas prices are dropping, to the Republicans' delight.)

Speaking of the goal of "making us feel safer," Christopher Hitchens caustically ridiculed the very notion in a panel discussion that was shown on C-SPAN. In his mind, the task of national leaders is to bluntly tell the people in frank terms what a great threat we all face, not to hide it from us with a phony "security blanket." That's where the sober, grim determination recently expressed by Senator McCain comes in very handy. We have a long, tough road ahead of us, and the public has become wary of cheerful reassurances.