The Magazine

The War on Terror: Year Five

From the August 29, 2005 issue: It's global and it's at a crucial moment.

Aug 29, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 46 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ON SEPTEMBER 11, THE United States will observe the fourth anniversary of its entry into the war on terrorism. The war has already exceeded by a few months our entire time of involvement in World War II. It's hardly too early to take stock of what we've learned about the nature of the war and the stakes involved in its outcome.

First, this is a world war. From North America to Indonesia, with many points of impact in between, the war has drawn in dozens of nations and billions of people.

Second, the war has taken the form of a civil war in increasing numbers of countries. From the beginning its hallmark was a convulsive upheaval within the Islamic religion. In its first wave, the clash within Islam led to discord among different kinds of Muslims in such countries as Pakistan and Turkey. Recent events in the Netherlands and Britain have underlined its potential for civil violence within every non-Muslim democratic country with a sizable minority of Muslims.

Third, to a surprising degree, the war has remained fundamentally bipolar. Its two poles are the United States and the violent wing of Sunni Islam symbolized and led by Osama bin Laden and his terror vehicle, al Qaeda. At first glance this attribute may seem to contradict elements of the first two, which are about the war's global reach and multiplicity of players. But it does not.

A good analogy is to the Cold War, which from 1945 to 1991 drew in billions of people and dozens of governments, but at root was always a bipolar conflict between the United States and Soviet-style communism based in Moscow. The bipolarity of the Cold War is underlined by the fact that survival of the main Asian Communist regimes after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet state led no one to say the Cold War was continuing.

Nonetheless, during the course of the Cold War there was no shortage of elite analysts willing to argue the reverse, or at least that world politics was getting less and less bipolar. The implication, almost always, was that hawkish leaders like Ronald Reagan were "simplistic" in their belief that undoing or neutralizing Soviet power was the key to ending the Cold War.

Similarly, from the beginning of the war on terrorism, many if not most analysts, particularly the huge portion hostile to George W. Bush and dovish on the war, have posited a multiheaded enemy that will suffer a setback on one front only to pop up on another. The implication is that our most unarguable victories (such as overthrowing the Saddam Hussein tyranny in Iraq) are exercises in futility or (worse) counterproductive provocations that enhance recruitment of anti-American terrorists all over the world. If this is true, if the enemy is so ubiquitous and diffuse, why even try for a victory?

Yet the movements and statements of our most indisputable enemies have increasingly pointed in the other direction, toward bipolarity. Organizations claiming to be branches of al Qaeda are currently fighting the United States in Iraq and our key ally, Britain, in London. Like the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004, which ejected Spain from Iraq, the London terror bombs aim to get Britain out of Iraq and out of its strategic alliance with the United States. Thus the two chief protagonists in the war, the United States and al Qaeda, are in complete agreement that Iraq is the central front of the global war, and that getting the United States' chief ally out of Iraq would thus be an enormous coup for our enemies.

The war is what military analysts call "asymmetric." One side is the world's only superpower. The other side is not only unable to prevail in military terms, but in most situations is unwilling even to try. Hence its emphasis on mass killing of civilians as its main objective, and on suicide bombers as its most effective weapon in achieving that objective. Though President Bush has been accused of political correctness for calling the war a war on terror rather than on Islamism or Islamofascism, the Bush terminology has a certain salience: It is hard to think of a past war, particularly one on such a vast scale, where one side used terror as its main, nearly its only, effective weapon.

When terror works, it works above all as psychology. Osama bin Laden conceived his attack on the Twin Towers as a masterstroke of psychological warfare. If America could be driven out of Somalia in 1993 by mere dozens of casualties, he is known to have believed, the sudden, unexpected murder of thousands would compel us to wash our hands not just of Saudi Arabia but of the entire Arab world, the greater Middle East, and ultimately of the world of Islam altogether.

In this hope, of course, he gravely miscalculated. The United States, personified by the newly elected George W. Bush, was in no mood to retreat after 9/11. Instead, the administration concluded, we must be more proactive in the Arab world, the greater Middle East, and the larger world of Islam, than we ever dreamed of being before.

This meant, in a first phase, turning the Musharraf regime in Pakistan toward our side and going to war to remove Afghanistan's Taliban regime, Osama's host and only overt ally among the world's governments. These happened surprisingly quickly.

In the second phase, America turned its attention to the Arab world, the homeland of all the 9/11 suicide bombers. Two entities in that almost completely dictatorial world dared to allow or foster street-level celebrations of the mass murder of Americans: Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat. President Bush began preparations for regime change in Iraq. And he announced that the United States would no longer participate in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts as long as Arafat was one of the two putative partners.

Bush also came to the conclusion that replacing one or two Arab dictators with new dictators would avail little. Influenced by the work of Natan Sharansky, Bush concluded that nothing less than a democratic revolution in the Arab world stood any chance of removing the roots of terrorism.

Bush has been widely ridiculed for this conclusion, particularly at moments when the U.S.-backed democratic timetable in Iraq hits bumps in the road. Brent Scowcroft and many other members of the U.S. foreign-policy elite know better, as do sophisticated Europeans like Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder.

But there is one person who has never had any doubt that Bush is right, and therefore has moved heaven and earth to try to prevent democracy from getting an Iraqi foothold: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the most effective general al Qaeda has found in the four years of this world war. Zarqawi's certainty on this point--the devastating effect democratization would have on the cause of Islamist terrorism--is undoubtedly a big reason al Qaeda has put so many chips--not just in Iraq itself, but in Madrid and London--on demoralizing supporters of the Bush-Blair-Sharansky strategy of promoting Arab democracy.

Born in 1966 of Palestinian exile parents in Jordan, Zarqawi had the sort of background that would until recently have presaged a career as an Arab nationalist. His desire to work with bin Laden and al Qaeda, rather than being a kind of masquerade, is one of the chief signs of growing bipolarity in the larger war. Any Arab who wants to fight the Great Satan in the world of 2005 must of necessity be (or become) an Islamist. Any secular enemy (such as the Baathist regime in Syria) that decides to intervene sends Islamist fighters across the border, not Baathist fighters.

In the second or Arab phase of the war, Washington was somewhat slower to come to terms with a simple but overwhelming fact: Virtually all of the upsurge in Sunni radicalism in recent years has been financed by Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia. Without Saudi oil money, few of the madrassas and sparkling new radical mosques springing up all over the world would exist. There are signs Saudi money is financing much of the terrorism going on in Iraq today. Somewhat slowly, yet decisively, President Bush came around to the view that democratic reform in the Arab world must include Saudi Arabia.

As the war enters its fifth year, some important inflection points will soon arrive, enough of them for the war to enter a third and perhaps even decisive phase. Because both sides in the bipolar world war believe Iraq is its central battlefield, the inflection points tend to revolve around developments there.

(a) The democratic transition in Iraq will or will not work.

(b) The United States will or will not take decisive steps to stop enemy infiltration from Syria.

(c) King Abdullah will or will not attempt serious reforms in Saudi Arabia, which will greatly affect the issue of whether . . .

(d) Saudi Wahhabist money will or will not continue funding Sunni radicalism in every form, from the madrassas to bin Laden and Zarqawi.

(e) Democratic forces in the Palestinian Authority, assuming they exist, will or will not seize on Israel's withdrawal from Gaza as an opportunity to defeat Palestinian Islamists and win the peace.

Two other factors are less easy to plot as inflection points. One is the role of Iran and the larger Shiite world in the drama of the war between the United States and Sunni radicalism. It is, for example, hard to fathom what Iran fears more: Zarqawi and his overt attempt to elevate the mass murder of Shiites to central status in al Qaeda's Iraq strategy, or the rise of a Shiite-led democratic Iraq.

Finally, there is the relationship between the conduct of the world war and the state of play in American politics. The mass murders of 9/11, much against the hopes of bin Laden, made most Americans into hawks in the first phase of the war. It is reasonable to speculate that the realization of this backfire has played a part in the lack of enemy attacks on the U.S. mainland in the four years since. After the successful January elections in Iraq, the Bush administration turned its attention in other directions, mostly domestic, at the very time when the enemy's Iraq terror achieved a peak of effective psywar.

Meanwhile, Democrats are tempted to treat Iraq as a stand-alone Bush blunder rather than the intense pressure point of a far larger conflict that in fact it is. What if the Democrats succumb to their antiwar temptation at precisely the time when the worldwide nature of the conflict again becomes clear? Would a renewed campaign of mass murder on the American mainland make people think of the failure of the Bush administration to prevent it, or of the folly of antiwar Democrats?

There is plenty of uncertainty and danger on the American side about all these issues and inflection points. The good news is that our asymmetric enemy has even more to worry about, and far less margin for new errors.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.