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
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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.